Saturday, November 18, 2017

Sondheim's Religious Vision

The man who wrote "thieves get rich / saints get shot / God don't answer prayers a lot" can be trusted when he says that religious rites and beliefs have played no part in his life.  

But when a 2002 letter published in The New York Times claimed that musical theatre has been "robbed of joy" by Stephen Sondheim, and when even admiring bloggers call his work "amoral" and "cynical," my theological training kicks in to answer the charges.  Actually, Sondheim's work is consistently "religious" in the sense that religion shares with ligament: It's about what ties us to our world -- how "no one is alone."  A theological look at Sondheim's works might help future directors appeal to audiences put off by his reputed "dark vision."

Before we look for Sondheim’s version of sin or redemption, we can bury that canard about his killing joy.  His intention, at least, is to evoke it.  “Joy” was his own word when he met with teens (including me) at Broadway’s Music Box Theater in June 1977.

Asked about Pacific Overtures, which some critics called “arid” and “cold,” Sondheim said, “I would like to think [audiences] would feel a kind of joy” seeing the imagination and skill in the way the story was told, whether or not they warmed to the subject. His admirers are familiar with that kind of joy: “We revel in the glories that his works endlessly yield,” writes composer Jason Robert Brown. “This is the true gospel:  this thing we do, this art we propose to create, can aspire to a greater perfection, a truer and richer transcendence” (“Worshiping in the Church of Steve,” Kennedy Center, 2002).  (See my blogpost on the joy of Pacific Overtures).
But Sondheim has indeed robbed the musical of the happy ending, giving us instead something more affecting and real, a new start.  Theologians would call that redemption.  The most prominent example is Into the Woods, when the false promise of happiness in Act I, “Ever After,” is followed by life-and-death struggles in Act. II.  The end of the play is just the beginning for a reconstituted family, and Sondheim sends the audience out of the theatre with a caution and a hope: “Into the woods / You go again, / You have to every now and then,” but “everything you learn there / Will help when you return there.”

The Frogs shows faith that theatre can effect a change of heart and perhaps a change of life, when the company instructs the audience to save their community:  “Citizens of Athens / If you’re smart, / Don’t sit around while Athens / Falls apart,” concluding, “And now – We start.”

Merrily We Roll Along seems to lack redemption, retracing a life to the point where Franklin Shepherd’s friendships start their doomed trajectory.  But as we see young friends on a roof marveling at Sputnik and looking forward to “so much stuff to sing” in “Out Time,” the joyfulness in Sondheim’s music makes it possible to feel that there’s a chance to start over and get it right this time – if not For Franklin Shepard, then for us. (Read my blogpost on Merrily "Rhymes with Integrity").

Other Sondheim finales promise renewal instead of final reward.  Anyone Can Whistle ends “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” sung by a pair ready to begin new lives, apart.  Sunday in the Park with George builds to a song about taking risks (“Move On”) and finishes with the words, “A blank page or canvas. So many possibilities.”  The bachelor Robert of Company doesn’t show up for his birthday party in the final scene, leaving his friends to conclude that he has left the “warm” and “cozy” life of “Side by Side by Side” to seek a committed relationship, because he has learned that "alone is... not alive."  Follies ends with couples shaken, but shorn of illusions; A Little Night Music concludes with several relationships rearranged and renewed; and Bounce  [since revised to be Road Show] ends with the brothers ambling off into eternity, saying, “Sooner or later, we’re bound to get it right.”  (They’re in a hokey Heaven, but this and other posthumous appearances in Sondheim’s works are for framing the play, not an endorsement of the doctrine of life after death.)

Before redemption is possible, there must be what theologians call judgment, when people recognize they’re on the wrong path.  Follies is explicitly about “The Road You Didn’t Take.” Using ghosts of the past and pastiche songs of youthful optimism, Sondheim and his collaborators confront characters with the disparity between cherished illusions and reality.  Merrily takes a microscopic look into Franklin Shepard’s moment of judgement, a violent dissolution of his personal life at the pinnacle of his professional success. The show looks backward from that moment for an answer to the question, “How did you get so far off the track?” Along the way Charley and Mary “nudge” him back to the right path, and Mary tells Franklin after a deep crisis, “Now you know… It’s called letting go your illusions / And don’t confuse them with dreams.”  But he doesn’t get it.

Some of the most powerful numbers in Sondheim’s scores dramatize this moment of recognition in a character’s life.  In “Rose’s Turn” (Gypsy), “Live, Laugh, Love” (Follies), and “Send in the Clowns” (Night Music), characters passing middle age realize that while they’ve been filling “scrapbooks,” laying out their lives “like lines on a graph,” or “tearing around … opening doors,” they have missed their chances to love and be loved.  In two powerful Sondheim songs, “Too Many Mornings”  (Follies) and “Lesson #8” (Sunday) the singers imagine their lives “wasted,” “Leaving no mark,” “merely” (or “just”) passing through.  Sondheim’s Assassins sing how they “have a right to expect” that they’re going to “connect, connect, connect,” and lash out because they learn “it’s never gonna happen.”

Sin, a Failure of Vision
How do characters get into such a fix?  Theologians’ answer to that is sin, which in Sondheim’s work seems to be a failure of vision.  Focused on an illusory and selfish goal, the character fails to see the individual worth of any other person.  Near the end of Into the Woods, the Baker concludes that our moral responsibility is to enter into others’ perspectives, to “honor” (by understanding) the “terrible mistakes” of others – fathers, mothers, giants, witches – remembering always that “holding to their own, thinking they’re alone” is going to do great damage.

Sondheim depicts characters so focused on attaining “class” (Gene in Saturday Night), “success” (Ben in Follies), or “the glamorous life” (Desiree in Night Music), and becoming “rich and happy” (Franklin in Merrily) that they fail to see how they neglect and hurt the people who would love them.  The Witch thinks she can preserve what she calls “Our Little World” (Into the Woods) by locking Rapunzel in a tower.  Similarly, Rose (Gypsy) tries to keep her “babies” from growing up for the sake of her own “dream.”  Focused on revenge, Sweeney Todd blurs everyone together as either “wicked” or deserving euthanasia (“Epiphany”), and he doesn’t recognize his own family.

Creation: Life is Good
Contrast Sondheim’s monsters Sweeney and Rose with a pair of saints who “belong together,”George and Dot (Sunday in the Park).  Each is concerned with making a mark, not “passing through / Just like the people out strolling on Sunday.”  Dot makes her connection to posterity through relationships.  George, far from having “No Life,” enters vicariously into the lives of the individuals he sketches, singing their songs with them to make art that lives “forever.”  The song “Children and Art” underscores how their approaches to life are complementary: As their story naturally deals with vision, connection, and mortality, this collaboration between Sondheim and James Lapine is the most complete statement of Sondheim’s overview of what theologians call creation, the nature of life itself.

In a word, creation is beautiful.  “Pretty is what changes,” George explains to his mother, who laments the disappearance of pretty views.  “What the eye arranges / Is what is beautiful.”  Not only “all trees, all towers” are worthy of close attention for George, but also the individuals – from high-society women down to the cranky garbage man and his dog.  George’s mother, suddenly aware that her own life is slipping away moment by moment, urges him, “Quick!  Draw it all!” (See my reflection "Sunday, Art, and Forever")

After this song about mortality and eternity comes the anthem “Sunday.”  George “revises the world,” posing the characters.  When he tenderly takes Dot’s hand to put finishing touches on her portrait, he softly hums, confirming how this painting is his expression of love for her.  From that quiet passage, the chorus builds to the word “forever.”  Sondheim’s anthem, interweaving all the strands of the play – its story, themes (vision, eternity, connection), design, musical motifs – is made more poignant in a live performance by the knowledge that this perfect consummation is passing even as we watch.  No wonder audiences often weep for “Sunday”!

Sondheim Practices What He Preaches
As George does, as the backer advises, Sondheim takes extraordinary care to honor the individual perspectives of characters, even minor ones, with the kind of richly layered polyphony that is his specialty (“Company,” “Four Black Dragons,” “Pretty Lady,” “Something Just Broke”).  His favorite song, “Someone in a Tree,” celebrates diversity of perspective.  He finds interest even in assassins, con men, a stalker (Fosca in Passion), a rapacious judge and a demon barber.  We don’t have to forgive them, but through imagination and eloquence, we understand them

Sondheim’s own career exemplifies another moral imperative that even some of his bad guys get right: Don’t settle for “living life in the living room” (Gypsy).  “Fall if you have to, but … make a noise” (Whistle).  “A person should celebrate everything passing by” (Night Music). “Burn your bridges, start again / Or you’ll never grow” (Merrily). “Stop worrying where you’re going, move on” (Sunday in the Park).  “Without  a risk, the world seems pretty tame” (Bounce / Road Show).

And, in the words of the only full-fledged god to speak in Sondheim’s work (Pluto in The Frogs): “When you’re not afraid to die,  / Then you’re not afraid to live.”

(For many, many more articles of related interest, see my Sondheim page.) 

(This essay was printed as "So Many Possibilities: A Look at Sondheim's Religious Vision" in the Sondheim Review, Winter 2006, pp. 21-22.  Since I wrote it, and the journal is defunct, I suppose that I don’t break any copyright laws by posting it here -- or, if I do, that no one will care.)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Year into Assisted Living: Holding Steady

When I think back a year, I'm struck by a lot that's changed. We've reached a plateau in a good place. Here's a rundown:

  • Mom's okay with her small apartment, and doesn't remember that it was ever bigger.
  • Mom takes a mood stabilizer that works, until late afternoon, when well-documented "sundown syndrome" results in anxiety, depression, boredom, anger after dinner.  
  • Home care professionals Laura and Dee now visit her two-to-four hours every afternoon and come back after dinner every night. 
  • The facility's staff administer medicines every day, though Mom doesn't recall anything about it.  They tell her that these are "vitamins" to keep her beautiful.  I used to re-stock the pill dispenser Saturdays, only to discover that she had skipped days, or had taken pills directly from the bottles, or (one time, for sure) had taken the dog's medicine, too.
  • Mom is drinking 1/2 the wine she used to drink, or less;  the 6 oz. bottles are 50% water, now, thanks to sneaky refilling of the bottles by me and the home care ladies.  There's no more drinking a bottle, throwing it away, and saying, "Ok, it's time for a glass of wine;"  no more of her getting in the car after a couple bottles to re-stock; no more late-evening walks across a five-lane intersection to the corner drug store for more. 
  • Mom usually forgets that she ever had a car.  When she thinks to ask about it, I remind her that she gave up her keys voluntarily after locking Sassy in a hot car, and remind her of times she got upset or distracted while driving. (We donated proceeds from the car sale to the Humane Society where Mom first met her dog Sassy.)
  • Sassy the dog remains healthy and happy, entertaining Mom all day.  
  • Mom's Long Term Care Insurance is now reimbursing her living trust  for both the assisted living and the home care visits, amounting to $10K a month. 
  • I have Mom's credit card, because she loses it a lot;  I give her a limited number of checks, which she uses for hair and nail appointments, for yogurt, chopped chicken, and fruit for snacks. 
  • Those urgent notes on the mirror, piles in each room of "urgent" and "official" requests for money from political charlatans, and the obscure notations over notations on each of three calendars are things of the past;  Mom has forgotten that she has a mailbox, so I throw out all the junk mail, pay the bills, and give her just the catalogues. 
  • She doesn't remember what she reads in her morning newspaper or anything from TV news (on incessantly), so she's flabbergasted every time she learns who's President.
That's where we are.  I obsessively check my voice mail for Mom's angry / anxious messages, and rarely find one any more.  I never knew when I knocked on her door whether she'd be happy to see me, or bitter about my leaving her "in a prison."  Since at least June, it's been Happy Mom every time.
[Photo:  I dropped in early one week morning in the summer, and she was up, made up, and ready for another day.]

I'd say things are holding steady.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Highlights from "Forward Day by Day" Oct. 2017

October's issue of the daily devotion booklet Forward Day by Day offered meditations on the October lectionary by Eileen O'Brien of the Houston Canterbury ministry associated with the University of Houston.  She highlights bits of scripture that I'd not noticed before.

Tuesday, Oct. 10:  Assigned to write on 1 Corinthians 11.2, 17-22, O'Brien plays on the familiar London warning to "mind the gap," asking what we miss when the lectionary leaves out verses 3-16, which have been used "to silence female voices," and used in turn by others "to silence the voice of scripture itself."  She concludes, "Sometimes taking scripture seriously means not agreeing to everything Paul says but rather taking up his invitation to 'discern for yourselves' (1 Cor 11.13)."

Sunday, Oct. 22: The story of "giving unto Caesar" reminds O'Brien of theologian Stanley Hauerwas's calling "security" and "personal freedom" the "great idols of middle-class America."  They sound good, surely, but, she writes,

Security cannot be the most desired good of a people who proclaim a crucified God, who came vulnerably into an unsafe world to live as we live and to die as we die.  Unfettered personal freedom cannot be the most desired good of a people who follow the one who 'came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many' (Mark 10:45).  How then shall the Christian relate to a government that claims to prioritize and provide these things?

Thursday, Oct. 26, responding to Ezra 1:2-3, O'Brien observes that some of the Hebrew exiles chose to stay in Babylon.  She asks us about "powers" that hold us "captive."

The next day, the story in Ezra3:12-13 concerns elders among the exiles returned to Jerusalem,  the sound of their weeping mixed with the celebration of the construction of the new temple's foundations.  "Sometimes it is not until we see the new foundation that we fully realize that is is not the old. There is something irretrievable about the past that must be grieved."  She tells us to "[honor] grief alongside joyful shouts as expressions of thankfulness for what had been and amidst gratitude for this new beginning."

She calls Revelation "the crazy uncle of the New Testament family," but sees that "the text defiantly calls out" to the powers of the world, "You are big and bad and scary, but we see through you!"

Monday, October 30, 2017

Happy Halloween

At age six, I ordered a life-sized image of Dracula from the back page of a Superman comic book, and taped him to the rear of my bedroom door. My weekly routine back then included watching The Munsters and Bewitched on Thursdays, The Addams Family on Fridays, and waking up before everyone else on Saturday, turning on the bedside lamp, and staying under covers to to study each page of Homebodies, a collection of cheerfully macabre cartoons by Charles Addams.  Little kids must have a need to face scary monsters in safe, packaged forms, enough to earn profit for the makers of Casper the friendly ghost and Wendy the Good Witch.
Fifty-two years later, I'm still drawn to monsters of the more genteel sort, civil vampires in evening dress and ghosts who haunt Victorian mansions.  I admit that I like gusts of wind that twist branches of bare trees under roiling black clouds -- so long as I'm heading from my car to the warmth of my home.

But why?  Looking inward, I have a few theories.  For one, it's nostalgia.  For another, an English major appreciates monsters as personifications of amorphous fears, and ghosts as metaphors for memory.  Then again, I'm Episcopalian, amused at the logic that I shouldn't believe in a Holy Ghost if I can't accept the other kind.  
The church celebrates "All Saints" (i.e., all the Hallowed, or Holy) on November 1, and we pray for  "All Souls" on November 2.  Our All Hallow's Evening, or "Hallowe'en," is a last gasp for the dark spirits to make mischief before the Saints take over the next morning; but that's a pretty lame idea, as we believe those saints and Jesus himself are always with us.  

But this time of year, when our first cold days hammer shut the coffin of summer, before we experience sunlight sparkling on the frost of winter, it's natural to sense what the ancient Celts called a "thinning" between our world and the world of our fears, embodied by those scary monsters.  

Bring on the bats, the howling wind, the branches scraping the window, and the ghosts of decades past. 
[Photos, from top: That 6-ft. Dracula; "Grandpa Munster," who slept upside down and turned into a bat in a puff of smoke, played by Al Lewis, whom I saw sitting as a living advertisement at the entrance to "Grandpa's Pizza" in Greenwich Village, ca. 1987; and a mash-up of a favorite frame from Chas Addams, "the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive!" coupled with a stock photo of the sky on that kind of day.  Below:  From the internet, the cover of the Dec. 1967 issue of Wendy the Good Witch that I owned and wore thin with reading and copying.]

See my reflections on tangents to the same subjects:

P.S.  With adult friends in Education for Ministry (see my EfM blog), we reflected on the theology of Halloween, and identified a trend towards communities' bonding over making the holiday fun and safe for everyone.  We collected our thoughts in a group-composed prayer:

Collect for Halloween
Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, You sent Your Holy Spirit to enlighten and protect us: help us find community with our neighbors and the souls of ages past, that we may overcome fear and differences to extend ourselves to the strangers among us.  Amen.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Homecoming with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Kicking off my 47th season with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra -- as audience member -- was like Homecoming.  Maestro Robert Spano bounded onstage to warm applause, and the orchestra started to play before he even reached his podium to conduct us in singing the anthem. When we cheered at the end, my friend Suzanne said, "Play ball!"

[Photo: Robert Spano]

We were all the home crowd, ready to appreciate everything.  Looking back from Row C and up into three balconies, I saw all rows packed, and lots of smiling faces of different ages and races. The chair of the board, without mentioning the cutbacks and cutthroat politics of some previous seasons, told us that we're back on track with hundreds of new subscribers (!), new music from our composer-in-residence Michael Kurth (who got appreciative tappings of the bow from fellow bassists), and young new hires to fill out our orchestra. In the program, we saw glam head shots of these young musicians and read about their music, guilty pleasures, and how they keep fit.

The program included Bernstein's Symphony #2, based on W. H. Auden's Age of Anxiety; Kurth's rocking arrangement of the national anthem and his new piece 1000 Words; and Gershwin's American in Paris.  All pieces are products of American males under the age of 40 -- or young for 46, in Kurth's case.  There was a lot of head-banging and aggressive drama in the pieces.

Our guest performer is a favorite of the Atlanta audience, French pianist Jean - Yves Thibaudet, playing the solo piano part in Age of Anxiety.  Bernstein's symphony requires a lot of pounding, and extreme virtuosic display in Bernstein's elaborations on a honky-tonk theme; but mostly, Thibaudet struck plummy dissonant chords in space, ruminations of the young man Bernstein.  It's a thankless job, as Bernstein wasn't going for the big hand when he wrote it; he was going for expression.  There's a break-through of warmth in the end, but for sheer beauty and feeling, the opening of the piece is best, a duet of woodwinds.

The movements of Kurth's piece all fascinated, with changes of texture and coloration, best when the percussion wasn't overwhelming the other instruments.

Gershwin's piece struck me as richer than I'd remembered, motifs layered intricately, surprises sprung regularly, melodies growing out of each other.  Hearing it live, you catch things you don't get when you don't see the bows sawing, the percussionist sweating, the conductor cajoling.

At the end, Spano ran about the orchestra, highlighting soloists.  Our tuba player got big applause for his rare moment in the spotlight.  Our composer Michael Kurth seemed shy of the acclaim, but grateful and affectionate when it came to hugging Spano and fellow musicians.

It all felt so good! 

(I wrote about the ASO, Kurth, and Bernstein, too, in an article about the ASO and audience as a "family."  See also my consideration of another fraught work by Bernstein,  "The Weight of Bernstein's Mass.")

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Hidden Brain: Under Current Events

Offered a choice of books to read for faculty development, choosing Shankar Vedantam's The Hidden Brain was for me a no-brainer.  I know Shankar's papery voice and affable manners from his reports on sociological research for NPR's Morning Edition.   So I was shocked to hear mostly negative reactions from colleagues who didn't share my personal connection.

Our group discussion didn't go too deep, so I can only guess that the response was defensive, because the book attacks a belief at the core of our whole political system.   Hamilton, Madison, and the other founders trusted that free debate, plus balance of regional economic interests, minus prejudice from religion or caste,  would equal reasonable decisions in legislatures and juries.  Free marketeers have the same faith in reasonable self-interest. Vedantam leads us gently to the conclusion that we humans choose first, reasoning second, only to justify our choices.

I first heard this critique of enlightened self-interest from Jerry Herbert, a political scientist at Duke University.  He represented an evangelical political organization now known as the Center for Public Justice.  In his seminar, he led us from Isaiah and Jesus to The Federalist Papers, to then-current events of the Carter - Reagan - Anderson election, to show how our system sidelines those outside the mainstream unless they become "reasonable" by denying their core  faiths and cultural identifications.   

The fiction writer Robert Olen Butler made the same observation from another angle.  A veteran of the Vietnam War, he denied that his writing was "political" in the sense of pushing policies and party. Our political beliefs, he said, are established very early in life and run much deeper than party.   (See my reflection Anticipation and Dread in Butler's fiction.)

Vedantam anticipated the blowback, announcing early that he would save the "hard" chapters for last. He front-loaded the book with anecdotes about unconscious bias on a more personal level.  Even black children attributed bad qualities to the black character in a story, though he rescues his white friends; and managers evaluating job applicants were much less likely to choose subjects who merely sat near an obese person in the waiting room.  Unconscious forces accounted for the fateful choices  at the doomed World Trade Center; people on one floor escaped together, their friends on the next floor stayed and died.

Vedantam saved for last the stickier kinds of unconscious bias that have partisan implications, drawing ire of my Republican colleagues because those unconscious, unreasonable biases seem to favor banner Republican policies.   The party of individualism naturally favors the "common-sense" belief that individuals are safer when they are in control of their own lives, despite facts and figures that show the opposite.  That bias explains my own dislike of ceding control to a pilot, though I'm much more likely to be hurt driving myself. And owning a gun makes us feel like we're in control, but Vedantam provides extensive numbers and dramatic anecdotes to show that a family's firearms are much more likely to be used on a member of the family than on any invader.

The story of a puppy illustrates our bias towards the particular.  At the very same time that tens of thousands of Rwandans were massacred by their neighbors, the world was focused on saving a puppy marooned on a derelict tanker in the Pacific.  The generalized, long-distance threats such as climate change don't get our attention, because of that same kind of bias.

For me, Vedantam's rare personal anecdote was the most memorable part of the book.  Long afraid of water, he learned to swim, and was proud to swim at the beach, feeling the power in his expert strokes.  Turning back, he recognized that he had been carried along by a current, and he could not make any headway against it.  It's his analogy for the way some Americans fight their whole lives against the current of unconscious bias, while the rest of us believe that we ourselves are responsible for our successes.  The phrase "white privilege" is a red flag around my community; Vedantam's anecdote, taken with the rest of his book, gives me a sense of how this white blogger's privileges, like politics, are deeper and broader than mere party and policy.  

(Malcolm Gladwell's best-seller Blink covers a lot of the same ground as The Hidden Brain. Read my reflection How Words Distort Vision.)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Missing Glen Campbell

"I know I need a small vacation," sings Glen Campbell on one of his early monster hits, composed by Jimmy Webb, "but it don't look like rain.  / And if it snows, that stretch down south / will never stand the strain."  It's a man on the job, worried about his work.  Without any transition, the lyric and music take us to another level: "And I need you more than want you/  And I want you for all time."  At seven years old, this didn't mean much to me; at 40, hearing jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson cover the song,  I had to pull over to the side of the road, weeping.  Where the heck did that  come from? "And the Wichita Lineman," sings our working man, "is still on the line."

Fifty years after Campbell recorded that number -- alongside hits "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and "Gentle on My Mind," I appreciate the mastery of this song by Jimmy Webb, but also the arrangement by its singer that includes violins in an appropriate lineman's Morse - code tattoo, the dissonance in the broad lines for strings that suggest both the spaciousness and the loneliness of that Kansas landscape.  Glen Campbell, that pop icon, that country boy in a California  / LA world, arranged the song and sold that lyric.  I get it now; I took the voice and the personality for granted.

Only now do I appreciate the odyssey of a country boy, one of twelve children, ingratiating himself to musicians as varied as Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys, then becoming a star parodied in his own hit song "Rhinestone Cowboy."

Only a few months before his death, I heard how his dementia overtook him, and I bought my first Glen Campbell recordings:  "Adios," a set of covers from his last tour and his conscious good-bye; and "Ghost on a Canvas," a set of songs co-written with buddies who helped him to express his fears, regrets, and gratitude for career, family life, addiction, recovery, and faith.

In 1967, Glen Campbell was my ideal of the handsome man, the friendly guy, the great singer.  Now I appreciate what I've been missing for 50 years.