This week marks the birthdays of some music and theatre greats: JS Bach, Phyllis Newman, and Stephen Sondheim, and all of them are part of this post. I am performing Bach's Mass In B-Minor with Amadeus Choir, the Elmer Iseler Singers, orchestra and soloists tomorrow (Saturday March 23rd) night, in Toronto, at Metropolitan United Church, at 7:30pm. It will be an amazing concert; so much work has been poured into it. I'm even attending all rehearsals with an elbow that was broken badly enough to need surgery, so you can see the dedication this inspires! To top it off, CBC will be recording the performance and will broadcast it on Easter Sunday, so even if you can't come you can tune in and hear me on the radio.
Last month, I was interviewed for an article about Stephen Sondheim's increasing mainstream popularity by Popbreak's Brent Johnson and John Elliott, partially due to my MFA in dramaturgy and partially because I worked for Phyllis, a good friend of Mr. Sondheim, for some time and so had a very tiny bit of insider knowledge. Most of what I said didn't get used (I said a lot) and I got permission to post the interview here, so without further ado, happy birthday Stephen!
pop-break: What do you do for a living? What is your title/expertise?
RWD: I am a sessional faculty member in the English Department at Centennial College (in Toronto). I studied English and Theatre at Princeton University and hold an MFA in Dramaturgy from Columbia.At Columbia, I was fortunate enough to take a musical theatre class with Andy Hammerstein. I also spent a year as Phyllis Newman’s personal archivist; Ms. Newman is the widow of Adolph Green (of Comden and Green) and a long-time friend of Stephen Sondheim, so I was able to see some exceptional correspondence and photos, and send the occasional photo to James Lapine for Sondheim on Sondheim. It seems like her Playbill blog has been deleted, but here’s an archived copy of some of the things we were finding: http://web.archive.org/web/20111226073601/http://www.playbill.com/playblog/2010/03/celeb-playblogger-phyllis-newman-march-30/
http://web.archive.org/web/20100331191522/http://www.playbill.com/playblog/2010/03/celeb-playblogger-phyllis-newman-march-29/ (That one actually talks about Sondheim)
I am also a lifelong lover of musical theatre!
pop-break: What was your earliest exposure to Sondheim?
RWD: I have to admit that I don’t remember what show I was introduced to first. My grandparents were huge supporters of the arts; they would go to theatre festivals and see everything, and when I was about seven or eight, I was allowed to come to some of the shows, which meant I was the only eight-year-old ever to select Yum Yum from The Mikado as a Halloween costume. I started to enjoy Sondheim around that time as well, though I’m sure some nuances were lost on me. My best friend growing up was a big Sondheim fan, and so we shared our enjoyment through elementary, middle and high school (where we used to practice our rendition of “It Takes Two” whenever we had time). In my (arts) high school’s grade nine vocal class, they showed the DVD of Into The Woods, and by that time the deal was sealed with most of my theatrically-inclined friends.
pop-break: What is his biggest contribution to the American musical theater canon?
RWD: Sondheim, though not by himself, helped take us into a different era of musical theatre; an era of “serious” or “thoughtful” musical theatre. Many people stereotype musical theatre as “fluff,” with silly, contrived plots, chorus girls, and romance driving a light entertainment. Obviously, there was “serious” musical theatre before Sondheim (Rodgers and Hammerstein, particularly Hammerstein as his mentor, clearly influenced him in that department), but very few pieces were challenging structurally, thematically, linguistically AND musically. With Sondheim’s pieces, you couldn’t just stand there and sing; you had to be an accomplished actor, and an intelligent one, at that.
pop-break: What qualities do you think have kept his work from achieving widespread mainstream success - a la Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Schwartz? (I guess I should also mention that it's ALW's birthday...)
RWD: Sondheim is a challenging writer, in a very good way. His vocabulary, his rhyme schemes (can’t forget those lovely internal rhymes!) and his musical lines are often unpredictable, difficult, and fascinating. He’s not afraid to focus on the strange or unappealing, and his characters are complex, very human, and therefore not always likable (look at Fosca from Passion – if I remember correctly, preview audiences cheered when she was in trouble, and someone even yelled “Die, Fosca, Die!”). Sondheim isn’t afraid to take us backward in time or uproot us completely, sending us decades forward in the second act to comment on the themes in the first. Sondheim refuses to focus on the lowest common denominator, asks big questions, often projects a “New York” sensibility, and occasionally descends into vicious satire. Moreover, he doesn’t rely on familiar stories, for the most part, and when he does use something popular such as fairy tales, they’re not your Disney fairy tales. He pulls the rug out from under you. In fact, with certain shows, I wonder if Sondheim would be a much more “populist” composer if he just presented the first act of many of his shows, where things often seem to work out in a deceptively simple way (Into the Woods, Sunday In the Park With George). Webber has a tendency to be simple, repetitive, romantic and big, and while there are elements of repetition, romance and “big” gestures in Sondheim, that’s not what he’s about; mostly, they tend to be tempered and carefully considered. Sondheim also has a tendency to go for pastiche numbers (Pacific Overtures, Follies) and those numbers only work if you have some historical or theatrical background to get the reference. I loved “Please Hello” so much more because of my deeply-rooted, eight-year-old’s obsession with Gilbert and Sullivan. We have to remember that much of Broadway tourism, particularly recently, has been from countries where English is not a first language, and if tourists are coming to see a show and they don’t necessarily have a strong grasp of the language, Sondheim might be difficult to fully appreciate. Challenging subjects (for example, Assassins) are also a factor. However, remember that this is a Sondheim stereotype, and that if you go back, he was part of the teams for some of the most popular musicals of all time.
pop-break: What do you like most about his work? What do you find most challenging about it?
RWD: Sondheim’s words and wit never fail to dazzle me, though I think people actually have a tendency to focus on the intricacy of the words and not give him proper credit for the engaging music. Sometimes I find the structure of Sondheim’s works to be challenging; they are occasionally overly ambitious, and my dramaturg instinct is both to celebrate that while making it clearer to the audience. I would say that, particularly with some of Sondheim’s pricklier characters, there is a danger of not being able to emotionally connect. That is a stereotype of his work, but I do occasionally find it to be true (again, why he might be less “popular.”)
pop-break: What are the important qualities to remember when teaching Sondheim?
RWD: Context is very important, as many of his pieces deal with historical reference and cultural or social factors that make much more sense once contextualized. A study of narrative structure is important, if only to see how he subverts it. An exploration of theme is important, as the shows are often much more than just the sum of their parts. It’s important to think about how the shows work on stage, not just on the page, particularly with a show like Follies with its big showpieces, dancers reflected with their younger selves, etc. Here I think it’s important to talk about Sondheim’s relationship with Hal Prince and the designer Boris Aronson, among others (remembering that a show is affected by everyone on the team). Obviously, it’s important to deal with rhythm and rhyme, and to see how the musical lines correspond with emotional or thematic elements in the songs. I thought the way I studied a Sondheim show in one of my dramaturgy classes was quite effective; along with contextual research, we made a “casebook” that dealt with music, character, theme, language, etc…all that Aristotle-y goodness.
pop-break: Why do you think his work has now entered the mainstream over the last decade -- with Glee, Tim Burton, etc.? What do you think has changed?
RWD: I’m honestly not sure that his work has “entered the mainstream” over the last decade, or that it was not at all part of the mainstream before. The man worked on West Side Story and Gypsy – those were hugely popular shows! I don’t know about this narrative. All I can say is that it’s more okay to be someone who enjoys a niche than ever; there’s geek pride, “freak” pride, fandom pride, musical theatre pride. Because of the Internet, among other social forces, small communities actually found out that they’re larger than they thought. What the rise of technology means is that it’s easier to share the theatre experience than ever, if not truly the experience of live theatre. So many recordings and videos are being shared; though there have always been touring companies, Broadway has of late been able to become a larger experience than just New York. People can find others like them. People who were younger and musical theatre geeks got older and found themselves with entertainment power, so they could do what they wanted to. Glee, horrible as it has become, I believe both made it more okay to like to sing, more acceptable in this ironic age to burst out into song, and became a gateway drug for younger audiences less familiar with Sondheim. Maybe someone tuned in for “No Air” and left singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” It’s all about shifts in social conception. Musical theatre was silly, then serious, then silly again, then perhaps silly, serious and socially acceptable.
pop-break: Do you feel he is the Broadway composer who has the most crossover appeal to people who like classical or opera or rock music? Why is that?
RWD: That’s a bit of a leading question, but it’s probably accurate. He’s the most well-known artist with the largest body of work with that kind of crossover appeal. He’s thought of as smart and cultured, which attracts the classical/opera crowd, and he’s edgy enough to appeal to rock sensibilities. However, there are many other artists who would have that sort of appeal, particularly some younger artists; the “Broadway musical” doesn’t have one sound anymore. For example, Adam Guettel’s The Light In The Piazza skews classical and Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal skews rock, to say nothing of artists like Michael John LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown. These artists, I would say, all have Sondheim to thank, in some way, for this changing and malleable sound, and for this heightened potential for crossover appeal. Maybe, with Sondheim as a compelling background, accompanied by the next generation(s) of artists, we’ll have more people coming in for Piazza and staying for Normal, and vice versa.