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Stephen Sondheim RIP

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A giant.  RIP.

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The last giant of Broadway musicals has taken his curtain bow. 
RIP. 
 

 

Send in the Clowns. 

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My wife and I just saw a local production of Assassins about 3 years ago — which I had long wanted to see, simply because the idea behind it seemed so incredibly and utterly unconventional.  It was fascinating, and quite thought-provoking — and I might even like to go see it again in another decade.

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I saw the original production of Pacific Overtures  in NY while it was in previews.   I was stunned by how good it was and was bragging about how we were lucky to see it when we did because once it officially opened it would be impossible to get tickets.  Then it opened, got shit on by the critics and disappeared.   (It was revised years later in a much smaller production and was better received.) 

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Don't know much about Sondheim. Has anything of his entered the repertoire of jazz standards?

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Send In The Clowns.

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One of the highlights of my professional life was was the 45 minutes in 2009 I spent speaking with Stephen Sondheim about his classical music influences for the Detroit Free Press. The whole thing was a bit surreal. He had no publicist, no "people," so I had to track down his address and write him a personal letter outlining my idea. I had written to his Manhattan address, and he was at his country place when the letter arrived. He called when he returned to town, but it was so close to deadline that I was literally about to default to a back-up plan. Here was the result: https://www.freep.com/story/entertainment/music/2021/11/26/stephen-sondheim-pondered-opera-musicals-2009-free-press-interview/8770543002/

I sent Sondheim the story and below is the letter I got in return. I framed it (natch) and cherish it R.I.P. to one of my true heroes.

Coda: In the interview, I asked specifically about the relative scarcity of jazz interpretations of his songs. The topic didn't make the final cut of the piece because our theme was his classical music influences. But his answer stuck with me. He said the non-standard forms of most of his songs and how deeply they are integrated into the marrow of the score makes them difficult to open up for improvisation; he contrasted them specifically with ABAB or AABA songs like "How High the Moon" and "I Got Rhythm", where the 32-bar chorus  opens easily and you can just drop in the improvisation without messing with the chorus structure. However, I think there are still tons of untapped possibilities for jazz interpretations of Sondheim's songs. Musicians would of course have to dig into music they don't know and find creative solutions to the challenges. But given how common it is today for jazz musicians to write nonstandard, multi-section originals, I think the structural wrinkles of Sondheim's songs could provide fertile ground. For example, you could base solo sections on just part of the song, like say, a piquant rhythm that could be transformed into a bass ostinato, or you could isolate a a particular melodic or harmonic section that could form the basis for improvising rather than the whole composition. I brought all of this up to Sondheim and he considered it but remained skeptical. Still, I think there's jazz-related gold in these hills.
 

 

sondheim 3.jpg

Edited by Mark Stryker

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One of my favorite Mathis recordings, along with "Maria" (for which Sondheim was the lyricist, of course).  As far as Sondheim scores, I especially like "Company".

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On 11/27/2021 at 0:13 PM, Mark Stryker said:

 

 

One of the highlights of my professional life was was the 45 minutes in 2009 I spent speaking with Stephen Sondheim about his classical music influences for the Detroit Free Press. The whole thing was a bit surreal. He had no publicist, no "people," so I had to track down his address and write him a personal letter outlining my idea. I had written to his Manhattan address, and he was at his country place when the letter arrived. He called when he returned to town, but it was so close to deadline that I was literally about to default to a back-up plan. Here was the result: https://www.freep.com/story/entertainment/music/2021/11/26/stephen-sondheim-pondered-opera-musicals-2009-free-press-interview/8770543002/

I sent Sondheim the story and below is the letter I got in return. I framed it (natch) and cherish it R.I.P. to one of my true heroes.

Coda: In the interview, I asked specifically about the relative scarcity of jazz interpretations of his songs. The topic didn't make the final cut of the piece because our theme was his classical music influences. But his answer stuck with me. He said the non-standard forms of most of his songs and how deeply they are integrated into the marrow of the score makes them difficult to open up for improvisation; he contrasted them specifically with ABAB or AABA songs like "How High the Moon" and "I Got Rhythm", where the 32-bar chorus  opens easily and you can just drop in the improvisation without messing with the chorus structure. However, I think there are still tons of untapped possibilities for jazz interpretations of Sondheim's songs. Musicians would of course have to dig into music they don't know and find creative solutions to the challenges. But given how common it is today for jazz musicians to write nonstandard, multi-section originals, I think the structural wrinkles of Sondheim's songs could provide fertile ground. For example, you could base solo sections on just part of the song, like say, a piquant rhythm that could be transformed into a bass ostinato, or you could isolate a a particular melodic or harmonic section that could form the basis for improvising rather than the whole composition. I brought all of this up to Sondheim and he considered it but remained skeptical. Still, I think there's jazz-related gold in these hills.
 

 

sondheim 3.jpg

One possible reason for the relative scarcity of jazz interpretations of Sondheim songs is that they, at least IMO, lack memorable organic melodic meaning. Yes, "Send in the Clowns" is memorable but, again IMO, naggingly so, like an ear worm.

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1 hour ago, Larry Kart said:

One possible reason for the relative scarcity of jazz interpretations of Sondheim songs is that they, at least IMO, lack memorable organic melodic meaning. Yes, "Send in the Clowns" is memorable but, again IMO, naggingly so, like an ear worm.

Glad you said it instead of me. OTOH, hope I make it to 91. R.I.P.

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2 hours ago, Larry Kart said:

One possible reason for the relative scarcity of jazz interpretations of Sondheim songs is that they, at least IMO, lack memorable organic melodic meaning. 

That plus all the stupid things he said about Lorenz Hart.

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11 hours ago, Teasing the Korean said:

That plus all the stupid things he said about Lorenz Hart.

???Examples?

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42 minutes ago, medjuck said:

???Examples?

I don't have examples in front of me, but he said disparaging things and, IIRC, considered Hart's rhyme schemes to be a "parlor game."  Maybe someone has access to the direct quote or quotes.  (There were more than one.)  It was enough make me avoid Sondheim for a long time.  

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18 minutes ago, Teasing the Korean said:

I don't have examples in front of me, but he said disparaging things and, IIRC, considered Hart's rhyme schemes to be a "parlor game."  

Can't say that I neither agree nor disagree with him on that, and not just about Hart. "Broadway" in general seems predicated on a certain amount of "cleverness", of which I am not necessarily fond.

None of this is 100%, though, and Hart transcended the merely "clever" often enough so that any observation such as Sondhiem's that does not acknowledge the very nature of the form seems to me to be a bit of denialistic ego-puffery.

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15 hours ago, Larry Kart said:

One possible reason for the relative scarcity of jazz interpretations of Sondheim songs is that they, at least IMO, lack memorable organic melodic meaning. Yes, "Send in the Clowns" is memorable but, again IMO, naggingly so, like an ear worm.

if it were west coast jazz-focused and penned for our beloved Chewy, it could be titled "Send In The Crowns" 

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9 minutes ago, clifford_thornton said:

if it were west coast jazz-focused and penned for our beloved Chewy, it could be titled "Send In The Crowns

Isn’t that rich. :lol:

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On 11/27/2021 at 0:13 PM, Mark Stryker said:

I sent Sondheim the story and below is the letter I got in return. I framed it (natch) and cherish it R.I.P. to one of my true heroes.

Mark, thank you for sharing this treasure.

15 hours ago, Larry Kart said:

One possible reason for the relative scarcity of jazz interpretations of Sondheim songs is that they, at least IMO, lack memorable organic melodic meaning. Yes, "Send in the Clowns" is memorable but, again IMO, naggingly so, like an ear worm.

I don't agree about his songs lacking memorable organic melodic meaning, but one I think you'd find has it is "Good Thing Going," from Merrily We Roll Along. Sinatra covered it (on his She Shot Me Down album), and it's one of the best Sinatra performances from his later period. Another Sondheim song I bet you'd agree has a strong melody--that might be the best Irving Berlin song Irving Berlin never wrote--is "The Best Thing That Has Happened," from his last show, Bounce.

50 minutes ago, Teasing the Korean said:

I don't have examples in front of me, but he said disparaging things and, IIRC, considered Hart's rhyme schemes to be a "parlor game."  

His main complaint with Hart was not Hart's cleverness per se, but the way he would write un-colloquially for the sake of a rhyme. (Wrenching around word order to antiquated forms, for example.) For Sondheim, if a character ought to sing un-colloquially (if the character were a highly educated academic, for example), that's how you should write lyrics for him, but if the character is a regular Joe or Jane, you find a way (without sacrificing strict rhyming) that sounds like something they might actually say, or sing.

Edited by riddlemay

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9 minutes ago, Rooster_Ties said:

Isn’t that rich. :lol:

Losing my Tampas this late in my career....

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12 minutes ago, riddlemay said:

His main complaint with Hart was not Hart's cleverness per se, but the way he would write un-colloquially for the sake of a rhyme. (Wrenching around word order to antiquated forms, for example.) For Sondheim, if a character ought to sing un-colloquially (if the character were a highly educated academic, for example), that's how you should write lyrics for him, but if the character is a regular Joe or Jane, you find a way (without sacrificing strict rhyming) that sounds like something they might actually say, or sing.

In fairness, Hart was writing for a much broader audience than Broadway.  During Hart's era, many more pop songs came from Broadway than during Sondheim's.  I don't think that people listening to Rodgers and Hart songs over the decades knew or cared about the characters or the shows, with the possible exception of Pal Joey.  Broadway became much more show-oriented and much more insular during Sondheim's era.

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2 hours ago, medjuck said:

???Examples?

He said that Hart was a "lazy craftsmen." He offered examples.  Don't recall what they were, but I do vaguely recall that I didn't find them convincing. Google Sondheim and Lorenz Hart and you can probably find what SS wrote or said on the subject.

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1 hour ago, Teasing the Korean said:

In fairness, Hart was writing for a much broader audience than Broadway.  During Hart's era, many more pop songs came from Broadway than during Sondheim's.  I don't think that people listening to Rodgers and Hart songs over the decades knew or cared about the characters or the shows, with the possible exception of Pal Joey.  Broadway became much more show-oriented and much more insular during Sondheim's era.

And there's 'the rub', the sticking point, the crux of why I respect but don't love Sondheim - he's part and parcel of Broadway's increased insularity during his active career, i.e. the last 60 years or so.  Don't always love Lorenz Hart either, partly for reasons Sondheim identified, but in general I prefer Hart to Sondheim lyrically and much prefer the music of Hart's era.

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