Author Topic: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )  (Read 2881 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline San Antone

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 6876
Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« on: May 15, 2015, 11:54:38 AM »
There was no thread devoted to Stephen Sondheim, so here goes.

I think Pacific Overtures is my favorite.


Ken B

  • Guest
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #1 on: May 15, 2015, 12:15:54 PM »
There was no thread devoted to Stephen Sondheim, so here goes.

I think Pacific Overtures is my favorite.

Sweeney Todd. Which might be the greatest opera/musical. It works dramatically in a way few do.

A Little Night Music is thoroughly brilliant. A Little Death is Sondheim's greatest song.

The rest is just mixed. Forum is a lot of fun but thin musically. Follies has a lot of remarkable songs but fails as a show. Park and Woods have good moments, but those moments sound like Todd. Overtures has good stuff, and the tree house song is brilliant, but I cannot rate it overall in the same league as his two best. On the other hand I have only heard not seen.

It might be unfair, since I do credit Sondheim with writing a better opera than Beethoven or Stravinsky after all, but I don't think he reached his potential. I think his potential was greater than that of any American composer.

Offline San Antone

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 6876
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #2 on: May 15, 2015, 12:54:19 PM »
I hold him in higher regard than you, Ken - but I take your points.  I was lucky enough to have been living in NYC when many of his greatest works were on Broadway, I've seen most with either original casts or revival NY productions.  NY City Opera (when it was thriving) did a couple.  They all have their merits, Company is a sentimental favorite since I worked on a (good) regional production as part of the light crew.

Ken B

  • Guest
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #3 on: May 15, 2015, 01:09:45 PM »
I hold him in higher regard than you, Ken - but I take your points.  I was lucky enough to have been living in NYC when many of his greatest works were on Broadway, I've seen most with either original casts or revival NY productions.  NY City Opera (when it was thriving) did a couple.  They all have their merits, Company is a sentimental favorite since I worked on a (good) regional production as part of the light crew.
Tunick's orchestration for that is maybe the most brilliant he's ever done. I don't always like it, but it fits perfectly.
That's another score with great songs that doesn't quite work as a show I think.

Offline San Antone

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 6876
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #4 on: May 18, 2015, 09:29:34 AM »
Since this thread is not generating much traffic, as the originator I will perform a modest about of curating.

Sondheim's parents divorced and he was sent to a variety of boarding schools, the last being the George School, where he wrote his first musical By George.  When Sondheim was about ten years old (around the time of his parents' divorce) he became friends with James Hammerstein, son of lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein became Sondheim's surrogate father and ended up cultivating Sondheim's love of musical theater.

Quote
The comic musical he wrote at George School, By George, was a success among his peers and buoyed the young songwriter's ego. When Sondheim asked Hammerstein to evaluate it as though he had no knowledge of its author, he said it was the worst thing he had ever seen: "But if you want to know why it's terrible, I'll tell you". They spent the rest of the day going over the musical, and Sondheim later said: "In that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime."

I consider Sondheim a master craftsman, which is obvious from his lyrics, but after spending some time with his music, the same craftsmanship shines forth.  A lover of puzzles of all kinds, Sondheim puts his shows together with a meticulous care for their formal aspects much like creating and solving a puzzle.

Offline Rons_talking

  • Full Member
  • *
  • Posts: 437
  • Location: Upper British Colu
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #5 on: May 20, 2015, 02:07:55 AM »
Since this thread is not generating much traffic, as the originator I will perform a modest about of curating.

Sondheim's parents divorced and he was sent to a variety of boarding schools, the last being the George School, where he wrote his first musical By George.  When Sondheim was about ten years old (around the time of his parents' divorce) he became friends with James Hammerstein, son of lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein became Sondheim's surrogate father and ended up cultivating Sondheim's love of musical theater.

I consider Sondheim a master craftsman, which is obvious from his lyrics, but after spending some time with his music, the same craftsmanship shines forth.  A lover of puzzles of all kinds, Sondheim puts his shows together with a meticulous care for their formal aspects much like creating and solving a puzzle.

I have great repect for Sondheim's work. Sunday in the Park is my favorite though I've not heard anything he wrote since 1990. His music and lyrics , like those of Cole Porter, fit perfectly. He is a rare breed as a composer who is a great lyricist in something other than pop music, and I do consider him a composer more than a songwriter. I do believe that his brief studies with Milton Babbit do show in the layering of his music. He atrikes me as a puzzle guy as well...

Offline Luke

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 2436
  • Tuplet Nester (Fourth Degree)
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #6 on: May 20, 2015, 02:54:07 AM »
The Babbitt point is well made, and one I'm pondering every day atm. I'm doing Into the Woods  with my school (i.e. I am music director) and it is quite incredible to see 10 year olds tackling songs like Your Fault with such panache, aplomb and accuracy!. I was terrified of taking on this musical when it was first proposed - how on earth are we going to manage it, I thought, have any of you drama teachers got any idea at all what a complex monster of a score you are wanting to attempt? But to my joy I was wrong, badly wrong, and I found that out straight from the first rehearsal. Part of that is simple: kids can handle anything you put in front of them, and if you set them a high standard, they will reach it. But another part is: this music is incredible, and the kids know it, they can feel in their bones even if they can't find the words to describe why the feel it - I can just tell as I watch them rehearse. I've never seen anything like it. They love it, they are fired up by it in a way I've never seen in year after year after year of doing this sort of production. And that, I think, is because quality will out, and what the kids are responding to, whether they know it or not, is the sheer depth in the score, the thorough-going motivic writing, the tightness, the leanness, the ridiculously complex (for a musical) harmonies and rhythms which sound so natural and effortless because they are derived so strongly from the basic materials. It's actually rather reaffirmed my faith in things, in the human ability to sense this stuff when it is put before them, and in the rightness of continuing to try to create music with this sort of quality...  :)

Offline San Antone

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 6876
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #7 on: May 20, 2015, 03:08:57 AM »
I have great repect for Sondheim's work. Sunday in the Park is my favorite though I've not heard anything he wrote since 1990. His music and lyrics , like those of Cole Porter, fit perfectly. He is a rare breed as a composer who is a great lyricist in something other than pop music, and I do consider him a composer more than a songwriter. I do believe that his brief studies with Milton Babbit do show in the layering of his music. He atrikes me as a puzzle guy as well...

You should really seek out the more recent work.   Road Show is one I didn't know even existed since I too have not actively sought out what Sondheim has done since the 1990s.  The score is available in two iterations, but recorded as xcast albums, the other is called Bounce.  But both shows were generated from the same idea of a show.  I don't know if you've heard Assassins, but it is even available opn YouTube in a complete production. 

I agree his studies with Babbott no doubt reinforced this aspect of puzzle-building/solving in Sondheim, but for me, one of the most interesting things to learn (about Babbitt) from Sondheim's studies with him was that Babbitt had always really wanted to write a Broadway show, and even left behind some show tunes - not serial, conventional Cole Porter-ish songs.

 ;)

Offline Rons_talking

  • Full Member
  • *
  • Posts: 437
  • Location: Upper British Colu
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #8 on: May 20, 2015, 03:18:41 AM »
Road Show is one I didn't know even existed since I too have not actively sought out what Sondheim has done since the 1990s.  The score is available in two iterations, but recorded as xcast albums, the other is called Bounce.  But both shows were generated from the same idea of a show.  I don't know if you've heard Assassins, but it is even available opn YouTube in a complete production. 

I'll do that!

Offline k a rl h e nn i ng

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • *
  • Posts: 52266
  • Et quid amabo nisi quod ænigma est?
    • Henningmusick
  • Location: Boston, Mass.
  • Currently Listening to:
    Shostakovich, Frescobaldi, Stravinsky, JS Bach, Liszt, Chopin, Haydn, Henning
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #9 on: May 20, 2015, 03:24:35 AM »
The Babbitt point is well made, and one I'm pondering every day atm. I'm doing Into the Woods  with my school (i.e. I am music director) and it is quite incredible to see 10 year olds tackling songs like Your Fault with such panache, aplomb and accuracy!. I was terrified of taking on this musical when it was first proposed - how on earth are we going to manage it, I thought, have any of you drama teachers got any idea at all what a complex monster of a score you are wanting to attempt? But to my joy I was wrong, badly wrong, and I found that out straight from the first rehearsal. Part of that is simple: kids can handle anything you put in front of them, and if you set them a high standard, they will reach it. But another part is: this music is incredible, and the kids know it, they can feel in their bones even if they can't find the words to describe why the feel it - I can just tell as I watch them rehearse. I've never seen anything like it. They love it, they are fired up by it in a way I've never seen in year after year after year of doing this sort of production. And that, I think, is because quality will out, and what the kids are responding to, whether they know it or not, is the sheer depth in the score, the thorough-going motivic writing, the tightness, the leanness, the ridiculously complex (for a musical) harmonies and rhythms which sound so natural and effortless because they are derived so strongly from the basic materials. It's actually rather reaffirmed my faith in things, in the human ability to sense this stuff when it is put before them, and in the rightness of continuing to try to create music with this sort of quality...  :)

You told me of that earlier, but I love reading such a great story again!
Karl Henning, Ph.D.
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston MA
http://www.karlhenning.com/
[Matisse] was interested neither in fending off opposition,
nor in competing for the favor of wayward friends.
His only competition was with himself. — Françoise Gilot

Offline San Antone

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 6876
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #10 on: May 20, 2015, 03:32:24 AM »
Into the woods is a great show to do with kids.  And it is nice to hear that the inherent quality of the work overrides any technical difficulties it might present.

 :)

Offline Luke

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 2436
  • Tuplet Nester (Fourth Degree)
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #11 on: May 20, 2015, 04:28:38 AM »
Not so much overrides as pulls the kids through the difficulties - they aren't difficulties, really, despite appearances, if the underlying quality makes them disappear. Amazing!

Offline k a rl h e nn i ng

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • *
  • Posts: 52266
  • Et quid amabo nisi quod ænigma est?
    • Henningmusick
  • Location: Boston, Mass.
  • Currently Listening to:
    Shostakovich, Frescobaldi, Stravinsky, JS Bach, Liszt, Chopin, Haydn, Henning
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #12 on: May 20, 2015, 05:04:40 AM »
Not so much overrides as pulls the kids through the difficulties - they aren't difficulties, really, despite appearances, if the underlying quality makes them disappear. Amazing!

That reminds me of a line from Terry Eagleton's Saints & Scholars, to the effect of A man under an anæsthetic is not a man who is in pain, but does not know it, but simply a man who is not in pain  8)
Karl Henning, Ph.D.
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston MA
http://www.karlhenning.com/
[Matisse] was interested neither in fending off opposition,
nor in competing for the favor of wayward friends.
His only competition was with himself. — Françoise Gilot

Online mc ukrneal

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 8870
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #13 on: May 20, 2015, 05:32:12 AM »
The Babbitt point is well made, and one I'm pondering every day atm. I'm doing Into the Woods  with my school (i.e. I am music director) and it is quite incredible to see 10 year olds tackling songs like Your Fault with such panache, aplomb and accuracy!. I was terrified of taking on this musical when it was first proposed - how on earth are we going to manage it, I thought, have any of you drama teachers got any idea at all what a complex monster of a score you are wanting to attempt? But to my joy I was wrong, badly wrong, and I found that out straight from the first rehearsal. Part of that is simple: kids can handle anything you put in front of them, and if you set them a high standard, they will reach it. But another part is: this music is incredible, and the kids know it, they can feel in their bones even if they can't find the words to describe why the feel it - I can just tell as I watch them rehearse. I've never seen anything like it. They love it, they are fired up by it in a way I've never seen in year after year after year of doing this sort of production. And that, I think, is because quality will out, and what the kids are responding to, whether they know it or not, is the sheer depth in the score, the thorough-going motivic writing, the tightness, the leanness, the ridiculously complex (for a musical) harmonies and rhythms which sound so natural and effortless because they are derived so strongly from the basic materials. It's actually rather reaffirmed my faith in things, in the human ability to sense this stuff when it is put before them, and in the rightness of continuing to try to create music with this sort of quality...  :)
I think the first half of Into the Woods (musical) is about as good as it gets when it comes to this sort of thing. The second half doesn't have quite the tightness of the first half, though is still pretty good. But the first half, in particular, is sooooo GOOD. The way the music, spoken dialog and lyrics flow is just amazing. And it is so real for today (and I imagine for years to come), because it deals with so many different fears and hopes. And all of that is wrapped in an idea that is just so clever (and so familiar to almost all of us - most everyone knows these stories)! And as you say, there are just so many layers to it. And each character has their own demons/challenge that they need to overcome and the way the different journeys interact and change the course of the others...Anyway, I find it bears watching and listening repeatedly very well.

Be kind to your fellow posters!!

Offline San Antone

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 6876
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #14 on: May 20, 2015, 05:41:00 AM »
Road Show is one I didn't know even existed since I too have not actively sought out what Sondheim has done since the 1990s.  The score is available in two iterations, but recorded as xcast albums, the other is called Bounce.  But both shows were generated from the same idea of a show.  I don't know if you've heard Assassins, but it is even available opn YouTube in a complete production. 

I'll do that!

I just realized I gave you some misinformation.  Although Assassins might also be on YouTube (it is), what I meant to write was that Passion is on YouTube in a complete performance.

Offline San Antone

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 6876

Offline Luke

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 2436
  • Tuplet Nester (Fourth Degree)
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #16 on: May 20, 2015, 07:42:28 AM »
I think the first half of Into the Woods (musical) is about as good as it gets when it comes to this sort of thing. The second half doesn't have quite the tightness of the first half, though is still pretty good.

Yes, there is certainly a difference between the two halves, and the second half is definitely looser, thematically (though not much - new themes are suddenly introduced, and old ones drop out to some extent). But I think this is part of the genius of this particular show - a musical reflection of the idea that [first half] everything works out neatly and for the best in a pretty miraculous way but... [second half] actually real life is more complicated than that, and new, unexpected elements can intrude on those neat conclusions, and anyway, weren't all the wishes and assumptions we made a little foolish anyway....? So to me that second act is the perfect and necessary complement of the first, and its 'faults' are, in this sense at least, also its strengths. That's how I read it, anyway.

At any rate, songs like that tremendous Act II double-header Your Fault/Last Midnight are absolutely astonishing, I think. So different, those two songs, and yet so mysteriously complementary. Certainly they are by far the most powerful things I have ever worked with kids on.

Offline San Antone

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 6876
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #17 on: May 20, 2015, 07:50:02 AM »
I think the first half of Into the Woods (musical) is about as good as it gets when it comes to this sort of thing. The second half doesn't have quite the tightness of the first half, though is still pretty good.

While I don't see as big a drop-off between the two acts as you seem to imply, I think you make a valid point. 

At a certain point, and fairly early on, possibly as early as Company, Sondheim will write a "sunny" first act and a much darker second act.  In fact, he's joked about it in interviews. 

Into the Woods also exemplifies how Sondheim titles will often enclose a pun on the deeper meaning of the show, in this case, the "woods" represent the subconscious fears we all have.  Confronting this part of ourselves is scary, and the second act should be darker.

Ken B

  • Guest
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #18 on: May 20, 2015, 11:52:52 AM »
Am I the only one who thinks Children will Listen is a lift of Candyman, slowed down?

Offline San Antone

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 6876
Re: Stephen Sondheim (1930- )
« Reply #19 on: May 20, 2015, 12:33:41 PM »
Am I the only one who thinks Children will Listen is a lift of Candyman, slowed down?

Yeah, you probably are.   ;)