An afternoon in the dark with Stephen

I have gone through periods during my life of listening to music. Music has always been a driving force when I did filmwork. It has been an inspiration for graphics and writing.  Music and lyrics form a foundation for explaining a language and sometimes a people.  When I was young it was hours listening to Motown. Then the Beatles. Bessie Smith. Billie Holiday. Long periods of listening to no one in particular. Searching. Then along came youTube, and I started listening to show music. Yeah, show music. And I discovered the above recording of Bernadette Peters, doing Rose’s Turn in Gypsy.

I remember this nugget as a kid, as a crown gem in the Broadway Belter Ethel Merman’s repertoire.  Merman was less a singer and more akin to hitters like Mantle or Aaron. She could knock that song right out of the park, no matter the pitch. There is no youTube recording of her in action, and I used the Peters version over Lansbury, Daly, or Lupone, because of her acting. And a Sondheim song needs good acting.

Considering Merman did not want him to write the score alone, Jules Styne was brought in, Rose’s Turn holds those elements so dear to the songs Sondheim has written for women. They are long, detailed, subtle, interesting pieces of music, which must be a horror to memorize.  They have tempo changes, repetitions which are not simple. But they are interesting and powerful, they are performance based.

None could be better than Elaine Stritch. While Stritch became  an icon on the stage, her talents were null in the movies, and television was a bit too small. She was probably out of time with a public geared to glamor, but Sondheim wrote her one of the classic pieces of music in Company. Ladies who Lunch becomes the centerpiece of Stritch’ career, and a lovely one at that. This video must have been more in keeping with the actual play at that time. Patti Lupone played the part recently on Broadway and also was at the birthday bash, where her powerful voice gives the lyrics a different slant.

One of my favorite lines to this song, and it puts the character, Joanne,  who sings them exactly in context:

“And here’s to the girls who just watch—
Aren’t they the best?
When they get depressed,
It’s a bottle of Scotch,
Plus a little jest.”

I was thinking about how Sondheim wrote a song about categories of different women of the same class. Written for a woman’s solo performance, this song is reflective of women writers, because they get the nuances in character so well. I was thinking of precedents of this song, and I am sure there are many, but Nina Simone’s Four Women came to mind. It was also contemporary as Sondheim and Simone both became installations in New York in those days. You could also see this circular theme with any good woman writer, Woolf, Stein or Parker, as well.

I ‘ve been listening to the 80th Birthday compilation of Sondheim on youTube. What is amazing is all the good songs out of Follies. I vaguely remember it as an interesting theater poster. I remembered Alexis Smith from The Late Show movies, Dorothy Collins from Hit Parade and Candid Camera, and of course Eddie Munster’s mom, Yvonne de Carlo. I have heard recently Sondheim based the song on Joan Crawford’s career resilience. Something in De Carlo’s career knits into it nicely, too. And I am sure Merman had to be in there too , as she already was a target, I believe, for Helen Larson character in Valley of the Dolls.

I’m Still Here, another “woman’s” song. Lots of words, three long stanzas. That interesting way of telling a story. Stritch does a great version, so low key and funny. De Carlo’s version here is post-production, it is said Follies was a financial flop. I am sure it was not for the book and songs, since it has had many revivals and originally at the West End, where it was always more popular. Elaine Paige played the part in the Broadway revival and did a great job too. There is also a great review of the original tryout period in Boston. The author was young and saw the play as depressing.  Now a product of aging, I see a certain hooray in the way older performers, still have it, even past their prime. To watch in the video these old broads tapping away alongside the young ones is something else.

I had no idea this play even existed except for the movie. This is one case where lyrics and the actual lines in the play, criss cross over constantly, so there is confusion over which one actually may have come first. This is a great piece of acting by Peters, and the amount of words is a mouthful. The actress gets the right inflections, and her hands say just as much as her face. Peters has said she sings it just the way musically he writes it. Perhaps, that is why he like her as an interpreter of his songs.

Look how beautifully he puts words words together here in Last Midnight:

You’re so nice
You’re not good, you’re not bad
You’re just nice

I’m not good, I’m not nice
I’m just right
I’m the witch
You’re the world
I’m the hitch, I’m what no one believes
I’m the witch
You’re all liars and thieves
Like his father!
Like his son will be too!

Oh, why bother?
You’ll just do what you do!

Especially the last part, “I’m the hitch/I’m the witch” and “Like his father/like his son will be too/oh, why bother.” Sondheim takes the familiar and makes it interesting the way he strings words together, changing combination in rhyme. It is a fairy tales that extracts from the story the lyrics and gives them a specific context for us not to forget them. Children Will Listen, for example, knits certain key phrases used over again in the play, which brings things together. Sometimes, we miss the richness of text, because we only hear it once, especially in theater and film, with many distractions, so we miss it.

I had fun putting this video together and actually put it together with other music. I substituted Sondheim’s Beautiful Girls, and watch what happens, and it flowed like I don’t know what.

Sondheim is quite an interview, as he is articulate as his lyrics. “I’m an actor when I’m writing songs,” he said in one of his interviews, and he is right because the feeling he puts into his lyrics are not just words, but embodiments of characters.  He has been writing for what seems like forever, but there is so much of him in the musical theater, your jaw just drops. And the revivals are historically remarkable.

Sondheim said, “Lyric has to be written in time. . .lyric has to be simple.” But there is nothing simple about what he does, he just makes it seem that way. What incredible subtlety, feeling, what humor and irony.

The lyrics for Children Will Listen are from three decades ago, but seem to be fresh enough for even today:

“Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you”



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