I Can Explain Why I Admire Sondheim With One Word

The song is “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park With George. Most musical tragics adore it, because it’s about the impossibility of reconciling your artistic desires with a happy love life; and we all like to think we’re as talented as George Seurat, that any failures in our love lives are due to our uncompromising vision, that we could be dumped by a babe like Bernadette Peters …

I’m as guilty of that as anyone, but the older I get the more I come to admire the words in the middle of a line. Not the flashy rhyming ones at the end, like “paradoxical” or “isthmus”, but the unprepossessing ones that get the song there. And I feel particular reverence for the words which are not unusual, but ordinary words being used in an uncommon way. It’s what fine poets do pretty regularly, but songwriters have the additional burden of being understood aurally, so they have to be careful.

George is singing about how he can score the chicks but they never stick around, on account of all his painting and lack of people skills:

Mapping out a sky.
What you feel like, planning a sky.
What you feel when voices that come through the window go
Until they ______ and die,
Until there’s nothing but sky

The missing word needs to have the same rhythm as “finish”, which occupies this spot in the preceding verse, and “nothing” which has the same notes and rhythm in the following line.

And the winner is … “distance”. I love it. I love it because it’s so singable (go on, say the word “distance”.  Doesn’t that just feel good in your mouth?). I love it because it’s an ordinary word, nothing special, but when was the last time you heard it as a verb? “Go until they distance and die”. Lightly alliterative, too, but not flashy.

I could go on, like noting its French origins, in a musical about a French painter, but that would be too much.


6 thoughts on “I Can Explain Why I Admire Sondheim With One Word

  1. Yep, Sunday’s one of those shows that makes me want to slap people who don’t get it. The people who claim that Sondheim’s unemotional – this is a show that’s utterly ABOUT emotion – the joy of creation, the frustration of a flailing relationship, and the tension between them. And people who claim that act two is unnecessary – Act two IS the show, it’s the resolution of all those things that act one’s been talking about. And if you can’t get an emotional release out of “We have always belonged together”… well, you’re a robot and you’re wrong.

    My happy experience of the year thus far, actually, was getting the recording of the London production of Sunday – it’s possibly less-well-sung on a technical level, and the reduced orchestrations means that it can’t quite bust loose into the grand romaticism in the same way the original can, but it’s fascinating to hear Act One in English accents…

    • Yes, it’s fun isn’t it, simbo? And Daniel Evans does a creditable American accent in Act Two.

      Especially when you cast your mind back to Mandy Patinkin’s attempt at a British accent in The Secret Garden.

  2. “And if you can’t get an emotional release out of “We have always belonged together”… well, you’re a robot and you’re wrong.”

    And also the part “Yes, George, there is – you could tell me not to go!”


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