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Stephen Sondheim/Barbara Cook: Losing My Mind

From Jon Nakagawa, Lincoln Center’s Director of Contemporary Programs (American Songbook, White Light Festival, Mostly Mozart Festival)

I, of course, love Sondheim and this is one of his iconic songs. However, Sondheim (or for that matter any composer, but especially Sondheim) is only as good as the person singing the song and Barbara Cook was the best. I first heard her perform this song at the Café Carlyle and, while I’d seen Follies and heard the song before, I’d never really heard it until then. The song sprung to life right before me.

Cook and Sondheim tell the story of someone losing their mind, but not to something nefarious, to love. Her interpretation of this song brings out all its nuances both lyrically and melodically, which is incredibly difficult. It’s walking that edge between being a crazy, loony showstopper of a song and the humanity, ecstasy, and pathos of being in love. Barbara Cook excels at this as do Sutton Foster and Audra McDonald, who are now charged with carrying on Barbara’s spirit—wonderful actresses and superlative musicians who can really understand all the different layers of Sondheim’s music, lyrics, and characters.

Leonard Bernstein: Glitter and Be Gay

NYFOS begins its fall season tomorrow with an evening devoted to the music of Leonard Bernstein, who worked with Steve Blier and Michael Barrett in founding their inimitable art song enterprise. One of the many perks of being a NYFOS board member is being invited to pick a week’s worth of Songs of the Day. This week I’m going with the Bernstein theme, choosing selections that have a personal meaning for me and also reflecting on some things we love that Bernstein and NYFOS have in common.

Bernstein is nearly unique in taking on iconic themes of classical culture and relating them in rollicking style to the preoccupations of popular culture. Like NYFOS, he does this in a wide-angle multicultural format that engages with cultural specificities both high and low, global and New York, ancient and contemporary, finding a common human core amid a kaleidoscopic diversity.

I teach Columbia undergraduates, including some accomplished vocal music enthusiasts who I hope will appreciate the Bernstein-themed concerts in this centenary year. I confess to having had some trepidation whether Bernstein would continue to be “relatable” to this millennial demographic. Even in my own younger days I remember seeing him as a leonine, somewhat forbidding, larger-than-life, world-historical figure, the last of a dying breed. But this fear turned out to be misplaced. Michael Gildin, a young leading light in Columbia a cappella circles, reports that Bernstein remains a favorite in his circle for precisely this reason:  “Bernstein is a towering, almost mythic figure—one who represents the highest ideals to which a musician can aspire. Yet there is a visceral, welcoming humanity in Bernstein’s music that cuts through the legend and gives his work a permanent immediacy and relevance to any audience.”

Today’s shamelessly pandering selection is the universally beloved Barbara Cook singing the wonderful “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide, a song so difficult that she was sure she would be utterly incapable of singing it. This video clip includes part of an interview where she describes the horrors of initial rehearsals. NYFOS fans, who are accustomed to Schubert and the Beatles deployed in tandem, also love her more down-to-earth side, too: Marian the Librarian in The Music Man (personal digression: a role my daughter Claire inhabited memorably in a Teaneck High School musical).

In Candide, as in tomorrow’s Song of the Day from Oedipus Rex, Bernstein tackles a foundational and enduring cultural theme of our civilization. In Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide, the Enlightenment rationalist Dr. Pangloss insists that we live in the best of all possible worlds, which he proves by pointing to the beneficial side effects of the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon. Given my day job as a social science professor, I can’t help but think how timely this is as a satire of what’s called the rational markets theory, which explains how omniscient, far-sighted investors operating in a perfectly competitive market always allocate capital to its most efficient use, and therefore should not be regulated by meddlesome bureaucrats—a Panglossian theory whose influence explains why your stock portfolio tanked in 2008. The good news is that the new theory on the rise is “behavioral economics,” which acknowledges the need to take into account what they call “animal spirits” and other all-too-human fallibilities. Human weaknesses are on flamboyant display in this Voltaire/Bernstein classic. Cunegonde, wherever you are, don’t forget to tweet “#MeToo.”

Stephen Sondheim: Too Many Mornings

When I was planning the FSH gala with Amanda Bottoms and Dimitri Katotakis, they both mentioned that they’d recently sung “Too Many Mornings” from Sondheim’s Follies. For some reason, I initially resisted. Too hackneyed? off-topic? I don’t know. About two weeks later I woke up and changed my mind. I am glad I did.

When some people retire, or win the lottery, they run around the world seeing productions of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Were I in that situation, forget the Ring. I’d see every production of Follies I could. It is a fascinating work, elusive, difficult to get right, filled with great songs and complex characters. I admit I am slightly obsessed with it. It is the only musical that replicates Proust’s strange, amorphous sense of time in Remembrance of Things Past. In both works you can’t really tell when any of the scenes take place, or how long they last in real time. Follies starts and ends in a conventional theatrical realism as a group of vaudeville-revue performers gather for a final reunion in their old theater which is destined for demolition. But as it progresses it enters the world of dreams: intense, symbolic, haunted. Real time ceases to exit. Emotional time takes over.

The characters of Follies are shadowed onstage by their ghosts, who are lit differently and dressed in black and white. They enact the dramas that continue to drive the the protagonists of the show, a pair of married couples. These ghosts haven driven them in bad directions—to despair, to fantasy, to infidelity, to emotional numbness. In “Too Many Mornings,” Ben (now a successful businessman) and Sally (now a needy, lonely housewife) seem to rekindle the romance they had when they were young. They are both in unhappy marriages—Ben chose the cooler, more worldly Phyllis as his trophy-wife, and Sally settled for Buddy, a traveling salesman. But for the space of this duet, their old ardor returns. Sally seems to remind Ben of the idealistic, hopeful man he once was. And Ben has been Sally’s dream ever since he dropped her to marry her best friend.

Sondheim’s music tells two stories. It surges like Puccini—a rare burst of full-throated, red-blooded romanticism for this usually acerbic composer. But in the interludes and chord progressions we hear hints of confusion and disassociation, the outer edges of madness. In about ninety minutes Ben will have a complete nervous breakdown, leading to the final reconciliations. In “Two Many Mornings,” Sondheim lets you feel the germ of his collapse.

And the staging completes the underlying story—at any rate, the staging I remember from one particularly moving production. During the course of the duet, Sally’s ghost entered and stood between the present-day Sally and Ben. We realized that his passion wasn’t for the love-sick, middle-aged woman whom he held in his arms. It was for his memory of her as a very young woman—and his memory of himself before he sold his soul to Mammon. Over the violin solo in the postlude, Young Sally slipped away. As Ben confronted the real Sally, his desire for her evaporated. All of this eluded sweet, delusional Sally, still convinced she would finally be reunited with the love of her life.

George Hearn and Barbara Cook

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