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3 Times Sondheim Changed My Life

February 11, 2011

Sondheim is a little like Bach. In Bach’s time, his work had a reputation for being confusing, overwritten, too complex, and ‘overly artful’ as Johann Schiebe put it. Even Bach’s kids considered his music a little old fashioned, although they acknowledged his genius. Sondheim has never been called old-fashioned, but his music and lyrics have a complexity that many people find off-putting, and he has an undeserved reputation for writing cold, un-memorable melodies. But like Bach, Sondheim is also a writer who rewards close study, a creator of pieces containing seemingly inexhaustible riches, layers upon layers of meaning that keep revealing themselves if you have the patience to keep looking. As I coach singers in Sondheim pieces, I constantly find new details, turns of phrase, rhymes, relationships between musical components, subtle shifts of texture at crucial dramatic moments, the list goes on. The experience of beginning to grapple with these elements is heady and addictive, and leaves all other American Musical Theatre panting in the dust behind it. Like Bach, Sondheim is also a force to be grappled with for other writers. Because he has absolute mastery over an extremely difficult form of writing, he has set a standard which is un-approachable. You will never be able to construct a fugue as artful and meaningful as the great fugues of Bach. Although very good fugues have been written, and even some great ones, the territory is littered with the wreckage of composers who have tried their hands at the task and failed. Bach has quite simply cleared the decks. And I believe Sondheim has done so for the musical. It is impossible to construct lyrics as tightly constructed, as rigorously thought out, as perfectly rhymed, and as effortlessly spun as he has consistently done throughout his long career. You can draw inspiration from him, but you can’t compete; if you spent the lifetime it would take to learn his craft, you would live just long enough to crank out a sorry imitation. Less praise has been heaped on his contribution to the musical end of musicals, but his influence is everywhere. Every piano part that goes chunk chunk chunk chunk in the right hand and has offbeat octaves in the bass is a poor copy of the opening of Into the Woods. And these days, that means nearly every new musical out there. His rhetorical style has also come to dominate the vocal writing in modern musicals. Every line that nervously repeats itself, ending with a long held note is a Sondheim stepchild, but none of his admirers has mastered his ability to make so much out of a cell of so few pitches, spinning an entire song out of a three or four note noodle. There are then four stages for most intelligent musical theatre writers when it comes to Sondheim: discovery, admiration, emulation, and then a new direction. The new direction comes when one discovers that the ground is fertile, but that one can’t plow there anymore. That doesn’t mean the musical is dead, any more than music ended when Bach stopped writing. It means new directions must be found. One can draw a lifetime of inspiration from Sondheim’s dogged determination to follow his rigorous standard to the furthest corners of detail, but our next great composers will play Mozart to his Bach, forging a new trail away from the colossal monument of his work.

Sondheim is also a little like Proust. There is the first daunting realization that one will have to spend a great deal of time and mental energy even beginning to come to terms with the corpus of his work. But when you find your first gem of insight in Proust, you’re hooked. For me and Proust, it was partway through Swann’s Way, when he makes an analogy about the moon and says something profoundly insightful about education. At that moment, I knew it would be worthwhile to keep digging for more. In Sondheim, there are many such moments, but the one that struck me as an adolescent was from Sunday in the Park with George, and leads me to the first time Sondheim changed my life.

The first Sondheim musical I ever got to know was Into The Woods. My experience with musicals up to that point was Hello Dolly, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, and a few other warhorses. All masterpieces to be sure, and I truly did love musicals. My parents played opposite one other in Li’l Abner in their high school, and my mother used to tell me all the time, “If you get good enough at the piano, you can play for your school musical!” She had no idea she was predicting the course of much of the rest of my life. At any rate, when I bought my first copy of Into The Woods, at the wherehouse in Redding California, I was dumbfounded by the music, the leitmotifs, the wit; it was like nothing I had ever heard before. I’m pretty sure I bought it because it came in a double CD box, but had a single CD price, and I thought I was getting a bargain. Those of you who have the CD know that it’s only one CD, the box is just big so the copious liner notes fit. Then, on a choir trip to see Les Miz in San Francisco, which I sort of enjoyed, I walked across the street from the theatre to a little drama store and bought a used copy of  the soundtrack to Sunday In The Park With George. At first, I was really confused by it, but I was determined to enjoy it, because I could tell it was intellectually rich, and even then, I was pridefully determined to have more intelligent tastes than my friends, who were all living and breathing Les Miz. And then at some point, I really began to listen to Finishing the Hat. I was a singer in our school shows, I was a horn player in the local symphony, I had started I think, to try and write a musical, I was arranging things for a little jazz vocal quartet I had started, I was playing piano for my church. I think I had a sense that I was a musician. And I also had a real sense that although I was successful at the things I was doing, I didn’t really belong with my peers; that I was operating on some other wavelength. Finishing the Hat contextualized that experience for me, and gave me a narrative. “You don’t feel like you belong, because you are on a creative quest, a quest which will sometimes lead you alone into the search for the best in your work” And that mindset was the germination of a tremendous part of who I am today. It is no exaggeration to say that these lines changed my life:

Finishing the hat,

How you have to finish the hat,

How you watch the rest of the world

From a window

While you finish the hat,

Mapping out a sky

What you feel like, planning a sky,

What you feel when voices that come through the window go

Until they distance and die

Until there’s nothing but sky,

And how you’re always turning back too late

From the grass or the stick

Or the dog or the light

How the kind of woman willing to wait’s

Not the kind that you want to find waiting

To return you to the night,

Dizzy from the height

Coming from the hat

I can take a sidebar here to say that the old complaint that Sondheim’s music is cold simply doesn’t hold water for me. He has too much to say to give people the kinds of long-voweled vocal lines they may be expecting, but there is truly nothing bloodless about Sondheim’s music. His accompaniments are full of rich chords with thick, lush voicings, they are alive with movement (interestingly the repeated accompanimental patterns begin to steal into his work just as American minimalist composers were finding the liberating power of tiny cells of notes) In Sondheim’s constructions of whirling eighth and sixteenth notes lie the heart of a romantic. At his most effusive, his characters keen with agony and rage. What makes his music distant and abstract to some is the stubborn refusal of the accompaniment to pander to the singer. The piano, which is truly the voice of all his accompaniments, is a running mood-maker and commentator, sharing musical material, but never playing along with the melody. He is more of a Verdi than a Puccini, and actually more of a Wagner or a Britten than either of them. Joseph Swain expresses this aspect of his music brilliantly in his essay on Sweeney Todd in his indispensable book The Broadway Musical. Another element of Sondheim that people find cold is the shape of his melodic lines, which rarely walk along stepwise or in gingerly moving pairs of sixths and steps like most songs people have come to think of as ‘showtunes’. His melodies are far more likely to pirouette and drop, or angularly jostle around. His music follows the dictates of character and moment. It is not often sentimental, but it is always tonal, and always exactly in step with the sense and prosody of the words, something which cannot be said for the music of his polar opposite, Andrew Lloyd Webber. (with whom he ironically shares a birthday) I will say that I don’t often listen to Sondheim for fun as I eat dinner or have friends over. But he doesn’t intend for me to.

The second time Sondheim changed my life I was in college at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, as an opera major. I had met the wonderful woman who is now my wife and the mother of my four children. I was still very cocky, but I had the growing awareness that I wasn’t going to be a success as a singer, for two reasons. Firstly, my voice wasn’t good enough for a career. There were people there who I knew had the voices to go all the way. In comparison, I knew I didn’t have what it took. Secondly, I began to see that my interest in music ran more behind the scenes. I liked to think about music and the way it functions, and I liked to edit and work on things until I couldn’t find anything else to fix. People who feel like that are not performers, they’re writers and conductors. So I decided to transfer to San Francisco and study composition. I had a realization that Sondheim represented a large part of the reason I had made that decision. So I found the address of his agent and wrote him a note. I expressed my sincerest admiration for his work, explained my change of plans to become a writer, and how he had been the inspiration for that change. 2 days later, a little note appeared in my mailbox. I have it on my wall in a frame now. It reads, on his letterhead:

October 26, 1994

Dear Peter Hilliard:
Thanks so much for the letter and the enthusiasm. They made my day.

Sincerely,

Stephen Sondheim.

The signature is yellowed and barely visible with age, but it is a treasured item for me, even though for him it was a very small thing. To a young man with brains and ambition but very little skill, such a letter is nothing short of a talisman. Around that time, I saw Passion on Broadway. It was my first Broadway show, and I saw it in standing room in the back with Allison, who shortly after we were married, appeared in the show in its west coast premiere. In California, one thinks of Broadway shows almost as mythic things, in a faraway land where the great work is first seen. But to see it in person, one realizes that the dreams are tangible, that they can be seen and perhaps attained by real people in real time and space.

And the third time he changed my life is, I suppose, now. For whatever reason, he seems to have slowed his prodigious gifts for creating theatre, and shifted his focus to telling his stories and letting us know what he really thinks, finally telling us his true thoughts about his craft and the craft of others. A student gave me his book for Christmas, and another has just lent me the CD of Sondheim on Sondheim. He also seems to be on Fresh Aire every few weeks. He tells a deeply moving story in a voiceover in Sondheim on Sondheim about Hammerstein’s profound influence on his life. I won’t give it away; go get the CD yourself and hear it in his own voice. But suddenly I’ve been thinking a lot about him, not just as an example of a writer to be admired, but as an example of someone who gives his gifts to others. And I’m realizing that if as a teacher and a father I can open someone’s eyes to the possibility of greatness; if I can pull back the curtain on some piece of music and say, “there is a world of terrific and almost inexpressible meaning here if you can learn to see it”, then there is a value that lives beyond me, and beyond even my work. Sondheim says in his book that he learned at the feet of Hammerstein, who learned at the elbow of Otto Harbach. And now, thanks to his absolutely stunning book, he is giving the same gift to whoever has the curiosity to listen to the things he has to say.

There may be a time when people no longer care about Bach. I can’t imagine that, but I suppose it’s possible. But Mozart learned much from Bach. So did Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky; it’s frankly hard to think of a composer that didn’t get something from Bach. If he and his work were somehow forgotten, his legacy would still be immeasurable. And I think the same is also true for Sondheim. All the people who learned from him will create an even greater legacy than that of his music. And for those of us who teach, the effect we have on our students and the people we make music with will far outreach the confines of our creative output.

So Thank You, Mr. Sondheim. You have given us much to think about.

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7 comments

  1. Wow, grand slam Peter! I’m definitely still in the discovery/admiration phase and I have a list of the shows I really want to start exploring. You opened the door for me, thanks.


  2. I’ve been moved to tears by your post, which I read while listening to “Finishing the Hat” on YouTube (Daniel Evans in the 2008 Tony Award Preview Concert Special). I admire and love Sondheim and his music too and I appreciated your comments about his music, but it was your analysis of how he changed your life and encouraged you that moved me the most.

    You see, I’m not a musician, I am just an aspiring academic with a phd that is almost three years old (but which took 10 years [and 2 sons] do complete) and I do “contingent work” as an adjunct professor. It is very hard to think of trying to continue to research and try to publish on my own without the backing of a real academic job.

    A few years ago I received a short email with the same kind of encouragement you received from Sondheim’s note and reading your post made me think that I should not just give up before trying a little bit harder. A few weeks before my dissertation defense (a little too late to incorporate it into my own work) I encountered the work of another academic that does the same highly unusual kind of work that I did on my dissertation and I immediately sent him an effusive email. It was a Sunday morning, but his response was swift (that same night) and moving, it started: “emails like this are what one lives for.”

    I wouldn’t say that his email changed my life, after all, life in academia has just too many complex layers that are nearly impossible to navigate, but I should not let the encouragement simply die away.

    Thank you so much for writing this!


    • Thank You, Lilian.

      I’m glad it resonated with you.

      From what I hear, academia is a lonely and discouraging place to be right now. But the value of a thing done well and the knowledge that you are contributing to something larger than yourself are powerful motivators. And the encouragement of those who have walked on the same road is an immeasurable gift.

      Thank you for reading, and for your encouraging comment!

      -Peter


      • You are very welcome! I’m glad a friend posted a link to your post on facebook. I will check your past entries too!

        Lilian


  3. Wow Peter that was a very moving entry for me as well. Having watched and admired your journey from childhood to adulthood, from someone who enjoyed and experienced lots of different types of music and had a deep passion for the craft from a very early age to becoming an accomplished musician/composer and one who can express your passions as you did in this post; I am in awe and deeply moved as well.

    To see excellence in whatever field and to reflect on it’s beauty and marvel at it’s complexity takes a combination of humility, grace, curiosity and wonderment, all of which you have. It is an honor to be your dad and to have been a small part of who you are. Thanks for this gift.

    Dad


  4. I enjoy receiving your blog posts. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom and experience. This is off-topic but I’m hoping you have some advice. I need to purchase a piano lamp for a digital piano used for musicals in a theater. The piano is completely visible to the audience, just to the side of a very low stage in a very small theater. I need a light that does not cast a wide band of light that would be distracting to the audience. Please let me know if you have any suggestions about style or brand, via email if you prefer. Thanks so much for your help.


    • Barb-

      I did a post last month about lights that might be helpful: I would say get a clip on reading lamp with an LED light in it, but it would need to plug in (batteries would run out at unfortunate times) and be sturdy enough to handle the rough use it’s likely to get. Otherwise, get the old-fashioned stand light: and gel it with a blue or red gel, which will allow you to keep it bright and still not be distracting. That ought to get you started.



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