Sondheim in Two Contexts
by Gerald Moshell
Let me bring up the matter of hearing Stephen Sondheim's music in two different contexts. Let's call the first the typical musical-theatre context.
At Trinity College (Hartford CT), where I am a professor of music and chair of the department, I every few years teach a course called "The Contemporary Musical Theater," which begins with an examination of Hair (1967/8) and continues with many of the ensemble-oriented "concept" musicals that define the forward-looking style for the next several decades (for example, Pippin, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, A Chorus Line, Runaways, and Nine, in addition to the series of Sondheim musicals beginning with Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Pacific Overtures).
Let's call the second context the classical music context.
On Friday, September 13, 1985 (Schoenberg's birthday, even to the day of the week), I conducted what was probably the first-ever performance outside of New York City of orchestrated excerpts from Sunday in the Park with George (1984 Broadway premiere). This was a concert, at Trinity College with professional performers, of 20th-century works for chamber ensemble, with the principal work being the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No. 1 for 15 solo instruments. The excerpts from Sunday consisted of the Dot's "Sunday in the Park with George," George's "Finishing the Hat," George and Dot's "Move On," and the first-act finale, "Sunday," with a student chorus supporting the soloists. Aside from the Schoenberg and the Sondheim, the other works on the program were Stravinsky's Pribaoutki, for female singer and eight instrumentalists; the DeFalla Harpsichord Concerto; and the Hindemith Martinslied for male singer and small mixed ensemble. The Sondheim songs were performed with solo strings, as was every other work on the program.
In which of these two contexts do you think that Sondheim's music fared better to undergraduates who knew very little, if any, of the musical-theatre or classical literature listed above?
It may surprise you to know that Sondheim's music fared better with these students in the classical music context, but primarily for reasons that are revelatory with respect to the comparative modernities in the two contexts.
To many students, Pacific Overtures or Sweeney Todd or Sunday in the Park with George (compared to Pippin or Jesus Christ Superstar or A Chorus Line) sounded too jarring and dissonant; ugly even. Several students (again, students for whom this was their first introduction to the material) remarked that Sondheim's music gave them "a headache."
And realize that, even in the classical music context described above, the non-Sondheim pieces (Stravinsky, deFalla, Hindemith, Schoenberg) are cast largely in a neo-classical, hardly atonal, early 20th-century style. Even the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony can be looked at as a neo-classicized vessel for filtering the Wagner-Strauss-Mahler lineage; the composer wasn't to embrace atonalism, much less serialism, for several years.
Yet, in this none-too-forbidding classical music context, students found the Sondheim songs "melodious" and "soothing" and even "beautiful" (I, of course, find all of this repertoire, classical or musical-theatre, beautiful) and the other works "jarring," "dissonant," "ugly even." One can only surmise that students, in hearing Pribaoutki or the deFalla Harpsichord Concerto against works of Boulez or Stockhausen or even later Schoenberg, would find that the Stravinsky or the deFalla acquire new elements of balminess.
Can Sondheim aesthetically hold his own against the best of 20th/21st-century classical composers? Of course he can. His score for Sunday in the Park with George, to choose but one show, is a miracle of harmonic intricacy, rhythmic inventiveness, melodic expressivity, and textural integrity. And he has the inestimable advantage of composing to his own lyrics, with which there are surely no equals within the musical-theatre literature and quite possibly beyond that as well.
Indeed, the point can be made that Sondheim is the greatest combination of composer and wordsmith who has ever lived. One could adduce, for example, that Richard Wagner wrote some pretty swell music (even lots of pretty swell music), but the libretti themselves hardly sail into the literary top-drawer. Who else? Cole Porter? Guillaume de Machaut?
Sunday in the Park with George can almost be considered Sondheim's Hamlet, for the astonishing wealth of quotable lines and meaningful statements. But every mature work of Sondheim's, starting at least with 1970's Company, is filled with such wisdom, wit, and human insight and understanding. Do the music and lyrics work together in this respect? Of course they do. For example, in the song "Sorry/Grateful" from Company, a number that might stand as the archetypical Sondheim song dealing with choices and ambivalence, the character Harry, in response to the question from Bobby, the central character, as to whether he's ever sorry he got married, answers:
"You're always sorry, you're always grateful, you're always wondering what might have been. Then she walks in."
At this point in the lyric, a lesser thinker/writer might have continued with the notion that, with the woman's "walking in," the man's life would be greatly uplifted, or at least changed, positively or negatively, in some way.
Sondheim starts the song (on the words "You're always sorry, you're always grateful") in a fairly sober D-major, colored with Stravinskyan pan-diatonicized chords, and with the melodic dissonance on "sorry" slightly more prominent than the one on "grateful." With the line "you're always wondering what might have been," the melody and harmony stray somewhat, as if to prepare a flight of emotion for when the woman "walks in."
But the song continues, after Sondheim's crafty fake-out, with the line "And still you're sorry, and still you're grateful," and these words are set to a repeat of the initial melody and harmony, in the same key of D. The implacably anchored musical setting of "And still you're sorry" represents the guillotine for the presumed romanticisms of the pre-1970 musical.
What about Sondheim strictly as a composer? It's no secret that musical theatre is a genre often condescended to by advanced (and even not-so-advanced) practitioners in both realms ("It's hardly real theatre," "Well, you know, it's not really music."). I would claim, however, that, along with Charles Ives, Sondheim is the great American composer of any stripe. It was a joy to program him with Schoenberg, Stravinsky, DeFalla, and Hindemith, in whose company he rubs elbows quite felicitously, thank you very much. Perhaps the only real regret is that, like other composers who have written almost exclusively for the lyric stage (Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, for example), Sondheim has composed very little for the concert hall.
Moshell is Professor of Music at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut