Friday, March 05, 2010

A Little Evening Conversation...With A Musical Genius

An Evening With Stephen Sondheim
Harris Theatre, Chicago
March 4, 2010

The thought of paying money simply to watch a conversation may seem strange, but not only is Stephen Sondheim one of my foremost creative heroes, even within days of his 80th birthday (on 3/22), he is a wonderful conversationalist and raconteur.

While some great artists aren't nearly as great in explaining their work as they are in creating or performing it--my favorite parts of Scorsese's excellent Dylan biopic, No Direction Home, are when Bob is singing, not speaking--Sondheim was warm, articulate and fascinating throughout the 90-minute conversation.

Prompted, but never really pushed, by interviewer Gary Griffin (an excellent Chicago-based Broadway director), Sondheim relayed stories about his teenage tutelage under family-friend Oscar Hammerstein, how he came to write only the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy (rather than the music, too, as he did for all his subsequent shows), his interactions with headstrong stars like Ethel Merman and Zero Mostel, the creative genesis of Company, his affinity for the movie version of Sweeney Todd and much more.

Sure, maybe he told some stories that were well-known to many Sondheimites in attendance, and could've delved a little more into his creative process, but beyond the joy I find in seeing & hearing Sondheim's works, I really enjoy just listening to him. I've had the chance at Ravinia in years past, but this was a bit longer and more in depth, and certainly made for an enjoyably enriching evening.

I won't go into a whole Sondheim dissertation here, but suffice it to say, he is my favorite Broadway composer, although no single show of his is among my 5 favorite musicals. But there is a depth and brilliance to his music, and especially his lyrics, that goes far beyond the greater surface-likability of Andrew Lloyd Webber and basically everyone else.

Although Sondheim certainly appeals to those who openly "love musicals," albeit often those willing to explore a bit deeper, I imagine that more than many other artists in the realm, his works can also appeal to those who "hate musicals." For I believe that with his wit, wordplay and lack of overt pomp, the ultimate Broadway composer is actually far less "typical" of Broadway than many might perceive.

These are just a few favorite pieces of mine from throughout his incomparable career:

"Maria" from West Side Story. Sondheim only wrote the lyrics for this show--Leonard Bernstein wrote the music--as well as Gypsy, but they are some of the best show lyrics ever written.

"Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This was the first Broadway-produced show for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics.

"When" from Evening Primrose. Sorry, no video, just audio. From a 2004 recording of a musical Sondheim originally wrote for television in 1966.

"Sunday" from Sunday in the Park with George. The best choral piece I've ever heard from a Broadway musical.

"A Little Priest" from Sweeney Todd. A devilishly funny number, done here by two of my favorites (LuPone/Hearn), likely at Ravinia.

"A Weekend in the Country" from A Little Night Music.

"Losing My Mind" from Follies. Done here by the Pet Shop Boys and Liza Minelli. The opening couplet is just amazing in its economy of language. "I get up, I think of you/The coffee cup, I think about you"

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