Top 10 Moments of Sondheim Genius (part 2)

Gah!  I would have published this earlier, but I spent two evenings tearing my house apart trying to find a photograph of me and Sondheim taken when I was in the ensemble for the 2001 PBS production of Sweeney Todd in Concert. I’m a bit freaked out that I haven’t been able to find it yet. I’m sure it will show up eventually. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

But here we are, the five top moments of Sondheim genius (read about numbers 10-6 in my previous post). Again, this is not a ranking of shows or songs, but of individual, isolated moments of genius. (In my browser it looks like he’s reading this paragraph… Eek!)

5 – Ethics for Dummies (Into the Woods)

The second act of Into the Woods is a subtle affair, especially when compared to the whiz-bang Rube Goldberg machine of the first act. Theater folks I normally respect a great deal have shared their opinion that Into the Woods is a perfectly delightful show, provided you leave at intermission. True, the first act is self-contained and it’s not at all clear that there’s more story to tell. It’s easy to imagine that it was the producer’s fear that audiences wouldn’t realize that a second act existed that led to the narrator’s non-sequitor interjection “To be continued!” right before the last chord of the act.

But folks who leave at intermission miss some of the more nuanced and surprising moments in all of Sondheim. The “How To Have a Baby in 10 Easy Steps” plot of the first act gives way to a murky world of uncertainty and moral ambiguity. You know you’re headed towards uncharted territory when the characters in the story turn on the very narrator who is telling their story.  Released from the yoke of determinism and flexing their newfound free will, what follows is a flurry of infighting, scapegoating, adultery, and murder.  And that’s the GOOD guys!

A particularly subtle moment occurs in the show’s “hit” song, No One Is Alone. I’m a little ashamed to admit that it took performing this piece repeatedly over two months before I realized what was actually going on in this scene. Cinderella is explaining to a distressed Little Red that it’s OK to kill the Lady Giant, even though she’s only in the village because Jack killed her husband. And then seconds later, the Baker is explaining to Jack that it’s NOT OK to kill the Steward, even though he killed Jack’s mother! Well, which is it? Why is one OK but the other isn’t? The answer seems to be, “because the Steward is on our side and the Lady Giant isn’t”. AKA, tribalism. The adults acknowledge that the answer isn’t satisfactory, but it’s the best they can do. Ultimately “You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good.” We’re deep in the moral woods here. But together they’re just going to do their best.

In the final verse, Jack and Little Red join the adults to sing the final statement of the chorus, Sondheim accompanies it with the melody from the first act when the Witch’s warned Rapunzel, “Don’t you know what’s out there in the world?”  A question to which our heros are starting to learn the answer.


4 – The Cruelest Cut (Sweeney Todd)

In the second act of Sweeney Todd, we’re shown a brief bit of sunshine as Mrs. Lovett plans out their eventual retirement to the shore of the English channel, you know, once they’ve made enough money selling the butchered remains of their victims to the denizens of London for lunch.  It’s absurd, ridiculous, and impossible (the retirement that is.  The cannibalism part might have happened.), as evidenced by the fact that Sweeney barely acknowledges her during the entire song.  But this dream is what motivates her otherwise immoral actions.

By the climax of the act, that dream seems lost. Sweeney has exacted his revenge, but he has discovered Lovett’s duplicity regarding his dearly not-so-departed wife.  He is wailing laments of  sorrow and Lovett sees her dreams falling apart, and in an impassioned and desperate moment, cries out her love for him as if her love alone has the capacity to heal a lifetime of injustice and horror.

And this is Sweeney’s cruelest moment.  It’s difficult enough that he decides to kill her, after all, his other victims were clearly opponents or at least anonymous collateral damage. This is the first time he kills someone who cares for him, someone who was on his side. (Cinderella certainly wouldn’t approve.) But what makes the scene unforgivably cruel is the way he first toys with her. “Whoah!  My wife was alive all this time and you never mentioned it? And now I just slashed her throat?  Bummer. Oh well. At least I’ve got you, Lovett.  So… what’s for dinner?”

Why does he do this? He doesn’t need to lull her into a false sense of security, he’s a pretty big guy. And he’s got a knife.  She’s not going anywhere.  Perhaps it’s that lack of an angle that causes Lovett to start believing this highly improbable personality shift. It wouldn’t be his first manic episode. She stands dumbfounded as he grabs her assertively, waltzing to the music from the first act finale. Sweeney again extolls her sensible pragmatic nature as he did in those happier times (well, happier in comparison) and manically, the rattled Lovett spits out the jittery rhythms of her seaside fantasy.  But her fantasy doesn’t fit into the music at all. It doesn’t fit the meter or the rhythm or the harmonies of what’s actually happening. This is a case of willful ignorance of everything going on around her including the orchestra.  She still wants to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that she will end up in a small cottage by the shore far away in time and space, and not in a bellowing industrial furnace very close and very soon. But with a forceful tug, Sweeney jerks her right out of that fantasy and back into the dance of the present, one last spin.

Here’s George Hearn and Angela Lansbury in the 1982 PBS Great Performances production.


3 – Booth Drops the  N-bomb (Assassins)

Assassins plays a constant balancing game. Populated by a world of outcasts and murderers, Sondheim and Weidman labor to show them as humans, giving them a chance to voice their discontents, explain and justify their actions. And then, just as you start to like them, you’re reminded of the grand and terrible actions that have led to their notoriety.

Nowhere is this more startling than in the Ballad of John Wilkes Booth.  Wounded and cornered in a barn, Booth labors to explain why he just shot Lincoln. He knows he is doomed, and desperately wants the future to know that he has not acted impulsively, irrationally. He had reasons, sound, solid reasons. As audience members, we are naturally empathic. He implores history (as personified by the Balladeer) to listen to his side of the story.  And we do. And it’s tragic and beautiful, he laments the loss of his country, of the irreparable damage done by civil war. And the music swells with the power of his emotion, and just at the climax, Booth delivers an outburst of rage and hate and racism, a savage gut punch to everyone sitting in the theater. In four syllables you move from empathizing with this beautiful and tragic man to reviling him, a disorienting 180 degree spin that sucks the oxygen out of the theater (or wherever you happen to be listening to the cast album).


Our moral compass is now firmly pointed as far away from Booth’s as possible, and he seems to sense that he’s lost us. Half heartedly hoping that history will eventually understand him, he shoots himself, and we’re relieved when the Balladeer starts singing again, confirming that our own feelings of revulsion are justified, that there is a right and wrong, and that history will get it right.

2 – The All-Singing, All-Dancing, Nervous Breakdown (Follies)

In Follies we watch a double date to the 30th reunion of the fictional Weismann follies. More accurately this is a quadruple date, for the two couples can’t quite shake their fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth wheels, the ghosts of their younger selves.

The last thirty minutes of the piece is undeniably one of the great achievements of musical theater (as well as a great example of Definite Content). As the facade of the main characters “happy” lives begin to crumble and the bleak reality of their present and future is revealed, we are transported through time to the heyday of the Follies, only the Follies we’re watching are vaudeville renditions of the tragedies their lives have become.  One after another the four characters are forced to enact their character flaws, as slapstick routines and torch songs for our entertainment.

The shattering climax occurs when Ben, dressed in the top hat and tails, cool, aloof ever the dandy, sings a Fred Astaire style number extolling the virtues of Living, Laughing, and Loving, things he has been largely incapable of doing his entire life. In the middle of the number he slips up, forgetting his lines. The ensemble forges ahead without him.  But Ben is shaken and starts to break down, the reality of his life starts creeping in, and finally his cool detached demeanor comes unglued. The ensemble tries to keep things together as Ben starts shouting over them, proclaiming the truths of his live, ultimately acknowledging that he is to blame for his situation.

The orchestra follows with a complete meltdown. In a cacophonous kaleidoscope straight from Ives (Charles,that is, not James Meritt), different sections of the orchestra play different themes from the show in different keys as the glitter and glamor of the follies disintegrates before our eyes. It’s grand and terrifying and spectacular, an orchestral nervous breakdown.

When the nightmare recedes, Ben is lying on the floor, collapsed, crying out for his wife. It’s the next morning, and the two couples are forced to leave the crumbled remains of their pasts and get through another day.

Here’s George Hearn from the 1985 production of Follies In Concert.


And here is a bootleg video from the Papermill Playhouse production, to give you a sense of the sort of staging you can pull off.  I’m particularly fond of the melting effect with the lights at 4:35 as the fifty year old characters from the present burst in from upstage.  That’s good theater…


1 – Sweeney’s Turn aka Everything’s Coming Up Razors! (Sweeney Todd)

An epiphany is a personal realization that drastically and irreversibly alters one’s world view.  In a religious context it refers to the apparition of an angel or other divine being, a visitation from the heavens. In Sweeney Todd’s case it’s the sudden awakening to a lower calling. He will spend his days killing indiscriminately.

The morality of this is interesting, he acknowledges the existence of good and evil, there are, after all, “two kinds of men in the whole human race”. But in this miserable pre-Victorian era, the only way to achieve a comfortable life is to climb on the backs of those who are too magnanimous to do so for themselves. Those who are comfortable are therefore inherently wicked and those who are not will welcome the relief from their misery.

Never before has such a clanging contraption of dissonance and rancor been unleashed on a Broadway stage. While the noise at the climax of Follies is a wash of disordered mayhem, this is laser focused, driven intensity, while posessing an even more dangerous mercurial unpredictability. Savage rage flips to thrashing lamentations and beneath it all is the chugging sound of machinery, the underlying systemic woes of society leading Sweeney to this murderous conclusion.

And what a conclusion it is. After outlining his plans to kill everyone in his path he returns to the wailing descending tetrachord as he once again laments his dead wife (D, C#, B, A).  (“My Lucy lies in ashes”) The tetrachord feels like it should be B minor, but the accompaniment consists of a pulsing half step between D and Eb. Tension increases as the lower voices push up from from B to C and the pulsing half step moves up to D# and E. Sweeney stops lamenting and is back to the business at hand (“But the work waits”) and although he’s still singing the same pitches of the descending tetrachord, the quality has changed. There’s a crushingly dissonant chord in the brass, minor seconds in the low trombones, and although Sweeney’s D is reenforced by the top voice in the brass, the foundation is unsettled, the sixteenth note pulse fights hard against the D with D# and E.  We’re in Penderecki territory, a tone cluster of C#, D,  D#, E and G. Sweeney’s next phrase is even more intense, mostly due to the middle brass parts ratcheting up a whole step (although they add no new pitches to the cluster). Again, insistently, obsessively he sings the same descending tetrachord  (“I’m alive at last”), navigating the pitches through sheer force of will against the blaring dissonances surrounding him. Everything in the orchestra is working against him, but nothing will keep him  from repeating that descending D, C#, B, A lamentation.

And then Sweeney makes the big jump.   With his last gesture (“And I’m full of joy!”) he leaps up to a note that makes no harmonic sense, an F natural, which (along with F sharp) is one of the only pitches we haven’t heard in these final measures. As just he makes that last grasp, the orchestra suddenly sounds a D flat major chord, uncomfortably voiced with an added ninth (E flat) in the bass and a barely audible lowered third (F flat) clashing against that ninth and Sweeney’s F natural perched precariously at the major third.  There’s a barely audible sputtering tone cluster in the high woodwinds and xylophone, and suddenly the full orchestra enters with a powerful root position Bb major chord.  Sweeney’s F natural is now comfortably the fifth (provided the performer managed to find the F natural, no small feat. George Hearn himself overshot it a bit on the original PBS broadcast).

Many productions choose to end the number on this triumphant sonority, leading to riotous applause, but the original score called a B diminished triad over an F# bass to be stated both immediately before and after the big Bb chord, and has Sweeney cut off after the D flat chord.  This can be heard on the 1979 cast album and on the 2005 revival.  These chords have an introspective, obsessive quality.  Sweeney’s F natural is still the top voice of the chord (held by the strings, since he’s no longer singing), but the lower voices are trying to push it upwards, perhaps to the F sharp implied by the B minor tonality of the lamenting tetrachord earlier in the section, but Sweeney will have none of it.  He stares straight ahead, fixated on the F natural. And his already tragic world of B minor has deteriorated into a broken B diminished.

Here’s the original 1979 cast recording with Len Cariou with the complete ending.


And here’s the 2005 revival. The stripped down transparent orchestration (10 instruments!) exposes some of the crunchy harmonies and for the first time you can hear the tone clusters in the xylophone at the very end. Not so convinced that the violin harmonics on the descending tetrachord was such a great idea. They’re impossible to tune and makes things sound cheap and threadbare  just when it needs to sound genuine and impassioned.


And finally, here’s George Hearn ripping things apart in the 1982 PBS Great Performances production,  the one I grew up watching repeatedly.  I have no idea how he was able to sustain that level of intensity for an entire run. I have fond memories of wearing that videotape thin back in 7th grade. Then fifteen years later I found myself on the stage of Davies hall, able to watch George Hearn do it all over again from the other side of the set. Even watching his back the whole time, it was an amazing thing to see.


And there you have it. It got a bit more detailed than I originally anticipated, but this is music and theater that deserves such close attention. I noticed quite a few new things while writing it, which really speaks to how much is there. I hope this encourages you to explore some of the pieces you may be less familiar with and spend some more time with the pieces you already think you know.

OK.  Now back to editing the recording of my string quartet.  I know I promised you that the second movement would be available this week. I better get on that.