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Opera’s Crude Cousin Grown Up 

Stephen Sondheim, and the winding road of the American musical

Thursday, Jul 22 2004
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Photo by Robert Millard

When Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern’s musical Showboat floated onto Broadway in 1927 with its jazzy score, dizzying dance sequences and skeptical themes about rotten luck and rotten race relations, musical theater as a singularly American art form also pulled into port. Showboat declared musical theater’s independence from the clutches of the variety show — that Ukrainian/Yiddish import that had dominated the genre with its sketch comedy, burlesque and vaudeville trappings. Showboat let it be known that a Broadway musical could be operatic in scope. Eight years later, George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess reiterated that point with its high tragedy, sophisticated humor and with songs approaching the grandeur of arias. For commercial reasons, when Porgy & Bess opened on Broadway in 1935 after a Boston tryout, the marketing campaign strategically avoided the description “opera.” Despite critical acclaim, Porgy & Bess played a disappointing 124 performances at the Alvin Theater, and backers waited years for a return on their investments. The lesson for future practitioners of the burgeoning form: Flying too high above the crowd literally has its costs.

The Broadway musical has always been an oddity. Virtually the only professional theater genre capable of turning a financial profit without patronage or subsidy (the solo star turn, the circus and a bang-up Shakespeare are the occasional exceptions), it spits in the eye of those howling for public-arts funding.

The musical has waded through decades of being the showy stepchild of vaudeville and the vulgar American cousin of Italian opera and French ballet — the one snapping gum at the wedding and rifling through comic books at the newsstand. The opera’s high note is a clarion soprano; the ballet’s, a perfectly executed jeté. In musicals, we wait for the puppet show, or the helicopter to land on the stage, or the chandelier to come crashing down. The producers of this year’s Tony Award winner for best musical, Avenue Q, have chosen to bypass all major American cities for the touring production. They’re taking it straight to Vegas, where they figure it belongs.

 

Swimming upstream against musical theater’s pedestrian drift (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton John, Jonathan Larson and the Disney Corporation), composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim has spent more than 40 years concocting works of musical theater that have almost all been propelled from Broadway. His range of musical devices is not particularly broad. You can hear the same motifs and patter-song techniques repeating across a compendium of his plays, including Company, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods and Assassins — which is only a fraction of his résumé. Sondheim’s well-earned reputation comes not from the breadth of his musical contributions but from their depth, from the collisions of motifs and variations on them, swelling in tension before withdrawing, then returning in a key raised half a tone, the cumulative effect being that if any actor drops a note, the result will be chaos. If, in the opera, you wait to see if the soprano can sustain that high C through the fifth measure, the suspense in a Sondheim musical comes from the baroque tension of 100 notes in the air, bouncing off each other contrapuntally, and whether or not they will land upon a harmony. Invariably, they do: in the lyrics to Company’s anthem, “Company”; in Sweeney Todd’s refrain, “Raise your razor high, Sweeney, hold it to the sky”; in “A Weekend in the Country” (from A Little Night Music, currently playing in an excellent L.A. Opera production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion); in the extended opening salvo of Into the Woods.

As a lyricist, Sondheim picks up where playwrights Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward left off — writing with an urbanity born of romanticism and bitterness combined into a single breath.

In Company, after a one-night stand, the leading man (a confirmed New York City bachelor; the musical is about that condition) has a duet with his airline-attendant lover, who staggers out of his bed to gather her clothes. The duet is a waltz: “Where you going?/Barcelona/Oh/[pause as he lies there] Don’t get up.”

In A Little Night Music, also about marriage and sex, the leading man, an aging attorney, croons to his ex-mistress about his new 18-year-old wife with a stream of platitudes about her habits and contradictions, culminating with his enthusiastic compliment, “She’s really quite simple!” to which his ex-mistress replies, “Yes, that much seems clear.”

Any musical that features a romantic song such as “Every Day a Little Death” (from A Little Night Music), plucked from a field planted by Chekhov and Beckett, has concerns beyond mass appeal. And yet the intricate beauty of Sondheim’s work has clearly drawn a following.

For reasons of economics — call it the Porgy & Bess syndrome — revivals of Sondheim musicals are now staged almost entirely by opera companies, which are subsidized, rather than commercial theaters, which rely on investors. Yet there may be a reason for this beyond the obvious risk of throwing Sondheim’s cynical urbanity into the open marketplace. After Company in 1970, Sondheim’s musicals are almost all steps removed from contemporary society. A Little Night Music, a roundelay of liaisons based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, is set in early 20th-century Sweden; Sunday in the Park With George, about painter Georges Seurat, unfolds in 19th-century France; Sweeney Todd, about a homicidal barber, 19th-century London; Assassins is a historical collage of people who’ve tried to knock off U.S. presidents; Into the Woods, a mythic fairy tale, etc. As we’ve turned a corner into the 21st century, our popular entertainments have grown increasingly anti-historical — either obsessed with showing reflections from our time zone or delving into escapist fantasies. Opera may be the last refuge for stories that speak about our complexity through those who went before.

Scott Ellis’ pristine staging of Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 A Little Night Music shows just how deep light romance can cut. It’s a little gem, presented here by L.A. Opera via New York City Opera. It stars Victor Garber, Judith Ivey and Zoe Caldwell, and features Laura Benanti, Marc Kudisch and Michele Pawk, choreographed by Susan Stroman. For more, see Alan Rich’s column in the music section and a review in Calendar/Theater.

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC | By STEPHEN SONDHEIM AND HUGH WHEELER | Presented by LOS ANGELES OPERA | DOROTHY CHANDLER PAVILION, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Through July 31 | Call (213) 365-3500

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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