Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Every Minor Detail's a Major Decision:
Two Books on Sondheim and Company

At age 15, a boy has incredible capacity for absorbing trivial knowledge in his field of interest.  For some, it's sports statistics; for me, it was Broadway musicals, particularly those of Stephen Sondheim.  I got Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Co. in its first edition (1974), which told how Sondheim and his collaborators created shows from West Side Story to A Little Night Music.  I curled up in my stuffed chair to read it straight through.  But before Mom called for dinner, I'd absorbed more than backstage backstories; I'd learned a whole ethos of artistic collaboration that has motivated me ever since.

Zadan then was very young, but he'd co-produced the first of many star-studded tributes to Sondheim.  He interviewed Sondheim, librettists and directors of his shows,  as we'd expect.  He interviewed performers, as we'd hope.  But he also interviewed set designers, music publishers, orchestra conductors, poster designers, casting directors, and costumers.  Through all their perspectives, which sometimes contradict each other, we understand how, in Sondheim's own line from Sunday in the Park with George, "Every minor detail is a major decision. / Have to keep things in scale, / Have to hold to your vision."

Even forty-plus years later, every page is familiar to me.  If I open the book at random, I'm going to find a tidbit about the kind of imagination and sweating of details that went into making every moment of the show "hold to [their] vision."  Here are a few examples I selected from leafing through the second edition of the book, just now:

James Goldman, librettist for Follies, on the song "Who's That Woman?" in which a young chorus first mirrors then joins in with the chorus of older women at the reunion of Follies girls:  "The physical impression you got from that was anguishing. To see the decay of the flesh -- all those bright, young beautiful girls and their lovely bodies with all the sense of youth and the promise of what's to come contrasted against what actually became of it. That's devastating... and very movielike" (Zadan 141).

Patricia Birch, dance director for Pacific Overtures, on staging "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," Sondheim's opener that explains 19th century Japanese society: "In the middle of it, there was a little puddle of people moving straight at us.   And I had always had the image from the minute I started that these were the people on the island of Japan.  Of course, the thing with Steve's numbers is that he gives you so many images to work from, so you're not just building something for the sake of building something" (216).

Michael Bennett, dance director for Company, on requesting Sondheim to write about how much all the married couples like their single friend Bobby in a song that would repeat so much that it becomes "grating": "[Steve] then wrote 'What Would We Do Without You?'  And [in the number] I'm not saying that all these married couples aren't sincere about caring for Bobby in the show, but you need more than friendships or it becomes the old song and dance routine.  The only thing that Steve and I had any disagreement on ... was the tug-of-war in that number [as couples vie for Bobby's attention]. ...I felt that's where Bobby was. I thought it worked" (123).

Jonathan Tunick, orchestrator of Follies, is praised by Sondheim for his work on the song "In Buddy's Eyes":  The actress Dorothy Collins says in the song "that everything is just wonderful and she's ... so happily married. Nothing in the lyric, not a word tells you that maybe it isn't true. [But] there is something in the orchestration.  ... Jonathan has orchestrated it so that every phrase in the song which refers to her husband is dry, all woodwinds.  Whenever she refers to herself, it's all strings again" (157).  Tunick explains how he closed that song with "a penetrating cold sound... a combination of muted trumpets and sometimes bells."

Another book, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, is by Ted Chapin, who worked as director Hal Prince's personal assistant in 1971, beginning as Prince's team was preparing for its first rehearsals.  (For what I learned in a book about Hal Prince, link here.) Based on his journal from the time, he chronicles the anxieties of the performers and creators, the many revisions and experiments, and the mistakes.  Again, we see how much thought goes into every detail, and also how much grinding work:

Michael Bennett, dance director, explains to the cast why their entrances during the "Prologue" must be precisely choreographed and timed to the beat, even though it's not a "dance":  "The show is really about time and what it does to people, so we must establish that we are going to stop it at will, turn it back and twist it around whenever we desire. I realize that crossing on a count of eight can be tricky, but I want everyone to become so well drilled that it never looks like anyone is counting" (Chapin 58).  Weeks and nearly 200 pages later, Bennett is still re-staging the Prologue.

Hal Prince, director, decides after a dozen preview performances for audiences (and weeks of rehearsals and revisions) that the song "Can That Boy Fox Trot" isn't working and must be replaced, but Sondheim needs something to write about.  The character "Carlotta Campion," was played by the show's biggest "star" Yvonne De Carlo, whose career peaked in the 1950s when she played sultry beauties in Hollywood films.  More recently, she'd starred as  "Lily" in the campy TV series The Munsters, which had been cancelled.  The only reason she needed a song was that the audience would expect the biggest star to sing one.  Sondheim gets the assignment to write one on page 181; Sondheim shows up on page 234 with the finished manuscript of a new song "I'm Still Here," which Chapin has the task of typing.  He recreates for us what he was thinking as he typed:

I was astounded.  The song just kept delivering brilliant images of events and people from the 1930s and forties, all woven into a passionate and dramatic statement of survival.  Wow, I thought, and this from a fairly simple-minded character who had previously sung a clever song with one big double-entendre joke and some tossed-off quips about being a has been.  Now we're learning who she was, and it was really good.  ... In some ways the song seemed to be as much about Yvonne De Carlo herself as it was about Carlotta Campion ... which would add a layer of pathos to the performance....
Here, I'm sure that Chapin is thinking of these lines from Sondheim's lyric:

First, you're another sloe-eyed vamp,
Then someone's mother,
Then you're camp.
Then you career from career to career.
I'm almost through my memoir,
And I'm here.  (Sondheim, "I'm Still Here")

Chapin continues:
He had been observing her, I thought, and he must have taken in a lot of who Yvonne was to create a piece of material that would give such depth to her character in so emotional a way. (Steve later claimed that Joan Crawford, not Yvonne, was his inspiration.)  ... Little did I or any of us know then that it would become one of Sondheim's most performed songs, and one whose sentiments, first typed that day by a twenty-year-old gofer, would continue to have resonance for years to come.  (237)

According to Chapin, who got it from Yvonne, Hal Prince was so pleased to hear her sing it the first time that he cried (241).  To tell you the truth, I get choked up reading about this, too, just from the satisfaction of seeing how music, lyrics, character, actress, rehearsal process, pacing of the script, audience reactions, all come together for marvelous, memorable, lasting effect.

Chapin tells us how the cast gathered at a restaurant in Boston to hear Hal Prince read their first review, by Samuel Hirsch of the Boston Herald Traveler. 

There's a magic feeling [that] comes over you when a new musical opens and lets you know all's well within the first few minutes.  You sense it's going to be a special evening because the talents of the men and women who conceived it and who put it all together and are playing it with sure skill and good taste let you know immediately that you're watching something extraordinary take place.  (189)

Amen.  I'm grateful to Chapin for his in-depth look at the creation of Follies, and to Zadan for teaching me all those years ago that enjoying the show is only icing on the cake; perceiving the thought and work that went into making the show is what makes it "something extraordinary."

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