Thursday, December 20, 2007

Side by side

A few months back, the A.V. Club started a featured called "Primer." The idea was to provide concise introductions to artists who had a large body of work -- Springsteen, for example.

Noel knew from the very beginning that he wanted to do a Primer for Stephen Sondheim, tied to the release of Tim Burton's film version of Sweeney Todd. It was a bit of a tough sell at first; the A.V. Club readership aren't, in the main, Broadway people. But I was always desperate for him to do it. What more valuable purpose could a Primer serve than to bridge the gap between the movie our readers are interested in and the stage from which it was drawn?

I'm not sure when Noel and I first became engrossed in Sondheim's work. Probably it was when we picked up a D.A. Pennebaker documentary called Original Cast Album: Company at our Charlottesville video store in the mid-nineties. The film portrayed the in-studio recording of the original Broadway production of Company, Sondheim's 1970 examination of marriage and single life in New York City at the end of the swinging sixties. We were enraptured by the music, the process of extracting it from its dramatic context for an album of separate tracks, and by the tortured struggles of Elaine Stritch trying to get the right world-weary bitterness into "Ladies Who Lunch." And we knew we had to hear more Sondheim, this composer and lyricist who didn't seem to write show tunes as we knew them.

Since then we've blossomed into world-class Sondheim fanboys. We've devoured every filmed version of his shows, and Noel's gone so far as to collect just about every concert and cast album of the various stagings. Sunday In The Park With George is probably my favorite -- a dozen of its songs can dissolve me into a sobbing, sodden puddle. But songs from almost every show fascinate and move me.

Noel wants "No One Is Alone" played at his funeral. Although I hope I'm not around to hear it, I wish I could be witness the room filling up with the song. Sondheim throws these lifelines out into the unknown -- these hopeful assertions that all is well, all will be well, that there is a way to move on and live with uncertainty and despair. Yet he is not at all sure about them, I think. You can carry them with you, but they only are truly meaningful as the story that surrounds them plays out again and again. There's no final word with Sondheim -- just a note hanging in the air that eventually will become the start of the next song that will try to find a way forward.

Noel's Sondheim Primer -- he's been working on it for over a month -- will appear on the A.V. Club site tomorrow. If you take a few minutes to read and listen (it contains downloadable songs from all the shows mentioned), you'll understand a lot more about our emotional lives and the art that moves us. And maybe you'll find something new to love.


the secret knitter said...

I look forward to it. I saw Sweeney Todd tonight, and I've gotta say I didn't get it. Early reviews seem to be pretty favorable. Frankly, I thought it was kind of boring.

katie j. said...

I love Sondheim. I also really like the Sondheim spoof in The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!, and if you haven't heard/seen that show, you might enjoy it. (The Sondheim sequence is titled "A Little Complex.")

Adam Villani said...

Hm, other than the lyrics of West Side Story, the only Sondheim I've seen (or heard) is Assassins, and I really don't remember any of the music from it. A lot of showtunes really grate on my ears, stuff from recent decades more so than older works. But I'm looking forward to seeing Sweeney Todd. One thing about showtunes is that they're more likely to work for me in the context of the larger work (a play or a movie) than standing alone. Every now and then I'll try listening to the XM Broadway channel just for, you know, enrichment purposes, and usually the experiment ends quickly with me changing the channel to something that doesn't hurt my ears.