Friday, February 12, 2016

Ethan On Stephen

Ethan Mordden has written a lot of books about show biz, and most of that has been about musicals, and a fair amount of that has been about Stephen Sondheim.  So maybe it was inevitable he'd write a book solely about Sondheim one day, and now he has, On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide.

It's a short book--under 200 pages.  When he gets down to discussing Sondheim's shows, he averages about six or seven pages per.  If you collected everything he's written about Sondheim in the past, it would probably be close to the same length.

Mordden has long worshiped Sondheim, and he's hardly alone.  Sondheim towers above his contemporaries, and it can be claimed most musicals written since 1970 are a response to him one way or another.

Of course, Sondheim's rise corresponds with the death of the musical as THE music of America.  In the 20s and 30s, the point of a score was to get a hit or two.  Even in the integrated era of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the 40s and 50s, when songs now had to fit the character and further the plot, songwriters still hoped to make the hit parade.  And Sondheim did his apprentice work during these times, writing the lyrics to West Side Story and Gypsy, as well as the full score to A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.  But by the time Sondheim was in full flower, rock music had taken over and the landscape was different.

Sondheim was famously mentored by next-door neighbor Oscar Hammerstein.  Mordden notes that Rodgers and Hammerstein's first five musicals--Oklahoma!, Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific and The King And I--changed everything.  But on top of that, with the exception of Allegro, they were all blockbusters that provided hit tunes.  On the other hand, the big five shows that Sondheim presented in the 70s (with producer/director Harold Prince)--Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd--were just as revolutionary, yet none were blockbusters and, in fact, only two showed a profit.  In addition, they produced only one true hit among them--"Send In The Clowns."

These shows made Sondheim a divisive name.  He allegedly didn't provide the fun or melody people sought in musicals.  His work was difficult; the "tired businessman" didn't want to be challenged by a "concept musical." As a teen, Sondheim had actually worked backstage on Allegro--the one flop Rodgers and Hammerstein had in their early days, and their one "concept " show.  Some suggest Sondheim has spent his career trying to fix Allegro.

According to Mordden, though, Sondheim gets his revenge.  His shows may first seem divisive and even unpopular, but they go on to be revived regularly and treated as classics.  And as the score becomes more familiar, the tunes become more hummable.  So who cares if you have a hit today--Sondheim is for posterity.

Even after he stopped working with Harold Prince, Sondheim kept stretching the boundaries, with shows like Sunday In The Park With GeorgeInto The Woods, Assassins and Passion.  To Mordden, this all adds up to an unparalleled record.

I certainly agree there's no one like Sondheim, and he's done amazing work through much of his career.  But does Mordden overpraise him?  I like his tunes, yes, and admire his witty words, but I wouldn't say he has the melodic inspiration of a Richard Rodgers. Of course, few do.  But am I failing to fully appreciate it because Sondheim's music, and his harmonies, are more sophisticated compared to earlier composers of the Great American Songbook?  In other words, have I failed him, or has he failed me?

People are still performing Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, though the two are long gone. For that matter, they're still singing Rodgers and Hart tunes, even though that duo's first hits are now almost a century old. So the real question is will Sondheim live for decades after his heyday.  I don't know and neither does Mordden, but we can enjoy him now, anyway.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Denver Guy said...

He failed you.

8:05 AM, February 12, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me read between the lines of your three words, Denver Guy, and suggest you're not a big fan of Sondheim.

9:43 AM, February 12, 2016  

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