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Stephen Sondheim: What More Do I Need?

For the past three years I have lived in a ground floor, one bedroom apartment in the Hamilton Heights area of New York City. I actually found the apartment listing on Craigslist in my attempts to find something being rented directly by owner instead of through a broker. Normally I am skeptical of Craigslist ads (come to our performance on March 15 at Caramoor or on March 17 in Merkin Hall and you’ll actually hear me sing a piece by Gabriel Kahane on direct text from one of those Craigslist ads that has made its reputation), but this particular apartment seemed legitimate and turned out to be a real find. If I had one complaint, it’s that the apartment doesn’t bring in much sunlight and with a day job that requires me to work from home—I have to be extra careful to make time to venture out of my “cave” to breathe in some fresh New York air. 

Lucky for me, yesterday proved to be a day where I was able to spend a lot of time outside. And what a glorious day it was; the streets were packed with New Yorkers that had left their heavy winter coats at home, basking in the spring like sweater weather. 

Today’s song of the day reflects a day in New York where despite all of those things that make New York frustrating—subway delays, loud noises, smell of raw sewage—nothing can get you down. Yesterday’s oasis was a small glimpse that spring is around the corner, but in the case of Stephen Sondheim’s fabulous song, “What more do I need” from a lesser known musical Saturday Night, the motivating pleasure is being soon reunited with a lover. 

I first worked on this song my sophomore year of Juilliard with Steve. My memory is blurry on whether or not he was the first person to introduce me to it or whether it was Juilliard movement coach Jeanne Slater, but it stands out in my mind as a deeply special part of my Blier education. Why? The rhymes, oh, the rhymes! I have long battled against a tendency to over think a song—to do more with it than is needed. Often this results in my pushing air out instead of drinking it in—trusting the text to do the work rather than forcing it. This is exactly what happened when I first sang this song in my Steve coaching. “Thomas—you’re not landing the rhymes, and they really make this song. Sleet… and street. Gay… and grey.” I tried again—overdoing it this time of course. I had recently just completed a monthly course outside of Juilliard on musical theater singing with Broadway pro’s Lindsay Mendez and Ryan Scott Oliver. Steve was really the only person I had shared this information with (taking musical theater classes outside of school felt somewhat taboo at that time) but he reminded me of what I told him about Lindsay and RSO’s teaching. “Remember that they wanted you to speak more in your singing—less vibration, more text? Try it like that this time, just as an exercise. Speak-sing it once so you get the feel of what you’re saying.” I tried it again—this time, much closer.

I worked on the song with Steve many more times after that first coaching. It eventually became a go to party number and it still holds a special place in my heart today. In typical Sondheim fashion, the rhymes are brilliant – hit perfectly, and the song will really make an audience roar. And if you’re a New Yorker and haven’t heard this song—well, today, you’re in for treat.

Here is one of my favorite version’s: Liz Callaway in the 1994 Concert Cast Recording of A Stephen Sondheim Evening at the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

Stephen Sondheim: Send in the Clowns

After discovering American popular music later in my childhood, my mind was also blown at the discovery of musical theater, which was sort of like the opera I had grown up with in Germany, but just so deliciously American.  As a twelve-year-old, having lost my German accent and gained an American musical sensibility, I enrolled in a musical theater class in Columbus, OH, where my mother and I were living at the time.  My earliest MT addictions were Bernstein and Sondheim, and my West Side Story and Sweeney Todd recordings were worn down to nubs.  One of Sondheim’s most famous songs, “Send in the Clowns” from LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC puzzled me for years — so much so that I passed it off long ago as one of those over-done MT numbers.  It was not until I heard the following rendition by the tremendous actress Dame Judy Dench three years ago, that I suddenly heard the song anew with the understanding of life experience.  Tears sprang to my eyes immediately then, as they still do today, upon hearing her rendition.

Repost from July 14, 2015

Sondheim: Marry me a little

Okay, so I may be on a bit of a Sondheim/Company kick. But this is one of my favorite shows! Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m inching towards 30 this year that I’m starting to get much more of what Mr. Sondheim was trying to get across. Either way, this is one of my favorite pieces of the whole evening. Amy says to Bobby in the dialogue prior “You have to want to marry somebody! Not just some body.” I love how a simple space between two words can make a world of difference. Regardless, this number hits home for me. Maybe it’s that Bobby hasn’t figured it all out just yet, but he’s okay with that. It’s a bit how I feel about life and love. We may never figure it out completely, but at least we’re trying to? “Want me first and foremost…Keep me company” might be my favorite line. Raul Esparza also infused this role with so many underlying emotions, it’s hard to watch and not feel for him.

Sondheim: Side by Side

I love this number from Company by Maestro Sondheim. The revival cast now features some gender switches and I’m hoping I can catch it in NY. It’s everything you want in a broadway show, plus a little bit of (okay a lot of) subtext. But it’s a good old broadway romp and I love every minute of it.

Stephen Sondheim: Could I Leave You?

This is absolutely my favorite musical theater lyric of all time.  Every rhyme, every word, each consonant and vowel is full of action and rich with subtext. The song shifts between 3/4 time, with understated and seemingly solicitous lyrics, and 6/8 time, at which point the emotions of the lyric are more articulate and fiery. The words have a lacerating effect as the character Phyllis makes a bold statement about her independence.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched this brilliantly savage performance by Donna Murphy. In addition to a stunning interpretation, you have Patti LuPone reacting in the background. Can’t get much better than that.

“Could I Leave You?” from Follies

Stephen Sondheim: Send in the Clowns

One magic trick performed by great musical theater lyricists I find particularly impressive is when a repeating lyrical hook, often found in the title, evolves throughout a song and takes on new meanings. Rather than just the usual redundant repetition, the same phrase progresses based off the goings-on of the verse, and it continues to shed light on a situation. I am always awestruck when a musical theater writer reaches this level of lyrical complexity. Usually an actor is left to come up with his or her own intention for each repeated lyric; in this case, the lyricist has made his intents obvious and draws a clear arch for the actor.

“Send in the Clowns” from Act Two of A Little Night Music is a perfect example. In this song, Desirée looks back at an affair she had many years prior with the lawyer Fredrik. He had asked for her hand in marriage all those years ago, but she rejected him. She has finally returned to tell Fredrik she is ready for the commitment, but he informs her he is now dedicated to a new, younger bride.

Desiree is an actress, so Sondheim uses theatrical vocabulary and imagery throughout the song. “Send in the Clowns” starts as a show business reference, which is to say, “This show isn’t going well, so let’s start giving them our best jokes!” As Desiree rummages through her life’s disappointments in this ballad, she realizes what fools she and Fredrik both are. The lyric “send in the clowns” takes on an entirely new meaning at this point- these two tired old people with a long list of regrets are the clowns.


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.

Stephen Sondheim: The Girls of Summer

To continue with our celebration of summer, here is a Sondheim gem sung by Dawn Upshaw, warning us about the dangers of “The Girls of Summer.”

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

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).


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