In memory of the influential lyric poetry of the musicals by Stephen Sondheim: NPR – Nach Welt



DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Finally, today we want to take the time to remember a Broadway legend. The composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the most respected figure in American music theater, died yesterday. He was 91 years old. His shows ranged from the vaudeville-inspired riot “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” …

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SONG, “COMEDY TONIGHT”)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP # 1: (As characters, sing) Something for everyone – Comedy Tonight.

FOLKENFLIK:… on the concept musical “Sunday In The Park With George” about the art of making art.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “PUTTING IT TOGETHER”)

MANDY PATINKIN: (singing as George) piece by piece, piece by piece – that’s the only way to create a work of art.

FOLKENFLIK: It would be hard to overestimate Stephen Sondheim’s influence on Broadway form, or on the critic Bob Mondello who provides that memory.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: At the height of most musicals, the characters sing their hearts out about enchanted evenings or defying gravity or what I did for love. Sondheim characters sing about ambivalence and conflict.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BEING ALIVE”)

LARRY KERT: (singing as Bobby) Someone, hold me too tight. Someone hurt me too deep.

MONDELLO: This is Bobby in “Company”, the musical that founded the Sondheim model in 1970 – not his first show, but the first big hit in which his characters sing less to get the action going than to create a kind of psychological profile to offer. Bobby is afraid to commit himself. He looks at his friends’ marriages and shudders. Still, he wants what they have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BEING ALIVE”)

KERT: (singing as Bobby) Somebody needs me too much. Someone who know me too well. Someone, cut me short and stick me through hell and give me support.

MONDELLO: This isn’t the way most musicals put things together, but Sondheim shows almost always send audiences not just singing but thinking about everything from the westernization of Japan in “Pacific Ouvertures” …

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “PLEASE HELLO”)

PATRICK KINSER-LAU: (As a Dutch admiral, singing) Two ports, one of them not too rocky. How about Nagasaki?

MONDELLO:… On social justice in “Sweeney Todd”…

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “NO PLACE LIKE LONDON”)

LEN CARIOU: (singing as Sweeney Todd) There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it. And his morals ain’t worth what a pig might spit. And it’s called London.

MONDELLO: … what happens afterwards in “Into The Woods”.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ACT II PROLOGUE: SO HAPPY”)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 1: (Singing as a baker) Into the woods. It’s always when you think you’re finally done. And then you go back to the forest for another trip.

MONDELLO: The first act of this fairy tale show gives us fables like Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk more or less clearly, basically what you would expect from a musical comedy. The second act has princes who are terrible husbands, witches who may be evil but know things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “LAST MIDNIGHT”)

BERNADETTE PETERS: (sings) You are so nice. Youre not good. You are not bad. You are just nice. I’m not good. Im not nice. I am exactly right. I am the witch. You are the world

MONDELLO: This is Sondheim, who puzzles on stage how the world works. Confusion is the right word. As a lover of brain teasers and games, Sondheim was happy to transform the Broadway musical into a playground for thinkers. If you hear Moon-June-Croon lyrics on any of his shows, they’re probably kidding. Tricky inner rhymes are more his thing – let’s say we have so much in common, it’s a phenomenon, a line that was written at the beginning of his career for the music of another composer, as well as his lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s semi-symphonic “West Side” Story”.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “AMERICA”)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP # 2: (As characters, singing) I like being in America – OK for me in America.

MONDELLO: It was a show that both established Sondheim as a lyricist and gave him a bit of a hassle about how sophisticated music is received on Broadway. He joked about it in the only song he ever called autobiographical. Here from an HBO special, Sondheim doubles the joke by slipping into the role of a producer on “Merrily We Roll Along” and growling what people kept telling him when he started out.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: (sings) I don’t hear such a strong score every day. But guys, if I may, there is only one thing wrong. There is no melody that can be hummed. There is no one tune where you poke, poke, poke.

MONDELLO: When he finally hums what the character thinks is an upbeat melody, it’s Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening”. That’s a joke, because in real life copywriter Oscar Hammerstein Jr. was Sondheim’s mentor. In the 1940s, when the budding songwriter was still a child, Rodgers and Hammerstein turned Broadway’s lighthearted song-and-dance shows into musical pieces. Sondheim later went one step further. His musicals were structured around the concept. The show “Follies” for example …

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 2: (As character) Roscoe is here, as always, to bring out the (the incomprehensible). Let’s go.

MONDELLO: … centers on a Ziegfeld-like metaphor for marital folly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “CAN I LEAVE YOU?”)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 3: (Singing as Phyllis) You will believe the lies are badly hidden and the wounds are never healed. And the game is not worth winning. And wait I am just starting.

MONDELLO: In “A Little Night Music” the concept was a three-stage romance …

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SEND IN THE CLOWNS”)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 4: (singing as Desiree) Isn’t it rich?

MONDELLO: … And let the characters sing everything in waltz time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SEND IN THE CLOWNS”)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 4: (as Desiree, singing) Are we a couple?

MONDELLO: And in probably Sondheim’s masterpiece “Sweeney Todd” he mixed operatic form and musical comedy to tell the story of a demonic hairdresser who cuts his customers’ throats and a baker …

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 5: (as Mrs. Lovett) Here we are, hot out of the oven.

MONDELLO: … who bakes them into meat pies.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 6: (as Sweeney Todd) What’s this?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 5: (as Mrs. Lovett, singing) It’s a priest. Have a little priest.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 6: (as Sweeney Todd) Is it really good?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 5: (as Mrs. Lovett, singing) Sir, it’s too good at least. On the other hand, they don’t commit sins of the flesh, so it’s pretty fresh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 6: (as Sweeney Todd) A lot of fat.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 5: (as Mrs. Lovett) Just where it sat.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 6: (as Sweeney Todd) Don’t you have a poet or something?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 5: (as Mrs. Lovett, singing) No. Can you see it; The problem with the poet is how do you know he passed away? Try the priest.

MONDELLO: Although the things Sondheim did had a huge impact on other Broadway composers – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”, for example, couldn’t have been designed without the building blocks Sondheim helped develop – the audience didn’t get their shows always. He never had a mega-hit musical and “Send In The Clowns” was his only hit. But he was revered in the theater facility for teaching and mentoring, sharing his cleverness, and making the form he loved smarter. He was also loved by some of us outsiders. Stephen Sondheim largely wrote the soundtrack to my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “NO DAY GOES”)

JIM WALTON: (as Frank singing) Not a day goes by, not a single day …

MONDELLO: Not a day goes by without the feeling that I was living his lyrics – for a while by not getting married; when I was little I drank with it and one for Mahler; by trying to keep a good cause going; by trying never to do anything twice. Sondheim lived this last poetry. His shows were all different, each one thought-provoking in a new way, never more than when he looked deeply into the artistic process itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SONG, “MOVE ON”)

PATINKIN: (singing as George) I have nothing to say.

PETERS: (as Dot) You have a lot of things.

PATINKIN: (as George singing) Well, nothing that wasn’t said.

PETERS: (as Dot) But said about you.

MONDELLO: “Sunday In The Park With George” features a struggling artist, George Seurat, pushed by his muse to do the hardest thing when stuck, be it in life or in art, what Sondheim has always done and that, kept his art fresh for more than five decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SONG, “MOVE ON”)

PETERS: (singing as Dot) Stop worrying about where you are going. Move on. If you know where you are going, you’ve gone. Just go on.

MONDELLO: In 18 great musicals, decades of mentoring, Stephen Sondheim followed this dictation – to be, in the words of one of his lesser-known texts, the best thing that has ever happened to Broadway. He went on.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SONG, “MOVE ON”)

PETERS: (singing as Dot) You have to go on.

MONDELLO: And now we have to rest.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SONG, “MOVE ON”)

PETERS: (as a point) stop worrying when your vision is new.

MONDELLO: I’m Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SONG, “MOVE ON”)

PETERS: (as Dot, singing) Let others make that decision. They usually do. You go on Look at what you did …

PATINKIN: (singing as George) Something in the light.

PETERS: (as Dot, singing) … Then what you want …

PATINKIN: (singing as George) Something in the sky.

PETERS: (as Dot, singing) … Not where you are …

PATINKIN: (singing as George) In the grass.

PETERS: (as Dot, singing) … What you will be.

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