Tag Archives: Stephen Sondheim

Comment of the Day: “The ‘So What?’ Follies”

My brilliant friend, lawyer/writer/actor/singer/dancer Loarraine McGee, scores with a  Comment of the Day that it probably takes a Broadway musicals buff, Stephen Sondheim worshiper, Mandy Patinkin lover or “Glee” fan to fully appreciate, a lyrical comment to the melody of Sondheim’s “Buddy’s Blues” from the second act of his great, troubling 1971 musical “Follies.”  Here is the song (Bronson Pinchot is no Mandy, but he’s OK), and then Lorraine’s Comment of the Day, to the today’s post “The “So What?’ Follies,” follows.

“Did you sayFollies”????”

I’ve got those

“Gotta keep the numbers up-Find something!-I can make it Neeeews” Blues!

That

“Long as there are photos I can make it seem important” feeling!

That

“If you’re slightly famous all you do is enough,
As long as there’s a talking head involved it’s good stuff,”
And “Bring the camera closer, gotta make the public buy this!” feeeeeeling!

Those

“Everything is ad sales so I gotta make the nonsense neeeews!” blues!

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Comment of the Day: “Are Musicals Reviewed By Ignoramuses?”

WordPress, for only the second time in three years, was kind enough to include my recent post about Stephen Sondheim’s footnote lament that musicals were the only art form largely reviewed by incompetents. This has brought a lot of new visitors to Ethics Alarms, and I hope they are interested in ethics as well as musicals. One such new reader is a Prof. Ratigan, who apparently does some reviewing himself. Here is his Comment of the Day, on the Jan 3, 2013 post (Here’s something weird—last year’s Jan.3 post was also about Sondheim!) Are Musicals Reviewed By Ignoramuses?…

Two points. The first is the literacy issue. I think it’s interesting that it would appear that a good reviewer is either a novice or a master where everything in between is amateur. I’ve been reviewing movies for the past year (on a blog) and I’ve definitely felt that in my own stuff. The more movies I watched and connections I could draw, the more it became apparent how much I really needed to do to become proficient. I needed to read a lot more literature, read a lot more scripts, and watch a lot more movies. Otherwise, I would start to create a context but have a nagging feeling that the director/writer/actor (who are often scholars of film) might/probably know more than me and were doing something else. It seems that these musical reviewers aren’t expected to take the next step from reviewer to analyst. Continue reading

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Are Musicals Reviewed By Ignoramuses?

STEPHEN SONDHEIM

OK, but Stephen: compared to you, everyone is an ignoramus!

Stephen Sondheim completed his personal memoirs about his career in American musicals more than a year ago, but they are so thoughtful, detailed and dense that I keep discovering new treasures, provocative observations by a first-rate mind. Yesterday, I found one that was buried in a footnote, in the middle of a technical tangent that most readers, like me in my first tour through the books, probably skimmed.

Sondheim pointedly did not use his erudite analysis and reflections in his two retrospectives (“Finishing the Hat” and “Look! I Made a Hat!”) to settle scores with critics, a group that obviously annoyed and to some extent handicapped him over the course of his long career. In this brief footnote, however, the composer/lyricist delivers a withering verdict:

“The sad truth is that musicals are the only public art form reviewed mostly by ignoramuses.”

At the end of the note, he repeats the indictment, this time changing the description to “illiterates.” Sondheim is accusing theater critics of engaging in professional conduct they are incompetent to perform, rendering expert opinions that are not really expert, and as a result, misinforming the public and undermining the efforts of serious artists, like him.  If he is right, not only are the critics unprofessional and unethical, the media organs that hire and publish them are unethical as well. Continue reading

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The Admirable Mr. Sondheim

And an ethical hat it is, too!

Readers who are not interested in the art of lyric writing and the mechanics of constructing a Broadway musical should probably avoid the second and final installment of Stephen Sondheim’s chronicle of his creative life, “Look, I Made a Hat.”  They will be missing something important nonetheless: a rare example of truly ethical memoirs.

As in his first volume, “Finishing the Hat,” America’s pre-eminent composer-lyricist for the stage reveals himself as a gentleman, an adult, and a thoroughly ethical human being, and does so not by proclaiming his virtues, but by demonstrating them in his writing. He is not uncritical, but always fair and kind. He accepts personal responsibility for projects that failed, and is generous with giving credit for projects that were successful. There is no false modesty in Sondheim about his own skills and achievements, but neither does he seem to overvalue them or seek his reader’s admiration by blowing his own horn.

The line Sondheim walks in both books is fine, and he walks it finely. For example, I initially thought his decision to only criticize the techniques of other lyricists who are dead was a cowardly one, but upon reading both books it is clear that the decision was motivated by kindness. Sondheim takes the craft of lyric-writing very seriously, and his integrity would not allow him to censor a critical observation regarding a colleague’s work when he believed the criticism was illuminating and had merit. Realizing how hurtful a critique from someone of his reputation and accomplishments could be, Sondheim restricted his frank and (mostly)  fair assessments to writers beyond wounding. If Jerry Herman isn’t grateful, he should be. Continue reading

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Ethics Hero and Artistic Champion: Stephen Sondheim, Defending “Porgy and Bess”

Steve has your back, George.

I read with horror last week that the Gershwin estate, lured by the temptation of an increased revenue stream from the works of their more talented forebears, have agreed to allow director Diane Paulus and the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to mess with ( that is, “improve”) “Porgy and Bess,” the classic 1935 opera that is one of the towering works in the history of American musical theater. This is, of course, vandalism in the name of ego and commerce, and a full-fledged assault on the masterpiece of not one but four great artists: the Gershwins, George and Ira, and the Heywards, Dorothy and DuBose, who wrote the novel and the play the opera was based on.  It is also stunning disrespect and abuse of power, with the living director and adapter wielding the power of celebrity and influence, and the dead artists retaining no power at all (being dead), having unwisely entrusted the protection of their legacies to greedy and tasteless relatives all too willing to sell out their kin for thirty pieces of silver.  Now, as the New York Times reported, the creators of the New Improved Porgy and Bess are readying new scenes, jazzed up dialogue, back-stories for the characters and an upbeat ending.    

This, as you might imagine, struck to the core of my work as an ethicist and in my position as the co-founder and artistic director of a  professional theater devoted to classic 20th Century stage works. I began to prepare a post on the rape of “Porgy and Bess,” but was distracted by other matters, and didn’t get the piece finished.

That was lucky. I should have remembered that Stephen Sondheim, the only musical theater artist alive who can claim the right to be mentioned in the same breath as George Gershwin, had extolled “Porgy and Bess” as the very greatest American musical in his autobiographical work, “Finishing the Hat.”  Needless to say, Sondheim is an authority on these matters, and also an artist who can appreciate what Paulus and Parks are doing to his colleague, peer and fellow geniuses, the Gershwins. On top of that, he has the wit and rhetorical skills to defend the rights of artists and dissect the rationalizations of vandals like few others.

And he did. John Glass of Drama Urge kindly alerted me that Sondheim has written a letter to the New York Times explaining…not arguing, because there is no argument…why the new “Porgy and Bess” is wrong.  Here it is; you just can’t do it better than this: Continue reading

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“Finishing the Hat”: Sondheim, W.S. Gilbert, and Expert Malpractice

Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat” is a fascinating reflection on a remarkable career and the craft of making musicals by the greatest living master of the form. In the course of recounting his formative years, triumphs, failures, and duels with producers, authors and composers, Sondheim also critiques the lyrics of his predecessors, contemporaries and role models—as long as they are dead. In a nod to gentility or cowardice, the only living lyricist he subjects to his expert critiques is himself.

Sondheim is a tough judge, as one might expect from a composer/lyricist who meticulously measures each vowel sound and stressed syllable for maximum effect. He is also, by virtue of both his reputation and technical expertise, an influential one. The lyricists he grades highly in the book, such as Frank Loesser, Cole Porter and Dorothy Fields, are likely to have their reputations burnished by his praise, and those he slams, like Lorenz Hart and Noel Coward, will suffer by comparison. Because of this, Sondheim had an obligation, as a respected expert in his field, to make each case carefully and fairly. To his credit, Sondheim seems to recognize this, and all of his critical discussions of an individual lyricist’s style and quirks include specific examples and careful analysis. We may disagree with Sondheim as a matter of personal taste, but it is difficult to argue with his specific points, because they are backed up by examples, technical theory, and the weight of his authority.

It is therefore surprising and disappointing to see Stephen Sondheim slide into expert malpractice when he undertakes, clearly half-heartedly, a critique of the lyrics of W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Continue reading

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