Thursday, January 6, 2011

Unpopular With The Populace

Happy New Year, everyone. There's a more extensive post coming later tonight, but for now, a quick thought:

In high school, I was a huge, obsessive fan of Stephen Sondheim. I bought every CD I could get my hands on. I obsessed over every song. I thought every single thing he ever touched was pure gold. I probably drove everyone I knew crazy with my obsession.

And I still love his music, but eventually, well, I had it pretty well memorized. Listening to a cast album hundreds of times pretty much ingrains it in your head. And as a result, I haven't listened to some of his shows in years. I still love his work, and will defend it to anyone, but I don't relate in nearly so obsessive a way. I'm even capable of recognizing that some of his songs aren't the greatest things ever written. It's probably a healthy development.

But as a result, that means that I haven't listened to some of his shows all the way through for literally years. They're still in my head somewhere, but I haven't actually experienced the music in a long time. Which is understandable, but still a shame.

But over my commutes last night and this morning, I listened to Anyone Can Whistle. And I had forgotten how stunning it is.

It's probably the most egregious example of a common occurence in Sondheim's career: books that undercut the score's brilliance at every turn. Arthur Laurents' book is, no question, a disaster zone: a terribly scattered satire that doesn't hit nearly enough targets, which clashes with the human love story being told within. And I'm not just saying this based on its reputation: I was lucky enough to see it when Pegasus Players produced it in 2004. While the production was variable in quality, it was still clear that no revival could make this show really work.

But the score...just wow. To choose just two moments in a string of brilliant pieces: in "Me and My Town," the opening number, the corrupt mayoress (Angela Lansbury in the original, brilliant as always) sings a jazzy lament over her town's dire situation. And then her backup singers come out, and it turns into a deranged dance number about a small town affected by economic depression. It's impossible to explain how demented the effect is, but I was walking down the street with a goofy smile plastered on my face at the sheer delightful audacious lunacy of it.

The first act ends with a sequence called "Simple". In brief, it centers on a doctor who claims that he can determine who in a mixed group is crazy and who isn't. He does so, perverting logic and confusing everyone around him, through 13 minutes of increasing musical and mental derangement. It's quite impressive as it goes along, building to a crescendo of lunacy. Then the music cuts out, the doctor tells everyone "You are all mad," and, in a burst of circus music, the entire cast appears onstage, wildly applauding and laughing at the audience. Even coming from a pair of earbuds, it sent chills up my spine.

So the moral, if there is one, is this: you know that CD you love, but haven't listened to in years? Pull it out and listen to it again. You'll remember why.

Also, you should really get a copy of Anyone Can Whistle.

And Stephen Sondheim is still God.


Anonymous said...

I'm the same way, Zev. I know nearly every Sondheim OBC album backwards and forwards, so I rarely listen to many of them. But when I do, it amazes me how I always seem to catch something new.

Recently, however, I've reacquainted myself with the cast recording of "The Will Rogers Follies." What a fun score! The lyrics by Comden and Green are actually quite clever. And Dee Hoty is magnificent in it.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I saw "Anyone Can Whistle" at Ravinia. Patti was absolutely fierce as Cora. And Audra? Forgeddaboutit. Before the show, Sondheim talked about the creation of ACW, and noted how "Me and My Town" was intended to be a riff on the acts that Kay Thompson used to do with the Williams Brothers.

Zev Valancy said...

You know, I've never really gotten into "The Will Rogers Follies," but maybe I should give it another chance.I do enjoy Dee Hoty.

And I hear that Donna Murphy's take on Cora in the "Encores" version last April was staggering. I did hear about the Kay Thompson thing, and from the little of her work I've heard, the parody was dead on. But I hesitate to ask--was Audra the good kind of Forgeddaboutit, or the bad kind?