Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Terry Teachout wishes Stephen Sondheim a happy eightieth.

Later: Lots of interesting observations from Mark Steyn, who's less of an admirer:
Stephen Sondheim knows more about Herbert and Romberg and Friml and Kern and Berlin and Gershwin and Porter and Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein and DeSylva, Brown and Henderson and Yip Harburg and Burton Lane and Dorothy Fields than anybody else alive, and what does he tell us [in his music]? That [their] songs are lies.

* * *

At a basic level, Sondheim lacks the courage, the courage to have his characters let rip with…

I’m in love!
I’m in love!
I’m in love!
I’m in love!
I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy!


Why can’t they write ’em like that any more?

Says Sondheim: Because we aren’t like that any more.

* * *

He likes the harmonic language of Ravel and Debussy, which, on Broadway, seems daring and adventurous But how theatrical is it? George Gershwin knew Ravel, and once asked him for lessons. Ravel asked Gershwin how much money he’d made last year. When Gershwin told him, Ravel said: ‘My friend, it is I who should be taking lessons from you.’

* * *

‘If a listener is made rhyme-conscious,’ said Hammerstein, ‘his interest may be diverted from the story of the song. If, on the other hand, you keep him waiting for a rhyme, he is more likely to listen to the meaning of the words.’ ‘Ol’ Man River ’ is a powerful, memorable lyric, and there’s no rhyme until the eighth and tenth lines. Hammerstein rhymes when the song requires it; Sondheim is an exercise in rhyme.

* * *

On March 22nd 1948, Stephen Sondheim celebrated his eighteenth birthday. At the time Oscar Hammerstein was giving him a one-man masterclass in theatrical adaptation. Far away, on the other side of the world, a son was born to an English music professor and his wife. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim would share birthdays but not much else. Sondheim, born to the old disciplines of fixing and rewriting and rewriting the rewrites, has his merest trifles hailed as high art; Lloyd Webber, whose scores aspired to the inviolability of opera, is routinely despised as crowd-pleasing schlock. But, with the exception of
Sweeney Todd, Sondheim has never initiated any of his shows. [. . .] It was the pap-peddling Lloyd Webber who found himself consumed by obsessions that, for better or worse, he had no choice but to write out: he had, in a word, passion.