Behind the Music with Louis Rosen: Stephen Sondheim, American Modernist II       

Louis Rosen, Stephen Sondheim

 

by: Alix Cohen

 

Broadway Experiments, Company and Follies

 

“Let’s begin once again by listening to a demonstration recording that Stephen Sondheim made of a song from 1964’s Anyone Can Whistle, the title song of a musical he made with longtime collaborator Arthur Laurents.” Louis Rosen launches his second Sondheim class with as much energy as we admired during the first. We listen.

“The musical was largely about nonconformity. Laurents and he had already written 2 musicals together. This one gave him the opportunity to stretch-to be tender and write musical scenes. But it was also a mess and closed after 9 performances. His first real failure.”

The song, however, is deft and moving, purportedly one of its author’s favorites.

There followed 7 years “in the wilderness…Most people don’t know when they’re in the wilderness. Sondheim moved forward.” In 1965, he wrote lyrics for Do I Hear a Waltz with the difficult Richard Rodgers. It was a favor to mentor Oscar Hammerstein II and a step back in terms of acceptance as a composer/lyricist. “Sondheim refers to this as a Why? Musical, as in Why do it? The piece was successful as a straight play and didn’t need to be musicalized.” He was 35 years old with 3 successful shows under his belt.

 

At this point, James Goldman read a New York Times article about a Ziegfeld girls Club and brought the idea to Sondheim. Dramatizing a reunion was fraught with possibilities. Potentially a murder mystery, it would be called The Girls Upstairs. Harold Prince insisted on directing everything he produced, Sondheim was unsure about him, so the pair approached David Merrick.

The project was slow to come together, Goldman was expecting a baby, Sondheim had to live. The collaborators took a job with ABC television writing a one hour musical drama called Evening Primrose based on a John Collier story. “One stunning song came out of it,” introduces “I Remember Sky”: I remember days/Or at least I try/But as years go by/They’re a sort of haze/And the bluest ink/Isn’t really sky/And at times I think/I would gladly die/For a day of sky. Lyrics derive directly from a monologue Goldman wrote for a character (come-to-life mannequin) who couldn’t leave a department store.

Rosen circles the piano. His hands stop gesturing only when we listen and he’s still, so as not to distract. Then they’re clasped or under his chin, perhaps to keep expression in check. “It was a good idea. I can’t stress this enough, a terrific idea for a song…and it shows Sondheim’s dependence on his book writers. He raids their work to help define characters.”

Eventually the collaborators sent Prince The Girls Upstairs. He responded with a 3000 word note about the way he saw it. Meanwhile, they approached Stuart Ostrow. Meanwhile George Furth wrote 11 one-act plays about relationships, always with three characters and a couple. Prince felt the idea would make a good musical, asked Sondheim whether he’d take it on, and uncharacteristically received an immediate yes. Ostrow dropped The Girls Upstairs and, as Prince tells it, Sondheim wasn’t working very fast on the Furth-based show. I said to Steve…I have everything ready and you haven’t written any goddamn music. I can’t wait till you finish the other piece…

Prince read Girls again and this time saw the seed of what would become Follies. “The two musicals are inextricably linked in their birthing process.” He made a bargain with the composer/lyricist- first they’d do what was now called Company, then he’d handle Follies. Company came together quickly, Follies took 6 years.

The creative team decided the observer in each episode could be the same character. “It’s a look at marriage at a time in American History when cultural shifts were happening. Sondheim realized the typical Rodgers & Hammerstein approach to a score wouldn’t work.” Company became an experimental musical about someone struggling to understand commitment, but there was no plot, no moving toward an inevitable climax. “Bobby’s eventual change is internal, a hard thing to pull off.”

 

Harold Prince, Elaine Stritch

 

“This was the first show Sondheim had ever done that would be ironic from beginning to end, a 40 year-old New Yorker’s take.” Prince asked for an opening song called “Company.” We watch a short section of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Company: Original Cast Album. It’s exciting to watch, musical arrangement masterful. We then listen to the cast album to hear the song in full.

“Sondheim wanted people to have a great time in theater, to say that was so much fun, then not to be able to sleep.” During “The Little Things We Do Together” Rosen surreptitiously looks around the room curious as to how the song is being received. “The next number tells the essential meaning of the musical,” introduces “Sorry, Grateful” which arrives not during but after the scene. “This sense of ambivalence expressed and explored was fresh in the American musical.”

Unlike a lot of musicals at the time, Company appealed to young people (20s/30s). How, it was asked, did Sondheim write so insightfully about relationships having not evidently had a serious one to date? Rosen tells us the songs are based on observation, imagination, and research-in this case interviewing a married friend in depth. The artist’s friendships are loyal and decades long which also contributed to understanding.

“You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is pastiche. Rosen defines this as using an old musical style with a lyric you wouldn’t have heard when that was popular. This song is based on The Andrews Sisters. “Getting Married Today”, the last minute panic before wedding, shows us something about Sondheim’s technique. We start with music like a Bach Chorale which segues into WS Gilbert-like patter. In Sondheim’s opinion, someone under such stress wouldn’t be able to rhyme, however. (There’s a perceptive observation!) “The song is marvelously, profoundly chaos…” There’s laughter in the room during this one.

“I’m not sure how she breathes…” Rosen muses “Every consonant has to allow for the next consonant or vowel attack. The craft is tremendous. Songwriters have to think about this.” Rosen has us say “with the” aloud, normally and then fast. Try it. The words mush together becoming unintelligible. Good reviews came in for this one despite the fact Bobby remains a cipher. The musical’s last song, “Being Alive” was, Sondheim said, a necessity, though he’d wanted the darker “Happily Ever After in Hell.” The tour failed and no one got to see the show outside of New York until revivals were mounted years later.

Follies, also show without a plot, is a massive undertaking and the darker cousin of Company. It was the most expensive show Prince had produced and would lose its entire investment by the mom and pop angels who backed his shows. Though the co-director was Michal Bennett, Rosen identifies this as the second in Prince’s signature, auteur-director efforts.

As The Girls Upstairs become Follies, most numbers were cut. One that remained intact was the song of the same name featuring younger and older selves of the four leads. Listening to this conjures the opulent original production which I saw. One could only be awed by the extravagant nostalgia manifest on stage. Older versions of Sally, Ben, Phyllis and Buddy stood at the foot of an iron, backstage stairwell while youngsters portrayed them.

Rosen notes that the ghostly opening, “very like Satie” was taken from what might’ve been another song. “Listen to the harmony, the dissonance,” Rosen enthusiastically says, one arm raised fingers splayed, reaching.

“There’s no sense of actual story here, except tension between Ben and Phyllis,” he reminds us. “So much was atmosphere.” Follies was a flop. It neither made back its money not could it sustain a tour. The first time Rosen saw it was in a dinner theater outside his then home, Chicago in 1979. A terrible production. It would take decades for the work to be fully appreciated.

“Sondheim’s work demanded more of performers than was typical in the 1970s. (It still does.) His pieces required a higher level of both acting and musical talent.” Rosen comments that the writer puts himself into everyone, even when depicting other characters, often with self-depreciation. “He has a complex view of human nature.” By eschewing real plot, the songs in these musicals must accomplish more. Both were, accidentally groundbreaking. “I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.”

All unattributed quotes are Louis Rosen.

Composer/lyricist/author/performer/teacher Louis Rosen has taught the Music Appreciation/ History and Music Theory curriculum for the 92Y’s School of Music for over 30 years. My familiarity with him up till now is as a writer and performer. I’m aware that Rosen took a Master Class with Sondheim when he first came to New York (from Chicago), that they’ve loosely stayed in touch, and that Rosen both likes and admires his subject.

This is the second of nine classes and a Lyrics and Lyricists program deeply exploring the icon. Additionally, Rosen is planning “A Conversation with John Weidman” and “A Conversation with James Lapine,” both about their work and collaborations with Sondheim.  A veritable Sondheim banquet.

 

Behind the Music with Louis Rosen: Stephen Sondheim, American Modernist             November 1, 2018.

Next: Lecture 3: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC—SONDHEIM, the Romantic Classicist. Thursday, November 29, 2018, 1:30 pm to 3:15 pm at the 92nd Street Y.

 

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