One art-form I’ve not written about at all on this blog is the musical — which is surprising, because I do believe that it’s the greatest art-form of them all. Done well (which I admit is not often) musicals combine so much: music, poetry, visual design, drama.
Among the writers of musicals, one stands head and shoulders over all the others, and that is Stephen Sondheim. Now in his eighties, his body of work goes back to 1957’s timeless West Side Story (as a lyricist only) and includes classics like Company (1970), Sweeney Todd (1979) and Into the Woods (1987). Usually I’d pick the latter as my favourite — by a short head — and I’m very excited about the film adaptation, which opens near us in three days. But I just finished watching Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and I wonder whether it might be even better.
It’s an oddity — a musical based on a painting (Georges Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, above). Like the painting itself, the show was hated by many of the critics and audiences who saw it early in its life, yet it has gone on to be wildly successful and acclaimed. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985, one of only eight musicals ever to have done so.
Act 1 is a wholly fictional account of the creation of the painting; as with Into the Woods, the first act is completely self-contained, and an audience could go home satisfied at half time; yet, also as with Into the Woods, it’s the second act that contains the real motive of the show, and most of the emotional power. It tells of Seurat’s fictional 20th Century descendant (also named George), a light sculptor struggling to create something new.
All of this sounds like arid territory indeed for a musical — especially if, when you hear the word “musical”, you think Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or The Wizard of Oz. The struggle of the artist to create could scarcely be further removed from the typical concerns of musicals — and it could hardly be less promising material to spend two and quarter hours with. But then a dozen people arguing in a room sounds like poor material for a film, and Twelve Angry Men is ranked #7 of all time at IMDB. It just goes to show that the seed of a work (whether music, movie, book, concept album or tech startup) is nowhere near as important as what the creators do with it.
That Sunday works — and it doesn’t just work, it flies — is down to sheer genius on the part of at least three people. First, of course, is composer/lyricist Sondheim. Then there is orchestrator Michael Starobin, whose sparse, impressionistic soundscapes provide a perfect complement to Sondheim’s allusive melodies. Finally, starring as George, Mandy Patinkin’s performance is evocative and deeply emotional. (That’s not to downplay the contributions of playwright James Lapine or co-star Bernadette Peters.)
You could complain that the story doesn’t quite hang together. You could argue that comic-relief numbers such as Everybody Loves Louis represent a failure of nerve, and dilute the intensity of the show. You could quibble that the conclusion — artists must move on to stay alive — sits uneasily with the recreation of a 100-year-old painting. Yet all this seems unimportant in light of the sheer emotional power of the show. At least four of the songs (Finishing the Hat, Beautiful, Children and Art, Lesson #8) are just sensational — like scalpels cutting to the heart of their subjects (creativity, vision, intergenerational connection and loss). I spent much of the second act on the verge of tears.
If I had to pick one word to describe the show, it would be “luminous”. That applies to the visuals, of course, which are largely drawn from the painting itself. But it’s even more true of the music, which is coloured and shaded with perfect judgement. It helps that both Patinkin and Peters have very distinctive voices — by sounding like no-one else on Earth, they contribute to the surreal quality of the show. They sound like embodied archetypes rather than mere people.
But really, you have to see it for yourself.
[Predictably — if you’ve read previous similar tales of woe on this blog — there is no legal way to buy and watch the video recording of the stage-show in the UK. You can get it on Amazon, but it’s a region-1 DVD which can’t be watched over here except on an illegally modded player. I leave it to individual consciences to decide what is best done about this, but note in passing that the recording is not hard to find on torrent sites.]
All of this has left me even more keen to see the Into the Woods movie. I understand that some fairly significant changes have been made from the stage show — changes that perhaps are inevitable given the format shift, but which I can’t help regretting nevertheless. (In the same way, I understood why the chorus was cut from the movie version of Sweeney Todd, but I still wish it had been retained.) I’ll report when I’ve seen it.
You really know your stuff! I have only seen Sweeney Todd but loved it. will have to check out more of Sondheim’s work.
Thanks! I think you will find Sondheim very rewarding. If you can tell me what else you like in other fields, I might be able to guide you towards the Sondheim shows that you’ll find most resonant.
My favorite musical of all time is Blood Brothers by Willy Russel. I also like Miss Saigon and Les Miserables.
I saw Blood Brothers way back during its original West End run, end enjoyed it. On the other hand, the only thing I can remember about it now is that there was something about shoes on a table; So I guess it didn’t touch me deeply.
Miss Saigon and Les Mis, on the other hand, I love — they are probably my two favourite non-Sondheim musicals. That’s especially true of the latter, which among its many other glories features the clearest and most celebratory depiction in all popular culture of the Christian doctrine of grace.
That said, both MS and LM are big shows in every sense, whereas much of Sondheim’s work is painted on a much smaller canvas. Many of the shows are rather intimate. I would have recommended Sweeney Todd for you — but of course that’s the one that have already seen! (That said, if you’ve only seen the film, I highly recommend catching the next good production of the stage show near you — it’s a very different, and much more surreal, experience.)
Elsewhere in the Sondheim canon, perhaps you’d enjoy Pacific Overtures: a difficult show, as it uses a lot of Japanese elements in its music, but a hugely rewarding one with a truly epic sweep. It tells the story of the progressive westernisation of Japan, starting with Commodore Perry’s forcible opening up of trade in 1854. It does really need to be seen, though, not just listened to: many of the songs only fully make sense when you understand who is singing what part, and why. Much of its power derives from the juxtaposition of the mundane with the momentous.
I think the shoes on the table was trying to depict people’s blaming of their own personal problems on things irrelevant to them such as superstition. This is why the play has such a bad ending as the people in the play refuse to confront their own problems and have a “he’s just a good boy attitude” when really that attitude causes the boy’s death!
I will check out Pacific Overtures many thanks!
Hmm, seems like I need to check out Blood Brothers again, too!
I haven’t watched that many musicals (I enjoy them, but it just isn’t a style that I’ve spent much time with), but I highly, highly recommend Every Little Step the 2008 documentary about A Chorus Line.
I found the details about the writing process and the history of the musical fascinating.
Interesting topic. Can’t say that I know Sondheim at all well – unless you count ‘Send In The Clowns’ from 1973’s ‘A Little Night Music’. That, of course, is a song for the ages, so if it’s anything to go by I’m sure his other work is equally enjoyable. About the only other thing I know was that he was a guest of Sue Lawley’s on ‘Desert Island Discs’ back in 1980, an invitation notable for the fact that three of his choices were, er, his own music(http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00949b9/segments)…
I leave you to draw your own conclusions from that.
From the States it looks like Amazon UK sells region free DVD (and BluRay) players at sane enough prices. (This could be some Amazon hoodoo which allows US customers to buy Amazon UK products that are not available in the UK, but I can’t imagine why they’d bother doing that.)
Do you like Proper Opera at all ? (If you think that musicals are Top Art Form because they combine music, poetry, design, drama?) A bit of a wobbly line, of course — you could easily say that West Side Story was an opera and Carmen was a musical. Obviously I am a big fan of opera that last several weeks by people who don’t have a word for “fluffy”. But something like Rigoletto is quite a lot like a musical, only more so…
So far I have been defeated in my attempts to figure out whether I like Proper Opera, but I am at least very open to it. Given a good opportunity, I’d go and see a Wagner — stupidly, I never did so during the decade that I lived in London and worked in Covent Garden.
I suppose the answer is that, just as I love some musicals and have no time at all for others, that would be my attitude to opera, too. But I have not developed a sense of what operas I would and wouldn’t like beyond the sense that Wagner inspired Lewis who inspired me.
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