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Stephen Sondheim: “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods

To conclude the week, I offer you one of my favorite songs about children, “Children Will Listen” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Even before I had my own little one, the message of this song always went straight to my heart. Such a beautiful way to be reminded of our power and responsibility towards the next generation, here sung by the song’s originator, Bernadette Peters.

Sondheim: Finishing the Hat

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday In the Park with George opened on Broadway in 1984 starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. Act One centers around Georges Seurat as he paints his pointillistic masterpiece, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, which was unveiled exactly one-hundred years before the musical premiered. Sondheim and Lapine create narratives for the people featured in the painting and they become the characters in the musical drama. Some characters are merely acquaintances of Seurat as he sketches in the park on Sundays, while others have personal ties to the artist. Sondheim and Lapine speculate that the most prominently featured woman in the painting is actually a lover of Seurat’s. The character of Dot (Bernadette Peter) is muse, mistress and heartbreak to Georges (Mandy Patinkin). She is deeply in love with him and his work (“Your eyes, Georges, I love your eyes. I love your beard. I love your size. But most, Georges, of all I love your painting.”) However, since she is ultimately unable to penetrate his passion for painting and become Georges’ first priority, Dot leaves for America with a baker she met on a whim.

Dot is the love of Georges’ life, but he can’t express that to her. (“I care for this painting. You will be in this painting. […] Why do you insist you must hear the words when you know I cannot give you words? Not the ones you need.”) Maybe slightly immature when it comes to personal relationships, Georges struggles with what so many artistic types can relate to: finding a balance between his personal life and creating art.

Right before this scene, Georges has been hiding behind the trees while Dot explains how Louis the Baker, while not the most ideal partner, fulfills her in all the ways Georges never could. In this Tony Award-nominated performance by Mandy Patinkin, we watch George going back and forth between the world of his art and his need to be with Dot. For the first two-thirds of the song we see how much Georges enjoys “mapping out the sky” and “reaching through the world of the hat,” but he finally acknowledges that he will never have a woman like Dot in his life again.

“And when the woman that you wanted goes, you can say to yourself, ‘Well, I give what I give.’ But the woman who won’t wait for you knows that, however you live, there’s a part of you always standing by, mapping out the sky, Finishing a Hat…”

Mandy Patinkin performs “Finishing the Hat” from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In the Park with George:

Sondheim: Epiphany from Sweeney Todd

I’m a huge Sondheim fan. When I was 12, my father took me to a preview on Broadway of Sweeney Todd starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. He told me this was a new musical by Sondheim and that it was a masterpiece—Sondheim’s best yet. (I already loved Company and A Little Night Music, thanks to records around the house and a dinner theatre my parents took us to). He prepared me by sitting me down and reading through the entire libretto while listening to the music (he had gotten ahold of cassettes of the music). We laughed together at the endless puns in “A Little Priest.” But then we saw it live on Broadway. It was utterly terrifying, shocking, funny, dark, beautiful and moving. To this day, any chance I get to see Sweeney—any Sweeney—I’m happy. Though to hear it with a full symphony orchestra is best of all. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration is so brilliant and huge, and the subject so dark and chilling, that the term “musical” somehow seems too small for what it is. Opera is more like it.

It always seemed a tragedy that no good videos of the original 1979 Sweeney were available. However I just noticed that someone finally published one on YouTube.

I realize a lot of people prefer George Hearn as Sweeney, but Len Cariou, who originated the role, will forever be my favorite. He didn’t overact, he had a unique gravity, he could be quite funny, and his inner rage was palpable.

Here is Cariou singing “Epiphany,” which is when Sweeney vows vengeance on the human race. I think it’s the most intense part of the musical. He even turns on the audience—nothing will stand in his way! A barrage of timpani and brass add to the madness. It ends on a dissonant chord that reminds me of Shostakovich.

Sondheim: Buddy’s Blues

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)

For me, “Follies” is the greatest of all modern musicals. But it’s almost impossible to get it just right in production. James Goldman’s book is difficult—brilliant but somewhat flawed—so it needs a subtle, clever director. The cast is large, and everyone, from supporting players to leads, has to have depth and a fierce kind of pizzazz—there are just too many moving parts (as it were). The scenic elements are crucial, and so is the lighting which creates the double time-frame of the action. But the score is brilliant; the lyrics show Sondheim at his absolute finest; the mix of real-time scenes and out-of-time scenes gives the work an almost Proustian quality, especially in the second half. Even in a half-decent performance the story gathers a cumulative weight that is devastating. Perhaps I react so strongly to “Follies” because I first saw it with my very first boyfriend when I was the age of the ghosts (19 years old). Now I am the age of the married couples (or even a bit older), and most recently saw it with my husband. When I was younger I perceived but didn’t feel the theme of the passage of time, the way even our good choices can eventually become prisons. Now I blubber like a baby throughout the show.

The recent Broadway revival had its problems, but it did boast one breathtaking performance: Danny Burstein as Buddy, a role that is almost always under-cast. Danny found depths in this rather shallow character—reservoirs of anger and hurt under the façade of a schlemazl. Here’s his second-act showstopper, “Buddy’s Blues,” in which he turns his failed marriage and his unsatisfying adulterous affair into a brilliant vaudeville routine. (Danny’s on Broadway now as Tevye in “Fiddler.” Can’t wait.)

BUDDY’S BLUES (Danny Burstein):

For another view of Buddy, here’s Mandy Patinkin in a famous performance from the late 1980s at Lincoln Center:

Song of the Day: September 23

from librettist Mark Campbell:

Being Alive
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

I had to include a Sondheim song this week. Had to. “Being Alive” is not necessarily my favorite song from the Sondheim canon—but I have to admit that in my long and varied romantic life, I’ve often asked the same questions about love that Robert asks in this song. (Now that I am married to my sweet husband Steve, these questions are still asked, but perhaps less emphatically.) The song is also fresh on my mind because of the recent death of Dean Jones, who played the original Robert on Broadway. Of course, much is made of the ingenuous twist in the lyric from a description (“Someone to hold me too close”) to a plea/command (“Somebody hold me too close”), but I think the power in this song is also in the tough verbs: “crowd,” “ruin,” “hurt,” “force.” And of course the final twist, “to help us survive/being alive.” This album was the first show album that I bought myself—and was my first experience with Sondheim’s music. I soon began to listen to Company religiously—over and over, as I would pretty much all of the musicals with music and lyrica by Sondheim. Funnily enough, I bought it as a birthday gift for my mother who had seen Elaine Stritch on TV and felt that she had found a kindred spirit in her.

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