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Look, I Made a Hat

January 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Two Halloweens ago, I wrote about the new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim, which that day was the featured cover review (by Paul Simon) in the Sunday NYT. A week later, Joe Nocera wrote about the book in the NYT arts section, prompting me to buy it, and to write about it once again.

In November, the successor appeared: Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany. (Yes, you can now buy a boxed set, with the name Hat Box: The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.) When I saw Charles Isherwood’s daily NYT review in early December, I didn’t order it. Instead, I added it to my Amazon wish list. A week later, Brad Leithauser reviewed it in the Sunday NYT and I still didn’t order it. I was patient. A week later, on Christmas, it arrived. Santa had gotten the message. (Thanks, Jessica.)

I took my first close look only last night. It’s hard to read without having recordings of all the shows at hand, and without playing them as you study the lyrics. But putting the lyrics aside, there’s so much else to marvel at, from the photos to the lists of original casts to, especially, Sondheim’s accounts of how shows came into being, why songs got moved, what logic lies behind the rhymes. I’ve barely scratched the surface.

And before I knew it, I had turned back to the first volume, with its own treasures. I was singing along to “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures; reading Sondheim’s blast of famed theater critic John Lahr’s Harper’s piece on him and Sweeney Todd on the grounds that Lahr “had merely read an early rehearsal script, although he didn’t indicate that to the reader;” and then moving on to Sweeney Todd‘s “Pretty Women.”

The new book begins with Sunday in the Park with George. I’ve explained before that it’s been “our musical” since our honeymoon, when we saw it on Broadway while staying at my (then-recently-dead) grandmother’s apartment a mile north. So many great songs. Last night, I read the lyrics of “The Day Off (Dog Song),” which is sung by George as he sketches Spot, the Boatman’s dog —

If the head was smaller …
If the tail were longer …
If he faced the water …
If the paws were hidden …
If the neck was darker …
If the back was curved …
More like the parasol …

(Humming)

Bumbum bum bumbumbum
Bumbum bum …

— and soon I was humming along, with Mandy Patinkin’s voice in my head.

Bumbum bum bumbumbum
Bumbum bum …

More shade …
More tail …
More grass! …
Would you like some more grass?
Mmmm …

Ruff! Ruff!

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Categories: Books, Theater

Move On

March 12, 2011 Leave a comment

A couple of weeks ago, New York Magazine announced that Frank Rich would be joining them in June.

Rich will be an essayist for the magazine, writing monthly on politics and culture, and will serve as an editor-at-large, editing a special monthly section anchored by his essay. He will also be a commentator on nymag.com, engaging in regular dialogues on the news of the week.

For those of us who have been reading Rich at the NYT for decades — first as chief drama critic, then as an op-ed columnist — the news of his departure was a shock. In fact, my Rich reading days go back to my arrival at college years earlier. He was two years ahead of me and a bigwig at The Crimson.

Rich’s farewell column appears in tomorrow’s NYT. I was reading it online earlier this evening with moderate interest until I reached the closing paragraph, which took me by happy surprise.

You will recall that I am a huge Stephen Sondheim fan, and that Sunday in the Park with George is “our” musical — the musical Gail and I saw on Broadway when we passed through New York as one stop on our extended honeymoon and whose music has moved us ever since. Having reminded you of that, I’ll now quote Rich’s final NYT words:

Of all the things I’ve done at The Times, there may be none I’m prouder of than, in my critic’s days, championing “Sunday in the Park with George,” Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s 1984 musical about two artists in two different eras restless to create something new. For a quarter-century now, the show’s climactic song has inspired countless people in all walks of life when the time has come to take a leap. “Stop worrying where you’re going,” the Sondheim lyric goes. “Move on.”

You will find below, courtesy of youtube, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin singing the song during the original Broadway run of the show. And at top, their reprise 25 years later at Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert. Both versions are glorious. Together they provide an excellent primer on the change the years bring — in appearance, in voice, in interpretation.

Categories: Journalism, Theater

Next to Normal

March 6, 2011 Leave a comment

[Craig Shwartz]

We saw the touring production of the musical Next to Normal last night at the 5th Avenue Theatre. We got a mailing for it last month and when Gail tried to recycle the card, I pulled it out, saying maybe we should go. I then pinned the card to the bulletin board and proceeded to do nothing. But Gail went ahead and bought tickets to give me as my birthday present last week, by which point I couldn’t remember why seeing Next to Normal was so urgent.

We started the evening with dinner across the street at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery — Gail and me, Jessica and Joel. Convenient, but nothing special. I did like my beer. Then we arrived at the theater well ahead of time and took our seats once they opened the door at 7:30, giving us plenty of time to review the playbill.

That’s when the disappointment began, with the small slips of paper inserted that announced which actors would be replaced by which understudies. No Alice Ripley! Winner of the 2009 Tony for leading actress in a musical, creator of the musical’s central role. I suppose that’s what happens when there are matinees and evening performances on Saturdays and Sundays through the run, but I felt cheated.

I didn’t feel too good, either, when I looked up above the stage at the collection of speakers, the sort that they used to have hanging at the Kingdome before it was blown up, the sort that grace every indoor sports arena. I understand that the days of musicals with unmiked performers are long over, but this didn’t look promising.

And sure enough, much of the singing during the show would be better described as shouting, the better to be heard over the amplified instruments. During many of the more climactic moments, especially when several actors would be singing at once and the music would reach a crescendo, the actors would shout in unison, and while one could hear each of their voices, one couldn’t discern what words were wailed.

Not to complain. The show held my interest. I particularly enjoyed the set and the lighting. As for the story, which centers on the travails of a bipolar, schizophrenic woman and her family (I dare not say more, as the plot holds a few surprises), my one reservation was that it seemed to treat the therapists and their medicines as a source of humor, without exploring the relevant issues in any depth or providing illumination. There’s a story to be told, not that the musical has any obligation to tell that story. Indeed, today’s NYT has a piece, Talk Doesn’t Pay, So Psychiatry Turns Instead to Drug Therapy, that is very much to the point:

Medicine is rapidly changing in the United States from a cottage industry to one dominated by large hospital groups and corporations, but the new efficiencies can be accompanied by a telling loss of intimacy between doctors and patients. And no specialty has suffered this loss more profoundly than psychiatry.

Trained as a traditional psychiatrist at Michael Reese Hospital, a sprawling Chicago medical center that has since closed, Dr. Levin, 68, first established a private practice in 1972, when talk therapy was in its heyday.

Then, like many psychiatrists, he treated 50 to 60 patients in once- or twice-weekly talk-therapy sessions of 45 minutes each. Now, like many of his peers, he treats 1,200 people in mostly 15-minute visits for prescription adjustments that are sometimes months apart. Then, he knew his patients’ inner lives better than he knew his wife’s; now, he often cannot remember their names. Then, his goal was to help his patients become happy and fulfilled; now, it is just to keep them functional.

Actually, as I re-read the passage, I see that the musical does, in effect, tell this very story. My objection, perhaps, has more to do with how facilely it’s told. Nonetheless, the musical does grapple with these issues, as it depicts the sufferings and occasional successes of the family. I’m happy to have seen it.

For a more enthusiastic view, I turn you over to NYT lead theater critic Ben Brantley. He wrote about the musical’s Off-Broadway incarnation in 2008. A year later, when it opened on Broadway, he was overwhelmed:

No show on Broadway right now makes as direct a grab for the heart — or wrings it as thoroughly — as “Next to Normal” does. This brave, breathtaking musical, which opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theater, focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives.

“Next to Normal” does not, in other words, qualify as your standard feel-good musical. Instead this portrait of a manic-depressive mother and the people she loves and damages is something much more: a feel-everything musical, which asks you, with operatic force, to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts.

For the retooled version, first seen at the Arena Stage in Washington in November, they made the decision to toughen up and to cast off the last traces of cuteness. This meant never releasing the audience from the captivity of its characters’ minds. That decision has transformed a small, stumbling musical curiosity into a work of muscular grace and power.

Categories: Theater

Finishing the Hat

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

I had a post two Sundays ago about Paul Simon’s NYT review that day of Stephen Sondheim’s new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. Much as I love Sondheim, I wasn’t prompted to buy the book. This past Sunday, NYT business columnist Joe Nocera had a piece about the book in the arts section.

It turns out that Nocera is a Sondheim fanatic.

When I fall for something, I fall hard. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever fallen as hard for anything as I did for Mr. Sondheim’s music. His songs and shows became central to my life, insinuating themselves into my heart and mind. I’m a business writer, but I’d often find myself, in the middle of trying to write a tough-minded article, haunted by some Sondheim song that I couldn’t get out of my head.

Nocera writes movingly about what Sondheim has meant to him, and about what he learned from the book.

The discordant experience of listening to him while reading him made me think hard, in a way I hadn’t before, about why I found his songs so affecting. Why did his best songs make me cry?

My assumption had always been that Mr. Sondheim’s skills as a composer were the root cause. Back when I was first learning about him, I was stunned to discover that the songs in some of his early shows like “Company” (1970) were originally viewed by some critics as “cold.” To me his music seems the opposite of cold; his melodies have always seemed warm and inviting, while his harmonies have invariably stuck with me. I know nothing about music theory, but I do know that great composers use certain chords and rhythms and harmonies to evoke sadness or joy or melancholy. I suspect that if Mr. Sondheim were to write a book about his music, rather than his lyrics, he would explain just as clinically how he creates mood with harmony.

But reading “Finishing the Hat” made me realize that my assumption had been way too blithe; it was a way of letting myself off the hook. What I had long admired about Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics — what everyone admires, really — was their sheer gleaming intelligence. But what I had been missing — and what I could see, at last, on the page, as I listened to his songs — was their wealth of emotion, and how often they directly spoke to me.

On reading Nocera, I hesitated no longer. I ordered the book last weekend and it came yesterday. No revelations of my own yet. I’m just getting started. But after paging through the Sweeney Todd chapter last night and noticing the multiple appearances of the song Johanna, I couldn’t get its melody out of my head the rest of the night. And the photos are great.

Categories: Books, Music, Theater

Simon on Sondheim

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Even if you’re not a fan of Stephen Sondheim (and I know some aren’t, but I don’t understand how that’s possible), you may enjoy today’s NYT review of his new book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. It’s the Sunday featured review, for which the editors called on Paul Simon. I read it, and write this, as I listen to the cast album from the Broadway revue Sondheim on Sondheim.

I just love the photo above of Sondheim at the piano in the mid-1930s, drawn from the book and reprinted in the NYT review. Speaking of which, here’s a review excerpt:

“Company,” one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, is often cited as another example of his cerebral, cold writing. The plot is a bitter examination of the “joy” of marriage and the existential loneliness of its unmarried protagonist, Bobby. Some have speculated that Bobby is an auto biographical stand-in for Sondheim, although he dismisses this as the trap of attributing the character of the art to the character of the artist. It’s harder to read autobiography into the words of a composer who writes for theater than it is for a pop music counterpart. A song from “the heart” of a character has to be truthful, but if it isn’t, it’s not the author’s lie — it’s the character’s. But if a pop singer or songwriter writes a love song, a song of regret or even a bit of inscrutable doggerel like “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” it’s autobiography. The lyricist in a musical is writing the art of the character. Both are pathways to a truth, but there is a profound difference in process.

To be fair to Sondheim’s critics, the heart/mind dilemma is a constant for many songwriters, myself included. If a writer composes a lyric with a complex thought or vivid image and fails to say it well, then the lines seem pretentious. If the songwriter goes for the heart and misses, then it’s sentimental. Sondheim is the farthest thing from a sentimental songwriter that I know, but his songs of the heart are shaded with rueful sorrow (“Send In the Clowns”) and translucent compassion.

Categories: Books, Music, Theater

Fiddler on the Roof

May 29, 2010 Leave a comment

[Carol Rosegg, Seattle Times]

A touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, starring Harvey Fierstein as Tevye, is in town this week at the Paramount Theatre. Yesterday morning, Gail and I decided to see it, went on-line, and were still able to buy good tickets for last night’s showing– row J, a little off center. I had been hesitant to commit earlier to going, the memory still in my memory of a negative NYT review of Fierstein’s performance a few years back. But what the heck. We both love the music, a lavish production of the show isn’t going to pass through all that often, so we went.

I believe this is the first time I’ve seen a stage production of Fiddler since its initial run on Broadway in the 1960s. I didn’t have the good fortune at the time to see Zero Mostel as Tevye. My parents did, but by the time they got tickets for us kids, Zero had been replaced by Herschel Bernardi. No complaints. It was great, or so I thought at the time, and I’m happy to remember it as such. Gail came to Fiddler as a movie; she has always identified Tevye with Topol.

We had dinner with Joel before heading downtown to the movie, and I mentioned before leaving that my one fear regarding Fierstein was the difficulty I might have seeing him (or hearing him) without thinking of his role in the 1996 space alien invasion film Independence Day. The role is a minor one, but he plays it so compellingly, or so over the top, that his character stays with me.

That turned out not to be a problem. The problem was that his voice sounded so singularly bizarre that it got in the way of his character time and again. Some words didn’t come through clearly, and there was no hope of his conveying any sort of melody. Sometimes, the quirkiness of his voice worked in his favor, and sometimes it didn’t interfere, but a lot of the time it kept me from settling into the world of the musical. I was too often aware that that was Harvey Fierstein up there, with that famously odd voice, and the voice just wasn’t working well.

Maybe Fierstein was better when he first appeared as Tevye in the Broadway Fiddler revival a few years ago. The revival opened in 2004 with Alfred Molina in the lead. Fierstein must have replaced him at the beginning of 2005. In the NYT on January 21, Ben Brantley reviewed the Fierstein version, and while his comments about Fierstein are largely negative, they are at the same time admiring: “Mr. Fierstein inflects every line with at least a touch of the grandeur of old Hollywood movies, whether he’s being husky with sentimentality, smoky with regret or growly with displeasure. This can be quite a bit of fun. Tevye’s first solo, ‘If I Were a Rich Man,’ takes on a fascinating new life, as Mr. Fierstein slides and rasps through its wordless connecting phrases. But it is sometimes hard to credit this exotic spirit as that of a tradition-bound father who has trouble making the adjustment to changing times. … As for the show’s new Tevye, it would seem that this “Fiddler” has gone from having too little of a personality at its center to having too much of one. Still, as Tevye himself might argue, better an overspiced feast than a famine.”

More to the point for me would be this earlier passage from the review:

. . . audience members . . . may find him a slightly jarring presence.

Tevye must to some degree be an everyman, albeit in exaggerated, crowd-pleasing form. And Mr. Fierstein, bless him, shakes off any semblance of ordinariness as soon as he opens his mouth. Every phrase he speaks or sings, as he shifts uncannily among registers, becomes an event. And the effect is rather as if Ms. Channing were playing one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s simple, all-American heroines in “Oklahoma!” or “Carousel.”

That uncanny shifting of registers was all I could focus on in one early song, perhaps “If I Were a Rich Man.” There was a pitch around which Fierstein appeared to drop an octave or jump up an octave, and he crossed that point repeatedly.

Nonetheless, Fiddler is Fiddler, filled with all those great songs. Golde, played by understudy Rebecca Hoodwin, was excellent. The cast members playing the various young adult roles were most engaging, with lovely voices. We were glad we went.

Time to see Independence Day again.

Categories: Theater

Ethel’s Unexpected Appearance

May 24, 2010 Leave a comment

When I’m in my car, thanks to its satellite radio, I’m able to listen to Sirius XM’s On Broadway station. This is a curious experience. Most of the time, the station provides an education in the mediocrity of so much Broadway music. I know this is an unfair judgment; much of the mediocrity surely arises from the lack of context.

Who wants to hear music from South Pacific or Guys and Dolls over and over again? Why ruin the best of Broadway by over-playing it? Sirius XM doesn’t do this, fortunately, but as a result, I frequently tune in to songs from shows I don’t know. Thus, I am the one to blame for the lack of context, for not seeing enough musical theater, and I should be grateful, which I am, that the station exposes me to so much with which I would otherwise be unfamiliar.

And then there are the times when I tune in to the sublime. Like last Wednesday morning, as I drove home from an early morning errand. I know that song! It’s from Gypsy. Another great Stephen Sondheim song.* But wait. I know that voice! Why, it’s Ethel Merman! And so it was.

I was transported to my childhood. First I thought it was the song’s doing. Small World. I do love that song. Then I realized that no, it wasn’t the song, it was Ethel. I had forgotten how much her voice had permeated my childhood years. My parents would attend Broadway musicals and bring home the cast albums, which my father would proceed to play all weekend on our living room’s monaural hi-fi. And of course there was the radio. Ethel was everywhere.

I can’t find a link on the internet to her singing the song. For a snippet, go to the Amazon listing of the 1959 cast album (pictured above), scroll down to the song samples, and click on #4. That’s her, in a duet with Jack Klugman — yes, that Jack Klugman, better known to a later generation for his TV roles in The Odd Couple and Quincy, who doesn’t actually appear on the snippet. For a full version of the song, but with Bernadette Peters rather than Merman, you can listen below:

I went to several musicals on Broadway in the ’60s, but none in the ’50s. In particular, I didn’t see the original Gypsy. Worse, I didn’t see any of the Gypsy revivals, each of which featured a great actress as Rose: Angela Lansbury in 1974, the surprising Tyne Daly in 1989, Bernadette Peters in 2003, and Patti LuPone in 2008. I need to make it a point to see the next one.

*I should be more precise. Stephen Sondheim was responsible for the lyrics. The music was composed by Jule Styne. I wrote here two months ago about my love for Sondheim, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, and here, a year ago, about seeing a production of Sunday in the Park with George. Gypsy was Sondheim’s second musical, following West Side Story by two years. How’s that for the start of a career? (Next came A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first musical for which he wrote both the songs’ words and music.)

Categories: Music, Theater