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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

Hoagy Carmichael & Johnny Mercer: Skylark

I know of two perfect songs: Fauré’s “En sourdine,” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark.” Paul Verlaine was the poet for the first of them, and Johnny Mercer the lyricist for the second. Please don’t ask me to explain what makes them perfect, or even why I think they might be better than other wonderful songs. After all, there is plenty of “great” music I don’t enjoy, and even more non-great music that lifts my heart. Greatness and perfection aren’t really in my lexicon, except when it comes to “En sourdine” and “Skylark.” It’s something I feel in my hands and in my soul when I play them.

The Hoagy Carmichael tune is on the menu for this week’s FSH concert, so my hands have been all over it for the past days. The magic of “Skylark” lies partially in the harmonic progression—rather static for the main tune, and then gorgeously mobile in the bridge, with a magical lift at the words “Sad as a gypsy serenading the moon.” But even though the chords on the sheet music center lazily around the home-base key, Carmichael’s melody gives the pianist multicolored possibilities for substitute chords. I can sit at the piano staring at a pile of music I need to learn, and spend 30 precious minutes reharmonizing the A-section of “Skylark.” Yesterday I found that a spot where I have always played the printed chord could actually take a quick detour to a new tonality and still get back in time for the Ab7 on the fourth beat. A triumph.

As for Johnny Mercer’s lyric, it remains a wonder. The source of his inspiration? His longing for Judy Garland, with whom he had a turbulent affair. He was in his early thirties and married, and she was in her late teens. “Skylark” expresses his desire for this charismatic girl, just as “One For My Baby” is the epitaph for their love.

Carmichael wrote the original tune as a tribute to his friend Bix Beiderbecke, the great jazz cornetist who died at the age of 28. Hoagy’s melody tries to recapture the sinuous cadences of Bix’s improvisations. He passed the melody on to Mercer—and promptly forgot all about it, until the writer came to him seven months later. “Here it is. It’s called ‘Skylark.’”

I revere this song—and am so happy I’ll get to play it again with Dimitri Katotakis this week at the San Francisco FSH gala.


Stephen Sondheim: Talent

Art, like medical research, thrives on creative, talented people. But it also thrives on open-hearted patrons, some of whom can be as visionary (in their own way) as their beneficiaries. For this week’s FSH Dystrophy fundraiser, I grabbed a recent song by Stephen Sondheim, “Talent.” It comes from a musical that has has gotten as far as off-Broadway, but has not yet been seen on Broadway—even after four incarnations and four titles: “Bounce,” “Wise Guys,” Gold!,” and “Road Show.” Somehow Sondheim’s score has had trouble finding the perfect book and production concept. I hope the show does find make it to the Great White Way. In tandem with Pacific Overtures and Assassins, Road Show would make for a fascinating trilogy about America: its ambition, its imperialism, its underbelly of violence.

In the play’s first act we meet a young man named Addison Mizner, an architect traveling down to Palm Beach. There he plans to build houses for the new influx of wealthy settlers eager to soak up the sun. On his train journey he meets a fellow traveler named Hollis Bessemer, the son of a rich industrialist. The two guys are instantly attracted to one another, and it’s clear they are soon to become lovers. Hollis also has a mission: he wants to create an artists’ colony in Palm Beach. Though his father has cut him off, he has an aunt in Florida who he believes will help him. Hollis has dabbled in writing, painting, and composing, but he has realized that he doesn’t have the goods to triumph in any of these endeavors. Instead of becoming a second-rate artist he decides to be a first-rate arts-funder, as he explains in “Talent.” Theo Hoffman first introduced me to this song and we’ve performed it several times. But recently Dimitri Katotakis has also laid claim to it—two very persuasive viewpoints on an extraordinary piece of music.

I am deeply grateful to the generous souls who keep NYFOS alive, and to those who finance the crucial research on FSH Dystrophy. “Talent” is offered in tribute to all of you, though I should warn you that the last line of the song contains a strongly phrased rebuke to people like Hollis’ father (who just don’t get it).


Elena Walsh: Como la cigarra

I write from my perch in Long Island, but when this hits the web this I shall be in San Francisco doing double duty: teaching at San Francisco Opera’s Merola program, and preparing a concert for a Saturday-night fundraiser. For the last few years I’ve been offering a 45-minute show at a San Francisco benefit for FSH Dystrophy research. Being an FSH-er myself, these concerts are very meaningful to me. I’m playing for keeps.

I have had great colleagues in my last three SF outings: Frederica von Stade, María Valdés, Efráin Solís, Julia Bullock, Theo Hoffman. This year I am blessed once again: Amanda Lynn Bottoms and Dimitri Katotakis will be the vocalists. It took about 30 emails to make the program, which has to fill two somewhat contradictory functions: to entertain the audience while somehow amplifying the theme of the evening. For me, that theme is liberation, longing, and transcendence. The cure for FSH Dystrophy is on the way, the scientists tell me. In the meantime, I have to keep my life moving forward through all the obstacles.

One of the songs I grabbed is a piece Amanda and I did in NYFOS’s PROTEST program this past spring: “Como la cigarra,” by Elena Walsh. Walsh (1930-2011) was an Argentinean writer who lived a wildly courageous life as a poet, composer, and activist. She became famous for writing a series of classic children’s books. But her success in that genre belied the turbulence of her personal life: she lived openly as a lesbian, defying a deeply homophobic, antifeminist government. “Como la cigarra” [1972], her best-known song, is her credo of survival and transcendence. It is my credo too: at the darkest hour, how many times have I been rescued by someone’s singing!

Here is Merecedes Sosa’s rendition of the song. Below, a translation of the lyric.

So many times they killed me,
So many times I died,
Yet I am here
Rising to life once more
I give thanks to the tragedy
And to the hand holding a knife
Because it killed me so badly
And I went on singing

Singing to the sun like the cicada
After a year underground
The same as a survivor
Who returns from war.

So many times they obliterated me
So many times I disappeared
I was at my own burial
Alone and weeping.
I made a knot in my handkerchief
But I forgot afterwards
That it was not the only time
And I came back singing

So many times they killed you,
So many times you will rise to life again
So many nights you will spend
Driven to despair
At the hour of the shipwreck
And of darkness
Someone will rescue you
As they pass by singing.

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