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CD Review

Stephen Sondheim

The Frogs & Evening Primrose

  • Nathan Lane (Dionysos)
  • Brian Stokes-Mitchell (Xanthias, Pluto)
  • Davis Gaines (Shakespeare)
  • Neil Patrick Harris (Charles Snell)
  • Theresa McCarthy (Ella Harkins)
The American Theatre Orchestra/Paul Gemignani
Nonesuch 79638-2 46:41
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Bringing Sondheim to light.

Stephen Sondheim almost single-handedly allows musically and dramatically savvy listeners to still take the Broadway musical seriously. Against the odds, he's actually enjoyed a couple of hits and even standard songs. But a good many, if not most, of his shows flop, for reasons I can't comprehend, when I consider quality alone. On the other hand, I never was a fan of the score to the early A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (though I loved the book and the performances), caring only for the one song that has its own life, "Comedy Tonight." The rest of the numbers seem pretty bland to me, though no worse than a dozen other hit shows of the period (since about 1959, it's been rather lean times for the musical).

The "modern" American musical has always yo-yoed between two strains. It began as operetta, with people like Victor Herbert and John Philip Sousa. With this, however, we also find musicals based on popular, mainly jazz-derived songs, with such composers as Cohan, Kern, and Berlin. From the Teens through about 1950, the latter type has exercised the greater influence. But even as late as the Thirties, one still gets the former, with the same composer sometimes providing both. For example, we have – besides Romberg and Friml – Gershwin's Pardon My English, Kern's I Dream Too Much (for Hollywood), and the fascinating hybrids Show Boat and Porgy and Bess. The last, though not a musical, ran on Broadway, and many of its songs wouldn't have sounded out of place in a musical. As the classic American song – the kind based on the black music we lump under "jazz" – declined and began to be pushed back for the bland, syrupy pop of the Fifties, classic R & B, and rock from schlock to heavy metal, the American musical has suffered. I can't think of any songwriter after the golden generation, other than Burt Bacharach (Promises, Promises), with the same ability to work both Broadway and mainstream pop. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Michel Schoenberg, of course, have both achieved phenomenal commercial, if not artistic success. However, not even their staunchest supporters claim the same penetration for their songs as for, say, "Someone to Watch Over Me," and I strongly suspect that their work will have the same staying power as "Maytime," which they rather resemble in their sentimentality.

Perhaps Sondheim will suffer the same fate, although I hope not. A genuinely musical sophistication and poetic sensibility separate Sondheim from the pack. He writes his own lyrics as well as the tunes. He's a virtuoso "puzzle" lyricist, perhaps our greatest. He seems actually to enjoy putting up high fences in his path, for the sheer pleasure of leaping over them. The lyrics of "Into the Woods" are so complicated – a Rubik's Cube of verses – I have no idea how actors learn them. Cole Porter, in comparison, seems an amiable duffer. But Sondheim's technical prowess impresses less than his ability to make even simple schemes and diction dance and shine and to deal with an emotional range far more complicated than the current resources of most pop. For one thing, there's not only irony (something we haven't really gotten since Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter died), but a masterful avoidance of irony, in the service of drama and characterization. The opening to "I Remember" from Evening Primprose, for example, runs:

I remember sky,
It was blue as ink.
Or at least I think
I remember sky.

I remember snow,
Soft as feathers,
Sharp as thumbtacks,
Coming down like lint,
And it made you squint
When the wind would blow.

The similes are strange. One doesn't often run into a sky blue as ink or snow sharp as thumbtacks. The images could very well be dry-goods inventory. Why the oddity? The song comes from a young woman who hasn't been outside since she was six. She has spent all her life since in a department store. So the oddity and uncertainty ("or at least I think I remember sky"), illustrate something appropriate about the character and her circumstance.

Second, Sondheim's lyrics quiver with ambiguity. In Sweeney Todd, the song "Johanna" functions as a love aria sung by the young man, the would-be savior of the heroine. But it's a pretty dark song. The words reveal an obsessive, vampirish stalker. The rest of the play is so sinister, this comes across as the best hope. Several Republican administrations have proclaimed the death of irony, and they may well be right, even as they serve up frightening examples of it. A brilliant woman, on being asked why she disliked classic American songs, remarked, "I don't like songs about women who are always getting out of taxicabs." As a culture, we currently seem to find platitudes comforting and resent complication. We think of complexity as unnecessary and are ever looking for Gordian knots to cut, even though we may slice through something vital. The heart tends to win over the intellect. In essence, we've lost intellectual patience. Unfortunately, we often gain simple certainty at the expense of a true picture – calling, in effect, a stick figure the Mona Lisa. In such an environment, Sondheim doesn't stand much of a chance.

As I said, the Funny Thing score allowed me to ignore Sondheim for a good long while. I missed Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music at the time they came out. Sure, they got awards, but critics were also raving over junk. Judy Collins's rendition of "Send in the Clowns" dripped in Lloyd Webber treacle. So I clocked back in with Sondheim in 1976's Pacific Overtures, more out of curiosity than anything else. It blew me away. I've been a Sondheim fanatic ever since.

Sondheim wrote The Frogs in the early Seventies with Forum collaborator Bert Shevelove for a production at Yale, based on the Aristophanes play. Thirty years later, in 2004, it finally reached Broadway in an expanded version by Sondheim (new songs, revised old ones) and Nathan Lane (new book). The CD presents the shorter, original score – a cast album from 2000. Mainly Aristophanes's basic idea – the "battle" between the classic poet and the modern one – survives. Aristophanes pitted Aeschylus against Euripides. Shevelove set Shakespeare against Shaw. Actually, Shaw did this himself in his late puppet play Shakes vs. Shav (modestly, Shaw makes this a sort-of draw, with the edge tipping slightly to Guess Who). Besides the unusual subject (who else would think Aristophanes suitable for a musical?), notice that Sondheim writes far more music than, strictly speaking, he needs to and that the score contains very few songs: really, only one, a setting of Shakespeare's "Fear no more" from Cymbeline. Sondheim tends to provide musical scenes, some of them of great musical sophistication – the "Parados" (with the celebrated chorus of the frogs) and the very beautiful "Hymnos," for example. In both of these numbers, Sondheim lays out three or four independent planes of musical activity, presenting them first sequentially and then simultaneously. The "Parados" consists of, for example, the "brek-kek-kek-kek" strain, a verse, a "big tune," and (just for fun) the "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" round as well as Gershwin's "Who Cares?" The harmonies belong more to modern concert music than to pop. "Hymnos" takes a tripartite song structure (one part leans heavily on the augmented fourth) and then combines each part – head of one to tail of another, tail of one to torso of another, all full-blown together, and so on. Again, the harmonies owe very little to jazz or to pop.

Evening Primrose Sondheim wrote for television, with Follies collaborator James Goldman. The only other musical I know written for TV is Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. TV apparently aspired to tonier levels then (Fear Factor! The Musical!). The plot could have come from an old Twilight Zone episode. Charles, a poet, decides to hide out in a department store to avoid things like rent and bills. Apparently, other people have had the same idea. They come out after closing hours, "dummying up" when the security guard passes by on his rounds. They also tell him that he can never leave, since that risks jeopardizing the setup for them all. Transgressors are turned into mannequins, with the help of dark forces in New York's mortuaries. Charles meets Ella, a young woman who got lost "in ladies' hats" at the age of six and who labors as a maid of all work for the rest. They fall in love. Ella wants to leave, and Charles agrees to leave with her. They get caught, and the next day, customers see a new mannequin display of a bride and groom.

Against the odds, I actually saw the 1962 production. I wish I could say I recognized its worth immediately, but it left my conscious memory quicker than the head on a glass of beer. This CD brought it back. The show has only four musical numbers, but what great numbers: a typical Sondheim monologue for Charles, which hammers through a lot of plot points; Ella's ballad "I Remember Sky"; a sort-of love duet between Charles and Ella, an interior dialogue under the cover of a bridge game in which Charles is the fourth and Ella serves tea and sandwiches; and a final duet, as Charles agrees to flee with Ella. There's not a "standard" song in the bunch, not even the ballad, and every number serves the drama. One can see why no professional company has staged it – its brevity works against this – but schools and enterprising amateurs would do well to take it up.

This is one fine album. Tommy Krasker may be the finest producer of show albums now working. None of his discs has disappointed me, and I greet each new one like a kid at Christmas. Nathan Lane as Dionysus is astonishingly brilliant. He acts so well with his voice – his comedy readings stray so far from the expected – you can almost see his pained smile as you laugh your head off. Indeed, he reminds me of what I've read of the great English clown, Joseph Grimaldi ("Joey Grim-all-day"). Neil Patrick Harris as Charles brings depth to his character, though more through his spoken bits than through his singing. Lane, of course, can act talking and singing. Still Harris gives you more than you expect from the "boy" part. The production – from the orchestrations, to the players and singers, and to the sound engineering – everything says first-class.

Copyright © 2005, Steve Schwartz