Monday, June 30, 2014

Sondheim's Murder Mysteries

[Photo: Sondheim w/billboard at Cannes, 1974 (]
On a whim last week, I got the DVD of The Last of Sheila.  Though its boxoffice take in 1973 was so-so, it has had a cult following ever since.  Who knew?  But I'm not surprised.

First, it's a very satisfying whodunit.  That's what drew me to it at age 14, when I walked down to North Springs shopping center alone to see it in an empty theatre.  I was into both crosswords and detective novels at the time (still am!), and this punched all my buttons. The set-up was classic:  A Hollywood mogul invites six guests to his yacht for a treasure-hunt in Mediterranean ports, one year after inviting the same six to a party where his wife Sheila was killed by a hit-and-run driver.   We quickly come to suspect that the game is an elaborate cover for the host's revenge on his wife's killer.

 I was drawn to the movie also by the Ellery-Queen-like challenge issued to the public by writers Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim (whose names meant nothing to me, yet), who let it be known that they had hidden the solution to the puzzle in the title of the movie. 

Then, it's also fun in the way of any movie filled with celebrities (from the 70s B list and a couple of A- stars).   I've read in Craig Zadan's excellent Sondheim and Company that the script's first draft involved businessmen snowed into a Swiss ski resort;  director Herb Ross was so right to shift the venue and the character types.  Raquel Welch in a bikini, James Mason in a monk's cowl, Dyan Cannon in hysterics:  We love to see them well dressed, undressed, launching little zingers at each other, and emoting.   In 7th grade, I loved "getting" the names they dropped (Steve - and - Eydie, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, and closing song by up-and-coming sensation Bette Midler).

Looking at the show in adulthood, I especially appreciate the performance by Joan Hackett in the thankless role of the one person on the ship neither glamorous nor clamorous.   Scene by scene, even while she smiles, we watch her disquiet grow as she suspects what's going on behind the fun.

Director Herbert Ross used -- pioneered? -- a technique that has helped me in the murder-mystery plays I've co-written in the decades since.  He found a way around the anticlimax built into the genre:  once the deductions begin, dialogue can bog down while the entire cast sits still, rehashing clues and theories.  Herbert Ross cut away from discussion to show us multiple reenactments of the crime from new angles to reflect different theories.   All these years, I've recalled how I cringed in the dark theatre each time the heavy stone came down on the victim's head with a gruesome sound effect -- and how exciting that was!  It's still effective, and a picture is worth six pages of detective monologue.

Then, of course, there's the cult of Stephen Sondheim.  I'm a proud member since 1974.  For us, his affinity for puzzles and his inventions of murder games for celebrity friends are common knowledge.   I'll only comment from observation and experience that contriving a puzzle, composing a song, and writing a murder mystery share the characteristic that things have to "go" with each other both "down" and "across."  That's self-evident in a crossword; it's the effect of setting a rhyme to land at the musical climax of a song (e.g., from "Ladies Who Lunch," everybody tries..., look into their eyes..., everybody dies..., everybody rise!).  In The Last of Sheila, there's a story moving forward (guests deal with mishaps on the yacht) while clues fill us in on the back story: across and down.

Now it's my turn to drop a name:  When Mr. Sondheim and I had a chat at New York's Music Box Theatre following a performance of Side by Side by Sondheim in June 1977, he filled me in on some details about an item I'd seen in Earl Wilson's gossip column.  I'd read that Sondheim and Perkins had written a sequel of sorts, The Chorus Girl Murder Case, and Michael Bennett was to direct the film.    Sondheim told me (and a couple dozen of my high school chorus friends) that the script was complete.  Set backstage during preparations for a musical in the 1940s, the movie would include more than a dozen new Sondheim songs or pieces of songs, "each one containing a clue" he said with a satisfied smile.

That's the last I've heard of The Chorus Girl Murder Case, though a show with similar title ran on Broadway ten years ago, or so.  Kander and Ebb wrote a show with a similar premise.  Where's that movie?  Where are those songs?

I'm aware of two other Sondheim murder mysteries.  Crime and Variations was another collaboration with Anthony Perkins, to be broadcast over several nights on cable TV back in the 1980s.  The musical technique of "variation" has an analogy in those multiple versions of the same crime that kept Last of Sheila moving.   But aside from the reference in Zadan's book, I've never seen any other sign that this project was ever realized.
 [Note: Sondheim said that he filled in a "laundry list" of requests for The Chorus Girl Murder Case from would-be director Michael Bennett, and "wrote a treatment" with Anthony Perkins, but that's as far as it went. HBO never filmed Crime and Variations, and HBO owns the property. This comes from an interview at, ca. 1994.]
Finally, there's Getting Away with Murder, a stage play co-written with George Furth, who wrote the books for Company and Merrily We Roll Along.  Originally called The Doctor Is In, its premise was the murder of a psychiatrist by someone in his group therapy cohort.  I read disdainful reviews, and caught a pretty flat video online of a staged production.  At one performance of the original cast, the prop gun didn't fire, and one actor had to pretend to bludgeon the other with the revolver. 

Sondheim's two greatest contributions to murder mysteries for the stage and screen were indirect.  The classic murder mystery Sleuth, was Anthony Shaffer's inspired response to a weekend playing games at Stephen Sondheim's town home back in the 1960s.  His working title for it was Who's Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?  It was a great success on stage, filmed twice, first with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, then with Michael Caine and Jude Law (with screenplay by Harold Pinter, not so fun as the original).  Of course, Ira Levin's Deathtrap, play and movie,  takes off from Sleuth, so there's an extension of Sondheim's influence in the genre.

Sondheim's collaborators Hugh Wheeler (Night Music, Sweeney Todd) and James Goldman (Evening Primrose, Follies) also wrote murder mystery novels.  Goldman's draft of a musical to be called The Girls Upstairs, was a "whodunit" in reverse:  who will do it?  All the characters had motives to kill each other.  Happily,  with director Harold Prince's involvement, the tensions burst into fantasy follies-numbers, and the result was the wonderful Follies.

So, there's more to connect Stephen Sondheim to murder mysteries than first meets the eye, eh, Inspector?

Reflection on THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973), directed by Herbert Ross, screenplay by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. With information I've gleaned from other sources, including Stephen Sondheim himself!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Duke Ellington Can't Sleep

It's morning, still dark, early June, 1967, and world-famous Duke Ellington can't sleep.

I'm only reading between the lines of Terry Teachout's biography Duke, but I look at the tired face and "mood indigo" tint to the book's cover and get the impression that the man had a lot to keep him awake at night.

What worries him? He has "made it."  Since the 1920s when his publisher Irving Mills promoted him as a " Ravel or Stravinsky," Ellington has long been more than a popular jazz musician. But after his heyday in the 1920s and 30s, his orchestra was nudged into irrelevance first by the Swing band craze, then pop and rock.  Bebop jazz made Duke a relic until a gutsy performance at Newport in 1956 brought renewed respect and attention.  Suddenly, he was a national treasure, a cover-of-Time celebrity, and a guest on TV variety programs.

Yet esteem doesn't pay the bills.  He owes over a half million dollars in back taxes.  He has no record contracts, no regular gigs. Relying heavily on royalty payments for his hit songs, he has always paid the "expensive gentlemen" of his orchestra more than they could earn in any other band. 

He has always paid for his musicians in other ways, too.  Touring in the 1930s and 40s, he rented private train cars and chartered buses to shield his African-American personnel from the indignities of Jim Crow restrictions at hotels and restaurants.   By 1967, some of these players, in Terry Teachout's words, have "passed their sell-by date," including the so-called "Air Force" (i.e., the musicians who came to work high).  Because Ellington avoids confrontation, he keeps the deadbeats on. 
All along, Ellington has cared more for music than for the money, and it's the future of his music that worries him.  The immediate crisis is the death of composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn, whom he called "his right arm."  Strayhorn died of cancer May 31st, 1967.  (I reflect on their complicated relationship in a blog post In the Mantle of Duke Ellington). 

Strayhorn once explained that Ellington "played piano, but his true instrument was the orchestra."  In each chapter of Teachout's book -- before the one about Strayhorn's death --  some new player expands Ellington's "palette." Ellington and Strayhorn blended and contrasted the distinctive sounds of the musicians in ways that no other bands did, and they left their soloists lots of room to be creative.  Ellington listed names in his scores,  not instruments, and he didn't always assign notes.  He told one player to "rise like the sun" over the music. Asked for more specifics, Ellington said, "Start in B-flat."

By 1967, a society dance orchestra no longer attracts the kinds of soloists whose distinctive sounds have inspired Ellington's compositions for decades.

He's also lonely, though he's probably not alone.  That's what his son Mercer observes in Teachout's biography. Married early, Ellington left his wife but kept her, so that he could tell his other girl friends, "Sorry, I'm married."  He strung along a series of three mistresses over five decades. (On the cover of Teachout's book, we see a scar on Ellington's left cheek from one of these ladies.)  As for his musicians, he'd stopped being their buddy when he started being a "genius," and some weren't even friendly. Some had reason to resent Ellington, because he earned royalties from songs he based on tunes they improvised.  Strayhorn was his closest collaborator, and now he's gone.
Perhaps it's in this early morning that Ellington imagines a tribute to Strayhorn that he and his band will record in the late summer and fall of 1967, "...and his mother called him Bill,"  words excised from a draft of Duke's eulogy for his friend.  In it, we hear what was best in Ellington's world, and we can hear why he might stay awake, afraid that it's all passed.

We hear numbers written across decades for the orchestra, tailored to soloists long gone from the band, and some solos played soulfully by those present.  Famed jazz artist Clark Terry returns as guest to the orchestra he left years before.  Others that we hear are men who were with Duke from the start, and some, like saxophonist Johnny Hodges, have left and come back. 

Johnny Hodges is featured in "Blood Count," Strayhorn's last piece, composed in his hospital room just in time for Ellington to use at Carnegie Hall.  Ellington's habit of completing projects at or beyond the last minute is a recurring motif in Teachout's biography.   In "Blood Count," the basic melody is like a sentence in two parts:  a long phrase for the soloist that ends in a sigh, followed by short, quick phrases that curl upward, as if a question is being repeated.  On the bridge, the sax wails, building to the final chorus when the whole orchestra swells under punching jabs by the sax. It ends with a long sigh. It's Ellington's "instrument" in a painful, beautiful expression.

The five-dollar word in the title of "Intimacy of the Blues" is an indication of its contents.  The scaffolding is the same twelve-bar blues you'd hear in any backwoods juke joint, but the effects are refined:  rapid-fire staccato notes in the tune, mostly quiet dynamics punctuated by sudden swells in the orchestra.  Near the end, Ellington's piano plays some embroidery that sounds to me like it's in a different key:  Ravel, anyone?

Ellington gets to play melody on Strayhorn's perky old tune "Rain Check," varying the melody largely through his accenting of odd beats -- "Rite of Spring" for a night club.

The final number on the album, though, is a heart-tugger.  After the session was over, as the men were laughing and packing up their instruments, the microphone captured Ellington playing solo through Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom."  The liner notes tell us, "The studio quieted down as the feeling came through. That is what he most liked to hear me play, Duke said afterwards."

Looking out at his horizon in June 1967, Ellington can tell us what Ecclesiastes says: you never do "arrive."  You can only extend yourself for someone else, as Duke did for this tribute to Billy Strayhorn.   I'm thankful for that record, and the biography by Terry Teachout that has helped me to appreciate all that went into it.  

Reflection on Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout, read on Amazon Kindle.  Also, a compact disc reissue of an album by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, "...and his mother called him Bill"  originally recorded in 1967, issued by RCA Victor in 1968; reissued by BMG 2001. Liner notes by Stanley Dance. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

What's Your Story? What's Ours?

Reflection on last week's institute at Emory University sponsored by Southern Association of Independent Schools with Michael G. Thompson and Rob Evans. Psychologist Michael G. Thompson is author of Raising Cain, Best Friends Worst Enemies, The Pressured Child, and others. Rob Evans is author of The Human Side of School Change, Family Matters, and others.

During the last hour of structured time at a three-day institute for school administrators, Michael G. Thompson introduced a concept that reframed all the other topics we had discussed. In fact, the concept that we all operate according to the "narrative" we tell about ourselves (or about our groups) applies as well to personal life, analysis of news, and history.

"Story" in Educational Institutions
Evans, too, had approached "narrative" from the angle of naturalist Stephen Jay Gould's statement that Homo Sapiens is a pattern-finding animal.  In a school, when we leaders approach change, we must know that we'll be disturbing patterns in the community's lives, and every gain will be balanced by loss.

We should listen to learn the story of those in opposition. Instead of arguing with it, we should look for a counter-story from within the same community.  Thompson gave the example of the school that told itself the story -- in meetings and teacher's lounge chats -- of how a winter storm ruined the year and made everything impossible. The counter-story emerged when one teacher explained that she wasn't so bothered by the uproar because, compared to the death of her husband, it was all pretty petty. Just hearing her counter story lifted the morale of the whole faculty, as they adjusted their own collective "narrative."

A person's "narrative" defines a person's "identity." Evans and Thompson illustrated this by imagining a teacher who has lectured for thirty years, increasingly angry at diminishing returns. "The students get lazier every year," he says. "They can't concentrate. They don't take notes the way they used to." Try to tell him that experiments and brain imaging show that he will reach more students more deeply if he allows for their active participation in their own learning. He will deny the evidence because his identity is threatened. In his own story, he is the last defender of high standards, the voice of reason standing up against increasing waves of stupidity. To admit anything else would be to question the value of his entire career.
I suppose the way into dealing with that teacher would be to ask, "Can you think of a time when the students were suddenly engaged?"  Or:  "Have you ever been totally caught up in learning something since you left school?"  I bet his answer would involve something besides a lecture.

"Story" in Private and Public Life
By coincidence, several programs aired Sunday afternoon on Atlanta's NPR station focused on ramifications for our being "pattern-finding animals." The T.E.D. Talks program gave us an editor of Skeptic magazine who said that we are "hard-wired" to have religious faith because we like to see patterns -- stories -- in events. The "Radio Lab" program focused on neurons that interpret sound waves as pleasing patterns that we call music, and analyzed how the unrecognized patterns in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring frustrated the audience's neurons, causing an excessive release of dopamine that in turn caused temporary schizophrenic behavior -- the famous Paris riot of 1913. 

Mom was skeptical of all this until I told her a couple of our family "stories." Grandmother Smoot's story, to which all of her favorite anecdotes contributed, was "Cinderella" in reverse: privileged firstborn child, daughter of the mayor in the best house on the top of the hill, planned to go to college -- until the first boy was born to the family.  Then the father sold the house to buy a series of businesses that failed, savings went to the  baby brother, and the little princess became the hard-working serving girl, struggling to support herself and the family. Oh, and she lost Prince Charming to the Great War and had to settle for his younger brother. My Mom's story? She was the apple of her father's eye, adored and spoiled; then she was adored and spoiled by her husband; the story continues in her viduity. 

The Bible fits all stories into one grand narrative of God's plan to make Israel the "light of the world."  Christians see themselves as picking up the slack when, according to their narrative, Israel lost its sense of mission to the world.

Americans, from the earliest colonial days, have absorbed Israel's story into its own, as waves of "God's chosen people" crossed the sea to their Promised Land. In the name of this "manifest destiny," God commanded them to clear out all the native people and to make a "city on the hill" to save the world.   Ideological purity in politics today stems from this meta narrative. The story of Israel, right on into New Testament times, is of a people who let go of their first enthusiasm and who go after the ways of other gods or, in New Testament terms, "the ways of this world."  Americans of a certain stripe feel that they carry on the mission alone. 

When shocked by statements of those politicians who wear the mantle of "conservative" "traditional" and "Christian" values, I can see how every fact fits into this meta-narrative. The "liberal" tenets must be denied without exception, whether these include gun control, climate change legislation, path to citizenship for immigrants, cooperation among states on a "common core" of learning standards, or affordable health insurance for all.

So I shouldn't be shocked when a Tea Party candidate in Mississippi states that "compromise" is how America got into "this mess" -- as if the Founders' "original intent" had been something other than to force compromise at all levels of government.   Denial of compromise on any issue isn't a matter for reason, or even for "belief."

For today's brand of "conservative," as for that veteran teacher, it's a matter of identity.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Beyond Growing Up: Sacred Fire

Ronald  Rolheiser. Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity. (New York: Image, 2014). See my response to a book dealing with the same topic by Rolheiser's friend Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Second Half of Life.

"Why am I dealing with all this anger?" a woman of 50 asked her pastor Fr. Ronald Rolheiser.  His message for her, and for readers of Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human Christian Maturity, is that anger comes with her stage in life.  "If you are through your years of searching for and preparing for marriage and a career," he writes, the time that stretches out before you "can feel pretty bland, or flat, or overpressured, or disappointing" (65).

Yet this maturity that Rolheiser calls the "life-giving" stage, is actually a very good thing. At this stage, a person no longer lets "the pleasure principle" rule, "at least [not for] the most important decisions," and has moved beyond "adolescent self-focus" (66).

The anger comes from a couple of sources.  Like the tribes of Israel, we adults, settling the Promised Land, must eradicate "the Canaanites." Rolheiser reads the violent Old Testament war tales as a metaphor for the unfulfilled desires and ambitions of adolescent "grandiosity" (71).  Then there's resentment, like that of Martha and of the Prodigal Son's elder brother:  
Many are the persons who deeply regret that during [these, the] healthiest and most productive years of their lives they were too driven and too unaware of the richness of their own lives to appreciate and enjoy what they were doing.  Instead of privilege, they felt burden; instead of gratitude, they felt resentment; and instead of joy, they felt anger. (77)
Where does an adult go from here?  Not back to adolescence, though I think that's the way our culture looks at this situation.  How many movies and human interest news items begin with a man or woman deep into career, leadership, and family obligations who decides to chuck it all and go for some quest for glory left over from their adolescent phase -- or some romantic new adventure? 

The way forward is, naturally, not so exciting.   It's prayer and (you'll think I'm joking) committee meetings. 

About prayer, Rolheiser captures the restlessness that keeps us from it.  Our "congenital disquiet" is "fanned" by demands on our attention and by the culture, its new shows and songs, news, and the fact that everyone else seems to be going to more interesting places (202).  These days, we're pestered by emails, messages, and requests.   But this is nothing new; Rumi in the 13th century wrote "I have lived too long where I can be reached!" (200). 

To find ways to combat that restlessness, Rolheiser refers often to St. John of the Cross who advised monks and nuns in Spain during the Renaissance concerning the long period of tedious routine after initial devotion.  One answer is to think of prayer the way a grown son might think of visiting a parent in assisted living an hour each day:
On the surface your visits will seem mostly routine, dry, and dutiful.  Most days you will be talking about trivial, everyday things, and you will be sneaking the occasional glance at the clock to see when your hour with her will be over.  However, it you persevere in these regular visits with her, month after month, year after year, among everyone in the whole world you will grow to know your mother the most deeply and she will grow to know you most deeply [because] real connection between us takes place below the surface of our conversations.  We begin to know each other through presence (203).
Other siblings may get drama and tears, but that's because they don't have the same deep relationship (204). 

To daily private prayer, Rolheiser adds corporate worship and ritual.  He's in agreement with some other theologians I've read lately who, after Anglican father Jeremy Taylor,  emphasized the role of the local parish priest and daily prayer services in cementing a community and deepening faith (see for one, Timothy Sedgwick, The Christian Moral Life: Practices of Piety, NY: Seabury, 2008.).

About committee meetings, Rolheiser cites Dorothy Day's friend Peter Maurin, who counseled, "When you don't know what else to do, keep going to meetings because Pentecost happened at a meeting" (131).  Developing this idea, Rolheiser writes of those disciples frightened, unmoored, hiding in the upper room.  As he says elsewhere, "just show up" and count on the Spirit to lead, gradually. 

In this adult stage of life, it's our role to bless others.  Rolheiser acknowledges that it's hard for, say, a revered teacher not to feel resentment and envy of a young new teacher whose popularity will "eclipse" the older man's (233), but his job is to accept and be glad and bless.  "When we bless others we help lift depression from our lives; when we do not bless others, we deepen that depression" (235).

Rolheiser summarizes all in ten commandments for mature living, beginning with the command to "live in gratitude" (245).  Citing Richard Rohr and James Hillman, he advises us to take signs of aging not for signs of death  but "initiations into another way of life" (298).  Models in the Bible for doing this are Job (who leaves naked as he came into the world), Abraham and Sarah, and Jesus -- who can share his spirit with us all only after he has given up life on this earth at the Ascension (309).

Not Just Personal: Justice
Rolheiser also tells us, this isn't about just us.  Summarizing what he wrote in The Holy Longing, (see my reflection, here), Rolheiser outlines "essential discipleship" in terms of actions within community -- forgiveness, gentleness, and actions taken to promote charity and justice.  In the New Testament, "one of every ten lines deals directly with the physically poor and the challenge to respond to them.  In the Gospel of Luke, that becomes every sixth line, and in the Epistle of James that challenge is there, in one form or another, in every fifth line" (50).  We should work, not for "survival of the fittest," but of "the weakest and gentlest."

Personal Response
Personally, while I am warmed by Rolheiser's positive images of mid-life, I must admit that I've been struggling with my mid-life crisis over 30 years.  For a seminar focused on Montaigne, whose essays were his way to take stock of lessons learned at the end of his life (age 40, in the 17th century), I wrote myself into a  "trial" (literal translation for French essai).  In the end, the jury had to rule, if this young teacher won't give up teaching to pursue fame as a writer of novels and plays, will he be guilty of betraying his dreams, or will he be living into a more mature dream?  I was thinking the latter; Dad's one word response was, "Guilty." 

Rolheiser helps me to put that one to bed, finally.   I'm struck by how the author of Ecclesiastes, so weary of life, is just telling about the transition from adolescent expectations and explorations to the mid-life stasis.   "Expressions of this longing and search are what make up the meat of popular music, literature, and movies" Rolheiser writes, revolving around questions "Who am I?  Where do I find meaning?  Who will love me?"(17).  Adolescence is a convergence of hormonal, intellectual, and emotional changes that drive a person out of the home (and good riddance!);  settling in is something beyond "the feeling we get from success and achievement" (9).

Well, at 55, I'm glad to be done with adolescence once and for all.  Except for a few of those pesky "Canaanites"....

Friday, June 13, 2014

Judy Garland at the "End of the Rainbow"

[Photo: Natasha Drena with Bill Newberry (]
Reflection on Judy Garland after seeing The End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, directed by Freddie Ashley, at Actor's Express Theatre, Atlanta, June 12, with Natasha Drena as "Judy," Tony Larkin as "Mickey Deans," Bill Newberry as "Anthony" the pianist, and Atlanta's local NPR radio personality John Lemley as "Radio Announcer."   I also draw from the New York Times obituary for Judy Garland, and the recording Judy at Carnegie Hall.

That Judy Garland believed her songs is what made her such a great artist.  That Judy believed her own lies when she promised her intimates to lay off booze and pills is what made her so impossible to deal with. 

We see both aspects of her in Peter Quilter's play End of the Rainbow, as the action alternates between songs onstage during her (final) engagement at a London supper-club and scenes back in her hotel suite. In every scene, she's manipulating her handlers, turning kittenish, pathetic, furious, or imperious in a split-second, with total sincerity. 

As my mentor Frank Boggs observed, "Judy Garland sang a lyric as if she were making it up in the moment." At Carnegie Hall around age 40, her voice husky and quivering, she seemed fresh and exuberant as a school girl when she sang "Zing zing zing went my heart strings," but was self-aware and heartbroken when she sang, "Every trick of his, you're on to / But fools will be fools... / And where's he gone to?" 

In performance at Actor's Express Theatre, Natasha Drena captured both Judy's voice and Judy's  quality of living a song.  I'd known Judy only through the recording from Carnegie Hall and video clips on YouTube; in the flesh, this "Judy" gave me shivers.

Judy's celebrated troubles added pathos and suspense to her singing, as the New York Times noted in her obituary back in June, 1969:  "Whenever she stepped on a stage in recent years, she brought with her, whether she welcomed it or not, all the well-publicized phantoms of her emotional breakdown, her career collapses and comebacks."  Quilter has Judy's fiancĂ© Mickey accuse her devoted fans of loving her more when she suffers more. 

By canny juxtaposition of scenes with songs, the playwright relates lyrics to her life.  Judy sings "I was lost... nowhere to go!" just after we've learned that her  young agent found her truly "Just in Time," so we understand the intensity that Judy, and Drena as Judy, give to those words.  Quilter places "Come Rain or Come Shine" after a close approach to failure and abandonment.   Good choice:  Judy (and her arranger) gave the song an erotic vibe, recreated in this production.  The singer's voice builds to a high-pitch, fever-pitch wail -- as if she's not just offering love, but clutching it. 

A day after posting on this blog about the toxic effect of public adoration (see "Fame Kills" about agent Shep Gordon), I found Judy Garland's story to be a prime example of how that works.  As the Times noted in 1969, "The other side of the compulsively vibrant, exhausting performances that were her stage hallmark was a seemingly unquenchable need for her audiences to respond with acclaim and affection."

Assured that her audience adores her, Quilter has Judy say, "I don't need that kind of love." It has to be personal.  The fiancĂ© Mickey offers sex and "taking care" of her career; the pianist Anthony offers a vision of chaste adoration in a cottage at seaside.

She can't love herself, so she cannot trust or accept love offered to her.  Her appetite for love is insatiable; her substitutes for love kill her.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

How Fame Kills

[Photo: Shep Gordon, Supermensch]
Before signing a contract, Agent Shep Gordon will warn his client, "If I do my job exactly right, I'll probably kill you."  I've heard his warning now in a couple of NPR interviews this week pertaining to the documentary about Gordon called Supermensch, directed by Mike Myers.  Since the late 1960s, Gordon has made celebrities of his clients, so he should know how fame is toxic.  But why?  His story gives us a couple of reasons.

While Gordon's name is new to me, I knew his clients' names when I was in 7th grade, and I longed to join their pantheon of celebrities.  My 7th graders today wouldn't know anything of his clients Alice Cooper, Anne Murray, Raquel Welch, and Teddy Pendergrass.   So, reason 1:  Fame is fleeting.  In fact, it doesn't even leave you with  savings.  For example, Pendergrass was a top name in R&B, and died broke. 

But interviewer Terri Gross drew a more unexpected reason out of Gordon and Myers on her program Fresh Air this week.  She asked, now that this film is making his name and face known, how has he experienced fame?

He answered with an anecdote.  Heading  through his hotel's lobby to a dinner meeting,  he was wrapped in his private thoughts when a young lady interrupted.  She called his name, said she'd just seen the film, and wanted to tell him about problems in her life that she shares with him.  He saw how sincerely she wanted to connect and felt the kind of dilemma that his clients feel.  He told how, any time he's out with Alice Cooper, someone wants to tell Cooper about "the time I snuck out of the house and went to your concert and it changed my life."  Gordon admitted that he'd never known understood til now how torn up a famous person must feel.  Gordon asked, "When you feel so much love from people that you can't return, what does that do to you?"  

It so happens that I've just run into another view of that same question, in a book by Father Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire (New York: Image, 2014).   In a discussion of how our spirit affects our body, Rolheiser reminds us of all the famous or publicly adored people -- stars, religious leaders, sports figures - who have shamed themselves by some sex-related folly.  "So much adulation, if not grounded in some healthy way, will invariably overstimulate a person's grandiosity and, with that, his or her sexuality" (Rolheiser 72).  It's how idols become punchlines.  

Monday, June 09, 2014

Tony Awards 2014: Fantastic and Fun, but...

I got to watch the Tony Awards on a big screen TV 21 floors above Atlanta with the Frank Boggs, the teacher who, 40 years ago, informed my interest in Broadway theatre.  We felt hometown pride seeing Kenny Leon's win for the play Raisin in the Sun, and we enjoyed hearing the playwrights speak for their own dramas.  For the musicals,  we appreciated much of what we saw, while noting a few trends in the samples.

We appreciated several intentional shouts - out to teachers who had influenced the achievers we saw on stage.  

We appreciated host Hugh Jackman.  Frank, who is easily within three degrees of separation from anyone famous you care to name, remarked from experience that the host Hugh Jackman is "such a nice young man" who "is still just a regular guy."   Indeed, all of Jackman's efforts seemed to be focused on using his star power to focus attention on stage actors.  That was the effect of his opening number as he simply hopped past performers backstage who were dressing and stretching.  As he passed a video display of Van Johnson's hopping number from an old MGM film, we were assured that this goofy idea at least came from somewhere in the tradition.  During the rest of the show, he sang parodies to introduce nominees in major categories.  A highlight was his dancing in the aisles with the women nominated for Best Actress in a Musical, each lady getting her own tailor-made treatment.

That kind of thoughtfulness, uninhibited energy, and technical precision characterized every second of the televised show.

Jackman also promoted Broadway itself, "rapping" with a couple of hip-hop celebrities to show that The Music Man's classic opening number and our current pop music are much closer in spirit and technique than one might suppose.  That seems like a good thing, but, I feel like something is being lost.  More on that later.

Frank and I were struck throughout the show by the expertise and athleticism of the dancers, pleased that tap shoes entered into the action.   Tap had fallen on hard times for a awhile, but it was a highlight in almost every musical number.

We both enjoyed seeing Carole King.  Naturally, Frank had a personal connection, having once sat at King's feet when she was the opening act for an intimate show with James Taylor before Tapestry was released.  She sang a duet with Jessica Mueller, who portrays her in the musical Beautiful

Now, it may be that the efforts to make a stronger connection between pop and Broadway is diluting what's best about musical theatre.  Of all the new shows that presented excerpts for us last night, only A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder presented music integrated with drama.  Singing with Edwardian diction, one young man tried to keep two lovers apart from each other in a farcical number (complete with slamming doors -- see photo) that immediately immersed us in a story.

I wonder if A Gentleman's Guide won Best Musical because it was the only example of what we used to think of as the defining characteristic of a musical, the integration of music, lyrics, dramatic action, ambiance, and theme?   All the other songs from new shows were either presentational songs -- in which the performer presents an emotion to the audience directly, as a sermon or essay or personal statement -- or else the songs were diagetic, i.e., performed as performances in the context of the play.

We see diagetic music when "young Carole King" sits at a piano to sight-read sheet music for "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"  She's watched by a young man (first husband Gerry Goffin) who looks like he may not still love her tomorrow, so the song certainly relates to the story, on a tangent.  That dramatic layer to the song is lost when tinsel curtains drop and a pop group sings the words. The song becomes a stepping-stone in the story of King's career, but not part of its flow.

The Genie's song from Aladdin was a borderline case, because the character is ostensibly demonstrating his magic to the young man.  Still, it's presentational, breaking down the fourth wall between audience and performers, as if to say, "We're taking some time out from the story to sing you this fun song."  At one point, the Genie asks Aladdin, "Can you tap dance?"  The answer is no, but magic makes it happen -- for the sake of the number, not the story.

A song from Hedwig was diagetic, a transvestite rock singer performing at a club within the context of the stage show, though he stepped out to the Tony audience to lap dance with an astonished celebrity guest.

We saw a montage of moments from Rocky while the cast sang "Eye of the Tiger" as part of a living backdrop.

Sting sang an ersatz folk ballad from his upcoming musical, backed up by some men in costume who raised their fists at the end. 

Jennifer Hudson in a sequined gown belted a song about "Neverland," not once looking at four young boys in pajamas who gaped at her, the world of their story left unintegrated with anything the diva was doing.  Some other R&B divas of decades past presented songs from another era and then a troupe of dancers in period costume did some great gymnastics and tap, but it sure didn't look like part of any story. 

For Bullets Over Broadway, a chorus of tap-dancing gangsters were very impressive singing the old blues number "'T'ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do" re-purposed to convey the ruthlessness of a gangster character.

Of the revivals presented last night, only Les Miz integrated music, lyrics, and staging to advance the story and present character.  Factions of the play's immense cast of characters sang their signature tunes as they prepared for confrontation -- expertly modeled on the "Tonight" Quintet at the end of West Side Story's act one.   

In songs from revivals and other recent shows, the same trend was clear. 

Wicked gave us "For Good," a fine pop-styled ballad expressing gratitude and friendship at a time of parting.  The characters' words are couched in general terms about times we may have disagreed, and similes ("like" a something something in the wood, "like" a comet that something something... etc.).  Glinda sings the song with Elfeba (a.k.a. witch of the West) in a magic land called Oz, but it would work equally well sung by Carole King and her ex, or Aladdin parting ways with a Genie, or any two girls graduating high school in Atlanta, Georgia.  It's well-crafted, a great opportunity for the actresses to show off their singing chops and earnest emotion. Expressive as it may be in a general way, the song didn't "go" anywhere. A telltale sign was the lack of anything for the actresses to do:  They took turns peering at the spotlight, as if to picture whatever simile the other was singing about, the comet, or the tree, or whatever.

A song from "Violet" looked like it was going to integrate music and drama:  There were a woman in a plain dress, and two soldiers, and a couple of others, singing about going somewhere, but they didn't interact.  They presented face-on to the audience, until a church choir in robes intruded to sing a gospel song -- more diagetic music.

One other number in the Tony show last night, "Wilkommen" from Cabaret, plays on the difference between songs diagetic and dramatic.  We, watching a play, see a show staged for characters in Berlin during the late 1920s.   Every element of the song reflects on the decadence of the cosmopolitan society that would stand by, blase and self-absorbed, while the Nazis took over.   This interpenetration between worlds of the play and the audience purposefully connected 1920s Berlin with theatregoers of 1960s Manhattan who sought escapist and salacious entertainment at a time of social turmoil.  Underlying the whole effect is the knowledge that, in Berlin of the 1920s, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill were using the same technique to "distance" audiences from their musicals.

I'm not complaining, exactly, but feeling some regret.   I love cabaret performances as much as anyone.  Let a woman sing about "the man that got away" and then let her sing "I got my man, who could ask for anything more?" and I'm happy.  A well-formed song like "For Good" is a pleasure. 

In a play, however, a song can do what dialogue does.  A character uses song to persuade another person, or to persuade oneself to reach a decision.  Songs may reveal layers of a character.  Musical plays can offer something more when plot, character, ambiance, emotion, and overall theme are all integrated in music, words, and dance. 

At least this year we were not treated to ironic songs from musicals that said, "Look!  We're characters singing our thoughts in stereotyped Broadway melodies with overblown dance numbers.  Isn't this stupid?" 

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Protocols for Writing Groups: What did Ernest Hemingway say to Emily Dickinson?

Some years ago, working as staff with the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project (a chapter of the National Writing Project), I concocted three skits for teachers in the summer institute to read aloud as models for "dos and don'ts" for their writing groups. The skits have been useful ever since, though I think English majors will appreciate them most.

with Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, and Gertrude Stein
ERNEST:  This is a good place to meet.  It is a clean, well-lighted place.
EMILY: And quiet!  Nothing to hear but the buzzing of a fly at the window.  Good choice, Mr. Hemingway.           
ERNEST: Ernest.  But, Miss Dickinson, you can call me "Papa."
EMILY:  It's "Emily," please.
GERTRUDE(sarcastic) Oh, please Miss "Emily Please," someone is hitting on you.
EMILY: (to GERTRUDE) We haven't met (extending hand) I'm nobody.  Who are you?
GERTRUDE:  Gertrude Stein.
ERNEST: (snickering)  You can call her "Big Mama."  (pause)  Or "Butch."
GERTRUDE(to ERNEST)  Anyone who tries to outrun a charging bull is an idiot.
EMILY:  Oh, dear.  We seem to have begun on the wrong foot.
GERTRUDE: (to EMILY)  Read something to us.
EMILY:  Oh, I couldn't.  I've never shown my poems to anyone.
GERTRUDE:  Every writer needs readers.  You're trying to communicate with others, or else, what's the point?
ERNEST:  Listen to Butch.  She's right.  Do you want to end your life with a trunk full of poems that someone tosses out with your old underwear?
EMILY(blushing)   Oh, Mr. Hemingway -- Ernest!    Well, all right.   I didn't make any copies for you.  But it wouldn't take long.
EMILY:   It's just a little something I dashed off.
ERNEST:   Just start.
EMILY:   (reading)    "Because I would not stop for Death  /  He kindly stopped for me.  / The carriage held but just ourselves  / and all eternity."
EMILY: I'm afraid that's it.  I'm stuck there.
ERNEST:  Sounds like your stream of consciousness kind of ran dry.
GERTRUDE:  So, let me get this straight.  You're fantasizing about Death like he's some kind of blind date picking you up?  You need to get out more, girl.
ERNEST:  Yeah.  And that word "kindly."  Adverbs are prissy.  I wouldn't use "kindly."
GERTRUDE: (to ERNEST)  Who cares what you'd do?  You're not the one writing it!
EMILY: (dismayed, hurt)  So, can anyone give a suggestion how to -- proceed?
ERNEST:  Have 'em both go to a bar.    (Shooting a look at GERTRUDE.)  That's what I'd do.
  • Questions for writers beginning a writing group:
  1. Where will you meet?
  2. How can you learn to trust each other before you get into the business of reading each other's work?
  3. Is Gertrude right to forbid telling "what you would do?"

with Will Shakespeare, Sue Grafton, and Carl Sagan
WILL: (reading stage directions and lines from his draft of a script)  So, a messenger comes in and says to MacBeth, "The Queen, my Lord, is dead."  And MacBeth is all distracted by the upcoming battle, and so he says, "She should have died hereafter.  There would have been time for such a word tomorrow" -- and then he pauses, thinking about the implications: "Tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace, from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.  And all our yesterdays light the way of fools to dusty death.  'Tis a tale told by a nincompoop"  -- I'm not sure about that word -- "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
SUE:  Wow.   Oh wow.   What did you think, Doctor Sagan?
CARL: Sue,  I think you might have to let Will partner with you in your alphabet series.  You know, "M is for Murder Most Foul," or maybe, "T is for Thane?"
SUE:  And in that last speech, I like all the foreshadowing in the word choices!  There's "creeps," and "dusty death," and "fury."   You just get a delicious feeling that the body count is about to rise!
WILL:  Forsooth, 'twill indeed.  MacDuff's wife and all his little chicks -- whacked! -- in one fell swoop!  And then MacDuff is going to decapitate the villain.
SUE:  Excuse me, Will.  Aren't you forgetting our rule?  The author can't speak until everyone has had their say.
WILL:  Oh, right.
SUE:  Now, I also liked the way you made Banquo into a kind of detective, and just when he figures out who did it, then he's the next victim.  I didn't see that one coming!   Carl, what about you?
CARL:  I was fascinated by the weird sisters.  Are they really telling the future, or are they just putting the ideas in MacBeth's head?  It's a question with cosmological significance.
WILL(trying to restrain himself from speaking)   Ummmmmmmmmmmmmm!
CARL:  You know where it says, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" are all "lighting" the "road?"  It's a great image of the space - time continuum, with billions and billions of yesterdays leading inevitably to the present.  But of course, then, we have to wonder:  Do we have free will to alter the course of time?  Did MacBeth really have a choice?
WILL: (covering ears)  La - la - la - la - la - la!
SUE:  Carl, it's like I said with the witches.  Of course MacBeth had a choice!  If he didn't, well , there there's not much point in reading the story, is there?
WILL:  That's just what I mean.  Without choice, it's a tale that signifies nothing!
CARL(gently)  Remember our protocol.
WILL:  Damn the protocol!  'Od's bodkins, shouldn't I get to explain my own work?
SUE:  Now, Will, are you going to step out on stage to explain it every time someone puts on your play?  If the audience isn't getting your point, don't you need to know that now?
CARL:  You don't want people to have to read little footnotes for every other word, do you?   (pause)  Well, do you?
WILL:  No.  (abashed)    The rest is silence.
  • Questions for a writing group to consider before starting:
  1. Is it important for the author to read aloud?
  2. Should the author take part in the discussion of the work?
  3. Should the discussion be regulated in any other way?  (e.g., "Praise Question Polish," or "Bless, Address, Press...")

with Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Margaret Mitchell
EDNA: Gwendolyn, I did what you suggested.  I shortened it, a lot.  In fact, maybe it's too short, now.
GWENDOLYN:  Real cool.
MARGARET:  Oh, Edna St. Vincent!  You didn't cut out the parts about all your young beaus, did you?
EDNA:  Well, Margaret, now they're sort of implied.
MARGARET:   And the dancing!   I love a cotillion!
EDNA:  There's an echo of that.
GWENDOLYN:  Well if Margaret will stop bemoaning drafts that are gone with the wind, I'm ready to hear your new one.
EDNA:All right.   (reads)  "My candle burns at both ends  /  It will not last the night  /   But oh, my foes, and ah, my friends / It gives a lovely light."   (awkward silence)     The end.
GWENDOLYN:  You go, girl.
MARGARET:  Well, I must say, that just takes my breath away!
GWENDOLYN:  That first draft, it was all right, with those men, and the drinking, and those snooty women, and those parties.  But then Margaret here, she says -- what did you say, Margaret?
MARGARET:  "Frankly my dear, it sounds like you're burning your candle at both ends."  That's what I said!
GWENDOLYN:  Now see what a little metaphor can do?  And I like the difference between "oh my foes" and "ah my friends."  You say so much with so little!
MARGARET:  Well, I think we should go out and celebrate!  What do you think, Edna St. Vincent?
EDNA:  I'm always up for a party.   But, Margaret, did you bring anything for us to read?
MARGARET:  Now I'm embarrassed.  Mine is nine hundred and seventy-five pages!  And I still can't find an ending for it!
GWENDOLYN(sighs)  For you, I'll make time tomorrow.
EDNA:  That's right.  You know what they say.
EDNA:  Tomorrow's another day.
  • Questions for a writing group to consider:
  1. Should writing groups have homework?
  2. How does a writing group end?

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Jesus Ascended: Then What?

The clergy at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA have made a concerted effort to get us to fired up about the couple dozen weeks of "ordinary time" between Pentecost and Advent.  It's working for me. 

They started their campaign with a special Thursday evening mass for Ascension.  It's one of the great seven festival days of the church, our clergy told us, right up there with Christmas and Easter.  I read in Forward Day by Day that Ascension Day is a holiday in some countries, but I've never paid attention.  This time, we sang "Hail Thee, Festival Day" full-throttle.

To relate Ascension to us, associate rector Fr. Daron Vroon began his sermon by describing a stained-glass window depicting apostles looking upward at Jesus' receding feet. Vroon suggested that we get a better deal than those who knew Jesus just as a physical presence. 

In a sermon on Ascension Sunday, rector Fr. Roger Allen elaborated: the Apostles didn't "get it" until Jesus was gone.  The change came when they received "the advocate" a.k.a. the Holy Spirit, two insufficient substitutes for the untranslatable word "paraklete."  Then their ministry to the world began.
As he spoke, a bird that had slipped into the church fluttered about the nave, but Fr. Allen quipped that this was fitting, not just because the Spirit is often depicted as a bird, but because his spell-check kept turning his words into a sermon about the "parakeet."

Now that Ascension is past, and the celebration of paraklete's arrival comes Sunday, this is "our time."  Fr. Allen explains in his latest newsletter that the time is called "ordinary" not in the sense of "average" but in the sense of "ordinal," having to do with numbers, simply because the Sundays are known by their number of weeks after Pentecost.  The readings for this season celebrate "the mystery of Christ in our daily lives" and instruct us "how to live out our Christian faith,"...
We spend time with the struggles of the churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, and reflecting on the advice and instructions in the letters to the Hebrews, to the Galatians, to Titus, and the letter of James.  In the Daily Office, we remember and are called to emulate the lives of saints past.  The whole focus of this time is to connect what we have recalled and celebrated earlier in the year (the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost) with our own lives and the world in which we live. (Fr. Roger Allen, The Word, June 2014)

Instead of vacation time, Fr. Allen says, it's a time when we should be "very, very busy" fulfilling our Baptismal vows (Book of Common Prayer 304-305).   He himself is busy "preaching the Gospel to little sea creatures" on a beach in Jamaica, says our Fr. Vroon, and will be refreshed when he gets back for Pentecost. 

See my reflection upon Ascension Day in 2017, "Up to Us."

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Poet Linda Pastan: Not "Quite Ordinary"

Reflection on poems by Linda Pastan in her collection Queen of a Rainy Country (New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2006).   Read her bio and some popular poems at

Attention paid last week to the news of Maya Angelou's death overwhelmed Garrison Keillor's nod to poet Linda Pastan on her 82nd birthday.  Angelou was a great public performer whose magisterial voice I've recognized since President Clinton's first inauguration.  But let's celebrate work of Angelou's contemporary Linda Pastan, whose understated poetry brings insight to ordinary things.

Her insights into aging affected me deeply, as I've described in earlier blog posts (read here).    In Pastan's 2006 collection, the latest I've read, she writes of feeling like Queen of a Rainy Country, an image borrowed from Baudelaire to express what it's like to have a young mind in command of a realm that's slipping away. Not just her body, but the world is dissolving, as she reads headlines that "leak blood all over the breakfast table." While she remembers that "it has always been like this," she feels "longing for childhood whose failures / were merely personal" ("A Rainy Country" 77).

On a related theme, several poems in this collection address her husband, their years past, the time ahead.   "Though we know how it will end," she writes, "we go about our ordinary days," and perhaps" the "few years left...".
will somehow endure,
the way a portrait of lovers endures
radiant and true on the wall
of some obscure Dutch museum
("50 Years" 30)
She plays with what might have been, as in a poem about the siblings she, an only child, used to imagine for herself, now only two more "ghosts" among all the others who used to be her family ("To My Imaginary Siblings" 5).  She writes about "The Life I Didn't Lead" (12) and the parallel universe in which she and her husband never married (19).  In "I Married You," she concludes simply, "How wrong we both were / about each other, / and how happy we have been" (28).

She likens her own work to that of her photographer.  Seeing her own face "rise like Venus" from a bath of photographic chemicals, she reflects that he has made a beautiful face from "the plain one" that the poet sees in her mirror.  Like the photographer, Pastan wants to make language "quiver" in poems using words that "seem quite ordinary" ("The Photographer" 8). She delights in the "strange, compelling combinations" that letters can make ("Alphabet Song" 33).  Though she rarely rhymes, she juxtaposes similar words for effect [italics mine]: a  milestone anniversary may be a millstone (22); the setting sun makes its plunge pulling its multi-colored plumage after it (in an erotically-charged poem "Late Afternoon, St. John" 29); and parental duty languishes so she can have her "daily fix of language", and "the bed remains disheveled" while "the dishes loll in the sink / like adolescents"  ("For the Sake of the Poem" 38).  Those lolling adolescents of the simile prefigure the neglected children mentioned later.

Pastan plays with everyday objects as if they were metaphors.  She illustrates the process in a poem that takes off from Manet's claim that he could "say" what he wanted with just fruit, a flower, or clouds.  Pastan tries it: what does a bowl of apples "say" to one's husband?  Are these symbols of love, or lust, or the Fall?  Maybe fruit is all she has prepared for dessert ("All I Want to Say" 27).  She makes a near-allegory from a dinner out, the waiter's clearing of the table being like clearing away "the debris of years" ("Don't Think of This" 19).  "November Rain" is a set of Haiku-like meditations on black umbrellas (49), and autumn leaves bring to mind "leaves" of paper, "each a poem / or story,/ an unread letter" ("Death of the Self" 48).

Pastan returns to favorite images for new uses.  The pages of this book abound, as her others do, with dogs, the garden or The Garden (where "all the dogs / of my long life jump up / to lick my face" 13), the immigrant generation of her family (much of section I), and the passing of seasons (all of section IV).  Poems in this collection share images of cut grass as an image of lost time ("A Boy" 7) and the image of rivers branching into ever-tinier tributaries, as metaphors for time or analogies for her own arteries ("Anomaly" 9).

As I read, I gave one poem two check marks for saying things I've thought without being conscious:  "Things I Didn't Know I loved:  After Nazim Hikmet" (14-15).  There are sky, clouds, grass, rain and "snow when I am inside looking out," and trees, but above all "the sound of trains,/ those drawn-out whistles of longing in the night" that "give loneliness and departure a voice."  In a line that draws together all the themes of this collection, she writes that she may "embrace the music of departure" because it will one day "be all there is left to love." 

Monday, June 02, 2014

Stephen Sondheim with Marian McPartland on "Piano Jazz"

Reflections on hearing Stephen Sondheim's guest appearance on Marian McPartland's radio program "Piano Jazz" on February 23, 1994. Listen here. See an index to many other articles I've written about Sondheim here.

I've been a fan of Stephen Sondheim since 1974, of jazz because of Sondheim (thanks to Cleo Laine's first recording of "Send in the Clowns"), and a fan of jazz pianist Marian McPartland since I first heard her warmth and elegant diction in her conversation with jazz pianists on her public radio show "Piano Jazz" around 1984.   So how did I miss their meeting?  Thanks to the internet, it's there for anyone to hear anytime. 

Near the end of the broadcast, Sondheim thanks McPartland: "I don't often get that kind of treatment."   Jazz musicians haven't picked up on his music so much as on earlier standards, at least in part because Sondheim's songs don't leave much room for improv -- because he tailors his music to the moment, breaking out of the AABA form, often layering in different voices. 

But in conversation with pianist McPartland, Sondheim for once gets to talk about music, apart from lyrics and showbiz personalities.  Here's what I picked up, leaving out things I've read many times in other sources:

  •  the advent of rock and pop music "freed" composers like Sondheim from the pressure to write hits -- allowing him to follow Bernstein's advice to break away from "square" rhythm, to keep the audience surprised
  • Milton Babbitt, for two years Sondheim's graduate level tutor, is "avant garde to the avant garde," Sondheim says, yet loved show tunes.  Babbitt analyzed show music and classical with young Sondheim, including his demonstration how Jerome Kern never introduces the tonic chord of "All the Things You Are" until the very end.  When McPartland asks Sondheim if Kern planned it that way, Sondheim recalls hearing from Oscar Hammerstein how Kern found his melodies and chords by trial and error, phrase by phrase, "though it sounds like he wrote his melodies in one breath."
  • Knowing musical technique is like learning to drive a stick shift, Sondheim says:  once you know it, you use it all the time without thinking.  That's how Kern, Rodgers, and Beethoven wrote.
  • When McPartland comments on Sondheim's "spare" accompaniment in a then-new song from Passion ("I Wish I Could Forget You"), he cited orchestrator Jonathan Tunick for advice to "think orchestrally."  Sondheim has increasingly learned to write first drafts away from the piano, forcing himself to think more of what an orchestra can do to sustain notes, for example. 
  • When McPartland plays "Send in the Clowns," he thanks her for playing a crucial chord in the bridge that Nelson Riddle copied wrong in his arrangement for Frank Sinatra (writing a major third, instead of a sustained fourth).  Most recordings of the song evidently came from hearing Sinatra's recording.  Riddle didn't amend his arrangement, even for a later recording. "That stinker!" McPartland says.
From other sources, I know that Sondheim is not so interested in jazz, but he finds positive things to say about McPartland's versions of his songs.  Her version of "Anyone Can Whistle" is "tender";  he wishes he'd thought of her suspension at the end of the bridge for "Send in the Clowns";  he compliments the "cadences" she came up with to bring an end to "Pretty Women" (which is interrupted without a proper ending in the original score).  For her version of "Pretty Women," he noted how she plays the sustaining pedal with her left foot.  "I learned that from Duke Ellington," she explains, because he liked to turn his body right to connect with his audience, and the left-foot technique gave him that flexibility.

McPartland opined that Lee Remick's original recording of "Anyone Can Whistle" was better than others she'd heard.  Sondheim agreed that this was often the case, even when the original performer lacked the strong voices of other artists, because the songs were written for their voices or at least for their characters. 

A couple more notes: 
  • Sondheim has been given the jazz treatment more since 1994.  "Color and Light" was a CD compilation of jazz interpretations recorded around then;  the Terry Trotter Trio recorded jazz covers of scores for Forum, Passion, Follies, Night Music, Company, and Sweeney Todd - all delightful. More recently, bassist Tommy Cecil has recorded two albums with pianist Billy Mays, improvising on tunes mostly by Sondheim.  Jazz vocalist Jane Harvey did an interesting album around 1990, "The Jazz Side of Sondheim," notable for finding that some of "Could I Leave You?" is based on the pitches for the kids' cat-call, "nyeah, nyeah, nyeah-nyeah nyeah." Long before that, film and opera composer Richard Rodney Bennett recorded "A Different Side of Sondheim" that may still be my favorite.
  • Around 2000, I saw Marian McPartland here in my neighborhood north of Atlanta, at Kennesaw State University.   She was a little lady, chatty and fun.  She took requests, stipulating, "I don't do 'Melancholy Baby' or anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber."