Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Words And Music

Having recently read Ethan Mordden's new book on Sondheim, I thought I would tackle a couple of older book on the same subject.  So I went to my library and checked out Art Isn't Easy: The Theater Of Stephen Sondheim by Joanne Gordon, and Sondheim On Music: Minor Details And Major Decisions by Mark Eden Horowitz.  They may just be the best books on the work of Sondheim.

Art Isn't Easy (the title is taken from a lyric in Sunday In The Park With George) is probably the most comprehensive guide to Sondheim's shows.  Published in 1992, it ends with Assassins, and thus doesn't include Passion or Road Show, but every other major work of Sondheim is represented, most getting a full chapter.

Gordon takes us through each show literally song by song, concentrating on the lyrics (which are liberally excerpted) but also commenting on the music.  She's done her homework and has solid insights, explaining how Sondheim fits his art around the character and plot--how his songs are little plays themselves.  She may be a bit too laudatory, but then, who would go through such a project if she didn't love Sondheim to begin with?

Gordon's book is fairly rigorous, but I could still recommend it to the general reader.  Sondheim On Music, however, requires technical knowledge, and probably would be of limited interest to those who can't read music.

Horowitz is a music specialist from the Library of Congress, and he's gone through Sondheim's working manuscripts.  The books is a lengthy interview with Sondheim on what his intent was, often asking the composer to explain what personal notations in the music mean.  (The interview is only half the book, actually.  There's a short section listing songs Sondheim wishes he'd written, and a lengthy list compiled by Horowitz of Sondheim songs, listing different recorded versions and publications.  But it's the interview that's of the greatest interest.)

The interview is a fascinating look at a composer's mind.  Sondheim has often been called cold, even calculating, in his music, and while that's not entirely fair, it is true that he tends to see his scores as puzzles to be solved.  He believes content dictates form, so each show has to have certain types of tunes and certain types of words to fit the situation.

For example, Company is contemporary.  Follies includes a lot of pastiche of older Broadway composers while Assassins uses different styles based on the era of the character.  Pacific Overtures starts simple and gets more complex and Western as the world invades Japan.  Sunday In The Park With George starts with single notes the way Georges Seurat worked with dabs of paint.  And so on.

Horowitz reproduces many of Sondheim's sketches and the two discuss what's going on--character themes, leitmotifs and so on.  The biggest problem for me is the main discussion is of Passion, Assassins, Into The Woods, Sunday In The Park With George, Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures.  Fine shows, but I'd just as soon hear about A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Merrily We Roll Along.  Maybe Horowitz can do a sequel.  (Actually, most of those titles are earlier shows, so let's call it a prequel.)


Blogger meh said...

Your article was forwarded to me and I thought it might be useful to comment. I'm the author of "Sondheim on Music," and wanted to make sure you were aware that there was a second edition of the book in 2010. It adds two new chapters, one just on "Bounce," but the other is a fairly lengthy interview that tries to cover all the earlier shows -- albeit much less fully. When I did the original interviews, there was no notion that it would become a book and I worked backward chronologically just because I thought it would be easier for Sondheim to recall his process and decisions on his more recent shows. (The reason for the song listing and discography was merely because I'd been maintaining it for my own purposes and when the interview was going to become a book, it seemed like it might be a nice added bonus that might prove of some use. Everbest, Mark

10:51 AM, March 11, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Thank you so much for writing in. I'll definitely check out the updated version of your book, and I suggest others do as well who are interested in Sondheim's music.

10:07 AM, March 14, 2016  
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