Friday, December 10, 2010

A Chance To Meet My Hero

Well, I told you it was coming!

Anyone who has read this blog from the beginning knows that I am a huge fan and admirer of Stephen Sondheim. If you don't know who Stephen Sondheim, you can't be my friend anymore. Just kidding! (...but seriously, find out more about him! Really!)

In my opinion, Stephen Sondheim is the greatest composer and lyricist in Broadway musical theatre history. I say that with complete and utter bias, but I also believe it to be true. There have been many great composers and lyricists in musical theatre history, and having taught that particular subject, I know a lot about most of them. But Sondheim is pure genius, in my opinion, and has taken the craft of lyric-writing and composing to a higher level and has opened the doors to other composers and lyricists of his ilk.

That being said, I will admit some things. Stephen Sondheim is an acquired taste. Not everyone likes his stuff, and I understand why. But I think those people are missing what Sondheim is all about (or simply don't appreciate what he's about). I also concede that Sondheim is not the most popular or commercial of Broadway composers/lyricists (at least outside of theatre circles). And this is probably one of the things that draws me to him so much. I know some people don't "get" Sondheim. I do, and when I meet someone who does "get" Sondheim, I know I have more in common with them than those that don't. That's fine. To each his own. Some people put Andrew Lloyd Webber or Stephen Schwartz or Jerry Herman above Stephen Sondheim in their order of appreciation, for example. That's fine. Everyone has different tastes, and I can appreciate what those particular men have brought to musical theatre. But I think those people that put them above Sondheim in terms of pure craftsmanship and innovation are misguided (perhaps by their need for a catchy tune or their unwillingness to work and think harder rather than just sit back and be entertained).

I will admit this, too: Sondheim's shows are not always pleasant to watch, especially if you are not ready to be challenged or deal with complex issues; especially if you just want to leave your brain at the door. I admit this as well: it has been seldom that upon a first viewing or listening of a Sondheim show that I "got" it or even particularly enjoyed it. I'm ashamed to admit that the only two scores I thoroughly enjoyed on a first listen were Assassins and Merrily We Roll Along. Embarrassed, even. (I'm not including West Side Story, Gypsy, or Do I Hear a Waltz?, for which Sondheim did the lyrics and not the music). I mean, now I realize what a groundbreaking show Company was. I think the score to Sweeney Todd is an absolute masterpiece. Into the Woods is one of my favorite musicals. Sunday in the Park with George is brilliant. The complexity, craftsmanship, and skill of Sondheim's music and lyrics astounds me. Like an onion, he has so many layers; and like a fine wine or an aged cheese, he is an acquired taste.

My first exposure to Mr. Sondheim was in 1989, toward the end of my last year of high school. In the summer I would be going on a theatre trip organized by my drama teacher, and one of the shows we would be seeing was Into the Woods. I had purchased that album (yes, kiddies, album!) along with Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera, which we would also be seeing (but not Cats (I already knew I wasn't so fond of the music for that show). I purchased the albums to familiarize myself with the music of the shows we would be seeing. At the time, I thought Les Miz was terrific, Phantom was so-so, and Into the Woods was cute, but I was kind of nonplussed by it. Oh, how times change! I now know that Into the Woods is far superior than the other two. I still have a fondness for Les Miserables, but it certainly isn't as sophisticated or as well crafted as Into the Woods, in my opinion. I still think (and thought at the time) that Phantom was overrated. In general, I think Andrew Lloyd Webber is overrated and isn't nearly as talented or brilliant as Mr. Sondheim. Yet, he is the more popular of the two (or at least the most commercial).

When I saw Into the Woods, I really enjoyed the first act, but thought the second was a bit of a downer. In my immaturity, I completely missed the point of the show. Like so many theatre-goers, I think I just wanted to be entertained, not educated or enlightened. But I did discover as life continued, the more I listened to, read the script for, or saw other productions of Into the Woods, the richer the experience became and the more I gleaned from it. I almost equate to reading the scriptures. I think the more you read them, the deeper the meanings become, and sometimes passages you've read again and again will suddenly take on new and inspirational meanings simply based on where you are in life. I think most, if not all, of Sondheim's work is like that.

When I went away to college, I had the great fortune to become best friends with a guy who introduced me to more of Sondheim's work. In the course of our first year of college together, he introduced me to Sweeney Todd, Company, Sunday in the Park with George, and also helped me gain a greater appreciation for West Side Story, which I was only vaguely familiar with at the time. I am truly embarrassed to admit that aside from West Side Story, my first impressions of these scores and shows were less-than-glowing.

My friend forced a bunch of us to watch Sweeney Todd, which he adored. While I found much of the music interesting and enjoyed the performances, some of it felt too operatic to me and the story was too dark for my tastes, and, frankly, I found it depressing. I could sense my friend's disappointment that I hadn't latched on to it the way he did (the same reaction I have today when someone doesn't appreciate or enjoy it).

I remember thinking Company sounded very dated; very "70s." I freely admit I didn't get it at all. What was this show even about? I also thought the lady who played Joanne (Elaine Stritch) had a terrible voice, and I had no clue what "The Ladies Who Lunch" was even about.

Sunday was a bit more enjoyable for me. There were some tunes I liked, but I found much of the score too busy for my tastes.

I liked West Side Story a lot, and greatly enjoyed Leonard Bernstein's music. I remember hearing the score before I saw the movie, and thought the song "Maria" was so repetitive as far as lyrics went. "Why does he keep repeating 'Maria'?" Oh, how dumb I was! Yet when I saw the song in context in the film, I thought it was one of the most moving things I had ever seen. The sheer simplicity, yet great power, of it still astounds me, and it's a song I now adore. Although the sad ending bothered me at the time, I did like the story and the lessons within it very much.

Yet in spite of my weak first impressions of these scores, I felt strangely compelled to keep listening to them, and as I did so, I began to appreciate and understand more about them. I began to pay more attention to the lyrics. It's true, for example, that it took me a while to appreciate or understand what Company was about, but I liked much of the music, and as time went by, began to glean deeper meaning from the lyrics. Now I know what a groundbreaking musical it was, and the deep insight Sondheim gives relationships and marriage is beyond fascinating to me.

Some of the dark wit in Sweeney Todd eventually resonated with me, and I found many of the songs, including "The Barber and His Wife" and "Pretty Women" so moving.

This time in my life was especially difficult and frought with confusion, depression, frustration, and angst, and I very distinctly remembering how the song "Move On" from Sunday in the Park with George seemed to speak to my heart directly. I felt like Sondheim had gotten inside my soul and spoken directly to me. I listened to that specific song over and over.

Eventually I became such a fan of Sweeney Todd that I begged my theatre professor to do it the next year and spent the summer ardently campaigning for it. In retrospect, we had neither the talent or maturity to pull it off, and it would have been a major bomb in that particular community, but I knew none of that at the time.

I bought the record and listened to it again and again and again and was obsessed with it. I made my mom watch it (her reaction was similiar to my first reaction, but I think she appreciates it much more now). I bought my own copies of the albums for Sunday in the Park and Company as well.

Our theatre department ended up doing The Pirates of Penzance as our musical, and I thought "Gilbert and Sullivan over Sondheim?! You've got to be kidding!"

As I studied his lyrics and watch productions of Sondheim's shows, I began to see how much they taught me about life and the human condition, and how much certain lyrics seemed to relate to me specifically. It took many more years of listening to his music to really appreciate the deepness and complexity of the compositions themselves.

As life went on, I collected more and more of his scores, devouring them (although, again, I admit, I did not always like his stuff on a first listen; I did not care for Pacific Overtures, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or Follies the first time I heard them. I'm a hug fan of all three now). I thought A Little Night Music was okay, although I remember very much liking "Every Day A Little Death," which still remains one of my very favorite Sondheim compositions.

I thought Merrily We Roll Along was brilliant and moving the very first time I heard it, and although it is rarely done (and bombed on Broadway), it is probably my second favorite Sondheim score (Sweeney being the first; although they are so very different, it's hard to compare). I also remember loving Assassins the first time I heard it, both because it dealt with a subject that I found very interesting and because I liked the dark humor in it. Plus the music was terrific. I also enjoyed Anyone Can Whistle.

As the years have gone by, I have become a huge fan and connoisseur of Sondheim and his music. I've written him three letters in my life, all of which he answered personally. My first letter to him was a fawning fan letter telling him what a genius I thought he was. I sent it through his music publisher, and a week later I got a small letter from New York. At the time I didn't know anyone in New York and wondered who it could be from. When I opened it and discovered that it was from Mr. Sondheim himself (on his personal stationary no less), I was elated and amazed that he not only took the time to write back, but did so so promptly.

And what was written in his letter? Only three sentences, which I still remember (because I often take that letter out and reread it): "Dear [Cody], what a terrific letter! Thank you. It made my day." Signed by Stephen Sondheim himself. I once made Stephen Sondheim's day!!!

The other two letters were written while I was doing my senior project in my last year of my undergraduate. A friend of mine were doing a show about Stephen Sondheim and his work, and I wrote him to ask for some advice, and he wrote me back and asked me to report on how it went. So I wrote him again, and he wrote me back.

I have great esteem and admiration for the man. He just came out with a book, Finishing the Hat, which I've started reading and love. In conjunction with his book, he has been touring various places. One of those places, luckily, will be Salt Lake City on February 1. I bought tickets immediately, and Jonah and I will be attending what is being called "An Evening with Stephen Sondheim" where he will be interviewed and talk about his work (and likely field questions). I am thrilled to finally see my hero and idol up close. It's something I always hoped I would do, and as Mr. Sondheim gets older, I realized the chances were getting slimmer, so I'm very, very excited.

I could write a whole blog about Stephen Sondheim, let alone a post, and a lot of you out there probably haven't been interested enough to get this far. But I love the guy and am so eager to finally see him in person, and I just wanted you all to know.

Here's to you, Stephen Sondheim! Here's to you!

1 comment:

A Gay Mormon Boy said...

I still cringe over Lloyd Webber's 1988 Tony win for Phantom over Into the Woods.

Arguably, Sondheim sent me on the professional path I'm on now. I analyze literature and language as a career, and Into the Woods led to the first sustained and serious discussion of why an artist makes meticulous decisions such as rhymes, symbols, etc. I see it as a great outlet for teaching as well.

I'll hold back on my Sondheim gushing and leave it at I'm pretty jealous that I can't afford a chance to see and hear the man himself.