Critics, I Beg You: Please Stop Calling Things “Sub-Sondheim”

Last September, when it was announced that Audra McDonald might possibly be considering the thought of maybe, perhaps, starring in a movie of Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello Again, this was the headline at Showbiz 411:

Audra McDonald May Star in Sexed up “Sub Sondheim” Light Opera Movie Musical

Those quotation marks around “Sub Sondheim” are a nod to The New York Times, where LaChiusa was first damned with this faint-praise epithet.

And here’s a brief, partial history of said label, in roughly chronological order. Look at just some of the writers, well-known and comparatively obscure, who have been called “sub-Sondheim”, in places ranging from stately newpapers to rebellious blogs:

Three Postcards, Craig Carnelia: The New York Times, 1987, “seldom rising above sub-Sondheim”

Starting Here, Starting Now, Richard Maltby Jr and David Shire: The Spectator, 1993, “many of their best numbers and others that are very sub-Sondheim”

Suddenly HopeMorris Bernstein, Kyle Rosen, Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman: Variety, 2000, “The score relies heavily on sub-Sondheim talk-sung songs”

Ragtime, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens: indielondon, 2003, “If I call the score sub-Sondheim, this is not an insult” (My favourite.)

Nine, Maury Yeston: The Wall Street Journal, 2003, “Mr. Yeston, who used to teach music theory at Yale, is a sort of sub-Sondheim”

Six Pictures of Lee Miller, Jason Carr and Edward Kemp: The Sunday Times, 2005, “Sung to a sub-Sondheim score” and (different critic), The Telegraph, “attractive enough in its sub-Sondheim way”

Parade, Jason Robert Brown: Independent, 2007, “sometimes sounds like a sub-Sondheim Sunday”

Wicked, Stephen Schwartz: West End Whingers, 2007, “sub-Sondheim lyrics”

The Story of My Life, Neil Bartram: The New York Times, 2009, “pretty but repetitive, registering as a blurred series of intricate vamps — might be described as sub-Sondheim”

Postcards from Dumbworld, Brian Irvine and John McIlduff: The Guardian, 2010, “ranges between vaudeville knockabout and sickly sub-Sondheim”

Tomorrow Morning, Laurence Mark Wythe: The Independent, 2010, “interestingly mediocre sub-Sondheim shows like this are the staple fare of endless workshops”

Hello Again, Michael John LaChiusa: The New York Times, 2011, “It’s a sub-Sondheim score, but subliminally infectious”

If/Then, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt: The Wall Street Journal, 2014, “The songs consist of pseudo-tunes and sub-Sondheim lyrics”

Anna Nicole, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas: SinfiniMusic, 2014, “an efficient piece of sub-Sondheim music-theatre”

Who is this Sondheim fellow? Well, he’s the man who was once sub-Gershwin, sub-Rodgers etc. I’ll let two famous examples, on two prominent occasions, serve as evidence:

Clive Barnes, 1971, The New York Times (of Follies) – “his words are a joy to listen to, even when his music is sending shivers of indifference up your spine. The man is a Hart in search of a Rodgers, or even a Boito in search of a Verdi.”

John Lahr, 1979, Harper’s Magazine (of nearly everything up to Sweeney Todd) – “Unlike Gershwin, who began his songs with introductions, Sondheim’s songs begin with vamps – an approach that restricts his melodic invention and gives away to the audience what follows. The boldness of the initial musical gesture becomes monotonous because of this imposed pattern.”

Shall I go further back, and find critics who thought Rodgers and Gershwin were sub-Kern?

Instead, critics, let’s stop using the term “sub-Sondheim”. Can we all agree that it is, at best, lazy? I think it’s worse than that, though, because here’s what we are repeatedly saying to budding (and established!) writers of musicals:

1. Your work is not as good as the best guy’s work.

2. We used to think the best guy’s work was not the best. We thought it was not as good as the work of some other, older guys. Still, his work is better than yours.

3. In its day, the work of those other, older guys was not always considered great. Instead, it was thought merely popular, ephemeral, facile. Still, your work’s not as good as the guy whose work wasn’t as good as that work.

4. Why aren’t new songwriters keen on musical theatre? We really need them.

Three Tear-Jerkers, and How to Do It Yourself!

Massenet wrote a bunch of operas, and he liked leitmotifs a lot, so much so that his fans say he out-Wagnered Wagner.  Despite all this hard work in long forms, his most famous (and beloved) composition is this pretty intermezzo from Thaïs:

There’s a melodic moment at about 0:45 in that video, and I recommend you try it for yourself:

  1. Establish the tonic major chord.
  2. Let the melody footle about a bit, in a rising fashion, until it hits the fifth degree of the scale.
  3. Drop an octave. You’re still on the fifth degree, but an octave lower.
  4. Go up a tone, to the sixth degree of the scale, and shift the chord underneath to the subdominant.

In Massenet’s case (D major, two sharps), it looks like this:

If I’m right to recommend this little melodic trick, there should be other examples from other composers who have tugged the heartstrings by this method, and raked in the cash. Ladies and gentlemen, Roger Whittaker’s The Last Farewell (1971, although it didn’t chart until 1975). Whittaker does it around the 0:32 mark, and even more clearly at 0:53

Furthermore, Stephen Sondheim’s only bona fide chart hit, as performed by Judy Collins, also happened in the Spring of 1975.  The two composers composed independently, but the hits occurred at the same time.  Mere coincidence?  The instrumental intro does the trick at 0:26, and the vocal version is at 0:54

Now that I see the timings on these videos, I have one more recommendation:

        5.  Do it early in the tune.  The end of bar 3 seems to be the sweet spot.

Ten Sondheim Tunes I Can Hum. With Ease.

He turns eighty tomorrow, so there’ll be some quoting of favourite lyrics, and some brows furrowing over – you know – that comparative lack of commercial success, those unhummable tunes.

Here, then, in the order I thought of them, are ten Sondheim melodies I love, and have always found memorable. In fact, I think only the terminally cloth-eared would have difficulty with these.

1. There Is No Other Way from Pacific Overtures

From around 5:45

The bird sings, the wind sighs,
The air stirs, the bird shies.
A storm approaches.

2. Finishing the Hat from Sunday In the Park With George

From around 1:05, “And how you’re always turning back too late from the grass or the stick …”

3. Johanna (Quartet) from Sweeney Todd

1:54 “Goodbye, Johanna, you’re gone and yet you’re mine …”

4. The Ballad of Booth from Assassins

“How the country is not what it was, where there’s blood in the clover …”

5. No, Mary-Ann

Say it’s all pink, say it’s all gray
That’s too easy to think and too easy to say …

Designed as a parody of overly popular showtunes, for a film version of William Goldman’s The Thing Of It Is, which never eventuated.  So catchy.

6. Johanna from Sweeney Todd

Just the whole damn thing.

7. The Right Girl from Follies

Hey, Margie, I’m back, babe.
Come help me unpack, babe.
Hey, Margie, hey, bright girl,
I’m home.

8. I Remember from Evening Primrose

2:20 “But as years go by, they’re a sort of haze …”
The prettiest song ever written for someone hiding out in a department store.

9. All Things Bright and Beautiful, cut from Follies

The song was cut but the melody served, thanks to Michael Bennett, as underscoring for the show’s opening.

10. Salon at The Claridge #2, from the score of Stavisky

Mmmm, that’s good pastiche.

I could, if you like, come up with another ten, starting with Not a Day Goes ByYour Eyes Are BlueSo Many People

How to Interview Sondheim

Do list all of Sondheim’s shows as classics. Include Passion, even though hardly anyone likes it.

Do say that he has won more Tony awards than anyone else alive. This is wrong, but no-one will check.

Do ask about Oscar Hammerstein, and that musical Sondheim wrote when he was 15, which Hammerstein so courteously tore to shreds.

Do allow Sondheim to say that he learned more about songwriting in that afternoon than most people learn in a lifetime.

Don’t ask precisely what he learned. This will get all technical, and Ethel Merman will not be mentioned.

Do ask about Sondheim’s father, who left, and his mother, who was pretty nasty.

Don’t suggest that his shows feature absent fathers and nasty mothers. This is Freudian bunk, and you can speculate about it in the text either side of the interview.

Do ask about why he is so admired as a lyricist, but audiences are cooler about his tunes. Allow him to say that he likes his own music.

Don’t ask him why he thinks audiences are cooler about his tunes. Don’t bring up chord extensions, and melodies that don’t resolve to the tonic, and how this relates to emotional responses, and the ease of writing schmaltz. You don’t have time for this technical stuff, and you haven’t asked about Bernadette Peters yet.

Do ask about Bernadette Peters. Like, seriously, how old is she anyway?

Do mention Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Sweeney Todd. Allow Sondheim to say that film adaptations of stage musicals don’t work, except for Sweeney Todd.

Don’t mention Helena Bonham Carter’s woeful singing.

Do try to draw Sondheim out on living rivals, such as Lloyd Webber. He simply will not be drawn on this, but give it a go anyway.

Do suggest that the main characters in his shows are cryptic versions of him. You know, how Bobby in Company is really gay, and George Seurrat is all cold and distant, and Ben from Follies has tremendous success, but no-one to love – that’s all Sondheim, right? Let him deny it, while mentioning collaboration with playwrights, and writing for specific characters.

Don’t believe a word of it.

Do ask him what he’s working on. He won’t tell you, but ask.

Do refer to him, in future, as Steve.

I Think Enough Time Has Passed, And It Can Now Finally Be Said.

I’ve been re-listening to the Follies in Concert recording from 1985, and I still can’t believe how much that audience loses its goddamn collective mind. They just wet themselves. It made me remember what Clive Barnes, in the New York Times, wrote about the show’s score, back in 1971:

Mr. Sondheim’s music comes in two flavors-nostalgic and cinematic. The nostalgic kind is for the pseudo-oldie numbers, and I must say that most of them sound like numbers that you have almost only just forgotten, but with good reason … The cinematic music is a mixture of this and that, chiefly that. I doubt whether anyone will be parodying it in thirty or forty years’ time.

So now that, nearly forty years later, everyone is parodying Sondheim’s style, and bearing in mind that Clive Barnes got it right with other shows, such as A Chorus Line; and with the added consideration that he is no longer alive, having died last November, I still think it can now be said:

You were wrong, Clive. Very wrong. And you were a bitch about it.

Up yours, Clive.

What’s Wrong With Too Many Musicals. Episode 4.

Ep4. – Writers who get in the way

If you want to send a message, try Western Union.

The above is usually attributed to Frank Capra, but I suspect it was a pretty common sentiment in 1930s Hollywood; in any case, Capra could get very messagey when it suited him. Every writer succumbs once in a while, usually in the younger years, because the people, dammit, the people need to hear the truth.

It happens a lot in musicals. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the lure of a populist art form, with lots of educated, middle-class people sitting still and listening, lulled, sleepy, ready for indoctrination. That, and writers who, because the musical theatre is such a closed little world, truly believe we are the first to notice that people should be a bit nicer to each other.

It’s not necessarily bad to get all messagey, but there are accepted ways of going about it. Here they are.

Tell a kid

This is easy. Sometimes the kid is part of the storyline, as in Falsettos; when characters need to unburden, and make some of the evening’s points clear, they tell the kid, Jason, in the spirit of educating him. Jason, of course, wiser than his years, can usually be counted on to say something pert, and teach the grownups a little something about themselves.

Sometimes the kid is the hero’s younger self (see Nine, The Boy From Oz), so he’s useful for early scenes of optimism, and that all-important “What happened to you, man? What happened to our dreams?” scene, later.

If the main character is already a kid (Annie), give them a dog. Oliver! is an impressive exception to the rule.

Tell a dead person

These are usually parents or wives and they’re great fun, because your main character, alone onstage, is still addressing someone without breaking the fourth wall. Examples include the lovely ‘Mamma, Mamma’ from The Most Happy Fella, and Sweeney’s part in ‘Johanna (Quartet)’, from Sweeney Todd. Also Jesus, addressing God (OK, not technically dead, but still up in the sky), in ‘Gethsemane’ from Jesus Christ Superstar.

You can also bring a ghost onstage, and have them tell the characters Great Truths, as dead Billy Bigelow does in Carousel, and glowing white dead Fantine does in Les Miserables.

Put a Hat On a Supporting Character

The characters are discussing the Message of the Play, and wishing they could tell the People Who Need to Hear, who Aren’t Listening. So they slap a hat on one of their own and – hey presto! – he becomes Officer Krupke. Number ensues.

Dream Sequence!

These are helpful, if dated. You can show How Things Could Be (West Side Story), How Things Might Turn Out (Oklahoma!), How Things Used To Be (Follies, On a Clear Day), and – most messagey of all – How Things Truly Are Beneath The Surface (Follies again, and Lady in the Dark). In fact, Follies used dream sequences so well, it probably put the last nail in their collective coffin.

Have the chorus do it

Probably the least effective technique, but Brecht is usually cited as a precedent, and the chorus come downstage, point fingers and list all the faults we will nevertheless take home intact. Examples include “Bui Doi”, from Miss Saigon, the end of Sweeney Todd (the stage version), and far too much of Rent.

It’s when these tehniques are not employed that everything can go horribly wrong. Tim Rice really got it right in Superstar: Judas sings to Jesus when he wants to make his points. By the time of Evita, Che and Eva are bantering with each other about the way couples use each other (even though Che has no love interest); then, in the first version of Chess, The Russian and Florence sit and analyse their own scene to one another, while quoting Cole Porter. Awful.

I love Into The Woods, but I don’t need the witch (hot version) telling me at evening’s end how I should be careful the things I say, children will listen. I know, I get it, I was listening myself for the last two hours, and it’s a bit late if I wasn’t.

When my 20 min draft of The Happy Medium appeared at OzMade musicals in 2007, the audience filled in little feed-back slips, most of which, I’m happy to say, were really encouraging. But writers only remember the criticism: one person observed, accurately, that the show was preaching to the choir, and would probably never become a big, thumping, mainstream success. Guess what another wrote?  Well, there’s a song in the show called ‘Put it Back’, in which our hero is upbraided by two Brits for making changes to his performance in a Brit show; then our heroine is patronised by two Americans for improving the blocking of a scene in an American show. “Put it back, put it back, put it back,” they all sing, and this one feed-back slip read:

Where’s the message?

Maybe I should get a ghost to sing it.

How to Tell You’re Screwed, in a Musical

In West Side Story, Tony and Maria meet, dance the cha-cha, and fall in love.  Tony, being a well-raised Polish-American former gang founder, makes an immediate booty call to Maria’s balcony.  They chat a little more, smooch, sing, and make a date to meet at a bridal shop.  There they enact a sort-of-wedding ceremony, making it OK when, later, they have sort-of-sex.  In the famous Act One quintet, anticipating this bout of post-rumble love, they sing:

Tonight, tonight,
Won’t be just any night.
Tonight there will be no morning star.

Stephen Sondheim has been openly critical of his lyrics in this score, but has reserved most of his disdain for such lines as I Feel Pretty‘s  “It’s alarming how charming I feel”.  I’ve never seen him pick on the lines above, but consider:

Of course there will be no morning star tonight.  If it appeared tonight, it would be the evening star.  By definition, Venus can’t appear both tonight and tomorrow morning.  The planet precedes or follows the sun, and cannot do both.

OK, so I’m being a pedant.  Tony and Maria are saying that tonight is a special night, not like those normal nights, that it will never end, and so there will be no morning star.  I’m not heartless; I get it.  But there are large chunks of the year where Venus, occupied with its duties as an evening star, makes no appearance as a morning star, and so those nights are not particularly special.  There are many of them, and they all end.

Granted, this is not the sort of thing I expect a Puerto Rican arriviste and a drugstore stockboy to know, especially while they’re singing.  But I do expect Sondheim, even in his late 20s, to know.  So what’s the young fox lyricist up to?

Here’s my theory.  These characters are toast, and they don’t know it.  How can we tell?  Well, they’re singing about how tonight is so special, and it will never end, but what will really happen is:

  • One of them’s gonna die, so for him the night will never end, technically.
  • The other’s going to see her lover get shot, so the night will be very, very special, but in all the wrong ways.

I know what you’re thinking.  If this lyric were by, say, Tim Rice, I would dump upon it from a mighty height, then go my merry way.  But because it’s a Sondheim lyric, I’ve been obliged to twist this logic pretzel and eat it, in order to maintain my grovelling obeisance to my Dark Lyric Lord, my Lucifer, my morning star.


Some Broadway Clerihews

Frank Loesser
Was unable to repress a
Desire to mentor in later life.
A shame about the wife.


Lord Lloyd Webber,
A hack? Nay, nebber!
Near the start of Superstar
Is one very good bar.


Oscar Hammerstein II
Is forever under-reckoned.
But he revolutionised
Without becoming douchenised.


Wildhorn, Frank:
His melodies stank
Of Cheez Whiz and sherbet;
A less butch Victor Herbert.


And, last of all …

Thanks a lot, Steve,
For the legacy you leave.
We’ll escape it
By writing shit.