Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sondheimania and Other Composers

Elisabeth Vincentelli, the New York Post's reviewer, wrote a quick blog post about her frustration with Stephen Sondheim:
I've had it with Sondheim -- or rather with Sondheimania. There's been so many events celebrating his 80th birthday this year that the cumulative effect is now the opposite of the desired one. Next in the 80th-bash line: The New York Pops' concert tomorrow evening at Carnegie Hall. This may be the last for the year, but I'm not holding my breath.

...

Personally I'll be happy if I don't hear or read the name "Sondheim" for the next year at least.
By the way, her musical criticism of him is here:

Meanwhile, perhaps it's also time to say that he may be a better lyricist than a composer and that he's benefited from working with brilliant arrangers. I would even go as far as saying that he (unwittingly) contributed to the decline of the musical by making his emulators think all songs must be "integrated" in the book. No more catchy stand-alone numbers for us rubes! Unfortunately, 99% of said emulators aren't as gifted as their hero -- not to mention that Sondheim has written quite a few stand-alone standards himself.
Firstly, I'm not particularly sympathetic to the argument that an artist has any responsibility for the shittiness of their emulators. It's pretty clear that if you get one clear success (e.g. Lion King on Broadway), you're going to get hundreds of people thinking that they know exactly how it worked and think they can do it themselves, and they are usually wrong.

For instance, I happen to like (WHITE BOY ALERT) what T-Pain does with auto-tune. I feel like he uses auto-tune to do with his voice what electric guitars do with the sound of the guitar. There's also a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of shitty auto-tune out there. But there's also good auto-tune. You might as well blame the Beatles for Oasis.

Me, I think that there does need to be more integration of music and book. Nine times out of time, if someone stops the action to break out in song, I get a feeling of dread. And I think that feeling of dread is the reason I haven't plunked out

Secondly, I'm not sympathetic to the argument that Sondheim is somehow lessened because he needs to work with good arrangers. I don't think it reflects poorly on Paul McCarthy that he made much better music when he was still working with John Lennon; nor do I think that John Lennon should be blamed that he needed Paul McCartney. Artists should be reminded that they are only as good as the people they need to translate it into reality.

But here's the reason I'm writing about it this morning.

Last night, I went to an NYU event called New Songs Now, where new composers wrote new songs to be performed in a cabaret setting at Joe's Pub. I went, and by sheer coincidence, twenty minutes into the show, I wound up passing a note to the person sitting next to me, "Imagine if there was just one Sondheim song here." Whatever those points above may have, I was watching people who were emulating much, much worse stuff than Sondheim. I really wanted his touch to bring me out of this evening.

For instance: 90% of the song were about a boy and a girl either singing to each other, or about each other. And then a song sung by a jealous trio about a girl who's good with boys. But basically the same: almost every song was about that. Not that I'm against it, but come on there has to be something else worth singing about.

I couldn't tell who wrote what song, because almost every song was in the same musical style. They could have all been thrown into one musical, a musical equivalent of He's Just Not That Into You. Except a genuinely funny (albeit incredibly silly) song called "Wilson" about a guy who does either acid or pot or crack (the song kind of conflates every drug possible into one joint) and robs a gas station.

I was kind of hoping to see an abundance of style, of eccentricity. I wanted a Sondheim song in there somewhere because Sondheim was weird. That's what first drew me toward him. He had weird characters, singing about weird things, with musical weirdness.

Now, obviously if you're a professional critic for the New York Post or a highly plugged-in blogger like Rob at The Wicked Stage (whose response is worth reading, here), you might be starting to tire of the man. I think, however, the audience at large isn't seeing nearly as much Sondheim as the mavens are. This flurry of activity is just increasing the chance that they'll see one.

I haven't seen any Sondheim yet this year. I kind of would like to see Assassins again.

But really, what I'd like to see is more composers striking as boldly out as Sondheim did. And, probably, flopping as hugely as Assassins did, twice. Those few shows that have broken through the mold have not yet created composers with full bodies of work, at least that I know of. And I don't see younger composers eager to strike out and create their own styles, their own approaches to musical theater.

Unless, of course, you start talking about independent theater, far from Broadway, where things like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Passing Strange are being born, and most of them are not being seen by whoever that mystical board is that decides what the "canon" would be.

1 comment:

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Hello-

I certainly did not write that an artist has responsibility for his emulators -- I said Sondheim's contribution was "unwitting." Of course an innovator is going to lead to lesser imitators, that's just how art (and commerce) work.
My point was that with all the attention on Sondheim, nobody has really looked at his legacy on musical theater as a genre.
You mention in praise shows like "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" and "Passing Strange." I've championed them both in all their incarnations, from off to Broadway. So I guess we do agree somewhere!