Friday, December 21, 2007

Stephen Sondheim - the man behind Sweeney Todd

After seeing Sweeney Todd in Anchorage, probably in 1990-1, I decided I needed to know more about the musical's creator. I was surprised to learn that he had written the lyrics to West Side Story and Gypsy. West Side Story had always been, in my mind, connected to Leonard Bernstein.
Stephen Sondheim was born on 22 March 1930, the son of a wealthy New York dress manufacturer. But, when his parents divorced, his mother moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania and young Stephen found himself in the right place at the right time. A neighbour of his mother's, Oscar Hammerstein II, was working on a new musical called Oklahoma! and it didn't take long for the adolescent boy to realise that he, too, was intrigued by musical theatre.(from A Guide to Musical Theater)

A list of his musicals from The Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide

* Anyone Can Whistle
* Assassins
* Bounce
* Candide
* Company
* Do I Hear a Waltz?
* Evening Primrose
* Follies
* The Frogs
* A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
* Gypsy
* Into the Woods

* A Little Night Music
* Marry Me a Little
* Merrily We Roll Along
* Pacific Overtures
* Passion
* Putting It Together
* Saturday Night
* Side By Side By Sondheim
* Sunday in the Park With George
* Sweeney Todd
* West Side Story
* You're Gonna Love Tomorrow

I realize that the American musical - especially those of the 1950's and 1960's - doesn't mean that much to younger Americans, but there were many great ones, and Sondheim was involved with many of them. And he has pushed the medium harder than anyone else to discover what it could be.

His initial success came as a somewhat reluctant lyricist to Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story (1957) and Jule Styne on Gypsy (1959). Exciting and adventurous as those shows were in their day, and for all their enduring popularity, Sondheim's philosophy since is encapsulated in one of his song titles: "I Never Do Anything Twice". His first score as composer-lyricist was A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962) - a show so funny few people spotted how experimental it was: it's still the only successful musical farce. In the following three decades, critics detected a Sondheim style - a fondness for the harmonic language of Ravel and Debussy; a reliance on vamps and skewed harmonies to destabilise the melody; a tendency to densely literate lyrics. But, all that said, it's the versatility that still impresses: you couldn't swap a song from the exuberantly explosive pit-band score of Anyone Can Whistle (1964) with one of the Orientally influenced musical scenes in Pacific Overtures (1976); you couldn't mistake the neurotic pop score of Company (1970) for the elegantly ever-waltzing A Little Night Music (1973).(Again: A Guide to Musical Theater)

But Sweeny Todd has to be the masterpiece of masterpeices.

With Sweeney Todd (1979), the Prince/Sondheim collaboration reached its apogee, blurring the distinctions between lyrics and dialogue, songs and underscoring, and combining a complex plot with operatic emotions to create a unique musical thriller(.A Guide to Musical Theater)

So tonight we go see Johnny Depp as Sweeny Todd in the new movie. The preview we saw a while back doesn't even mention this is a musical/opera. It only emphasized the macabre story of the the man coming back with revenge on his mind. It will be interesting to see how audiences react when they find out. And we will also hear the debut of Johnny Depp the singer, in an extremely complex musical role.

Here's a link to Sondheim on the Charlie Rose show.

Oh yes, there are a bunch of other movies that rolled into town that look good, including Charlie Wilson's War and Atonement. The Secret of Raon Inish and Stephanie Daley. Both also got four stars in the Daily News. The Kite Runner, another great book, only got three stars.

[For video and short review go to Sweeny Todd]

1 comment:

  1. I was music director of a Valley Performing Arts production of Gypsy back in 1995. I've never had so much fun in all my life. What a great show. What a super cast we had, with a mom and her two daughters - the Byrds - playing the leading roles.

    I've been in West Side story twice, and that was great, but the VPA '95 production of Gypsy was something special.

    Can't wait to see Sweeney Todd.

    You sure go to the movies a lot, Steve...


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