Vol. 11, No. 4 Summer 2005
Joss Whedon: Absolute Admiration for Sondheim
Company turns 35
For most of the audience of Wall to Wall Sondheim on March 19, 2005, choosing a single standout experience would be impossible. For writer/director Joss Whedon, however, the choice is easy: It's when, participating in a panel discussion on popular culture, he met his hero, Stephen Sondheim. An artist whose works have inspired conventions, academic conferences and the love of millions of devoted fans, Whedon is himself, a formidably gifted and influential artist. One might not think he would be in awe of anyone but when it comes to "the single most influential artist" in his life, Whedon's admiration is absolute: "What Sondheim has to say is the most honest, perceptive expression of the human experience that I know."
A third-generation television and film writer, Whedon has earned a reputation as a brilliant storyteller, a creator of complex characters and mythologies. After cutting his teeth on the television shows Roseanne and Parenthood, he made his mark as a screenwriter on such films as Toy Story and Alien Resurrection, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which he later shaped into the long-running TV series of the same name. With three TV series under his belt (Buffy, its spin-off Angel, and the sci-fi Western Firefly) and more in production, Whedon continues to expand his work into film (a sequel to Firefly, Serenity and Wonder Woman) and comics (Fray, Astonishing X-Men.) He spoke to TSR twice in the weeks before the March 19 Wall to Wall Sondheim; these conversations, along with his comments during a panel exploring "Sondheim and Popular Culture," reveal some of the ways that the efforts of one great artist can influence the work and thinking of another.
Whedon's parents introduced him to Sondheim musicals when he was a child, and he credits shows like Company and A Little Night Music as formative in the development of his creative vision, one that's "existential and bleak," though shot through with acts of devotion, courage and faith. Moral ambiguity pervades the works of both artists: Sondheim makes us sympathize with serial killers, stalkers and John Wilkes Booth; Whedon peoples his worlds with rogue "Slayers" (ostensibly the good guys), repentant vampires, principled smugglers and licensed prostitutes. Furthermore, the ethical dilemmas these characters struggle with regularly draw comparison in academic writing to those of Kant, Nietzsche and Aristotle. Whedon cites Sondheim as an early influence in developing this moral spectrum marked by shades of grey.
If childhood seems a strange time to be exposed to the bitterness and disappointment of early-'70s Sondheim, Whedon counters that it accurately reflected the family experience of his early years. "Sondheim wasn't someone you would go to if you wanted to be told that everything was perfect. Neither were my parents, for that matter all concerned were greatly relieved when they got divorced. I told my therapist that I knew all of Follies by the age of nine; she said, 'We have our work cut out for us.'" One of Follies numbers, "The Road You Didn't Take," posed a particular challenge to young Whedon: "the notion that every choice you make means that other possibilities are eliminated forever as a kid, I found that terrifying. As an adult, I still find it scary."
Another effect that Sondheim saturation had on the young writer was to create an engagement with language. Whedon's writing sparkles with verbal inventiveness the playful patois of Buffy is so rich that it has inspired a linguistics text: Slayer Slang, by Michael Adams. Song itself had a profound effect on Whedon's developing sensibilities. "Growing up on show tunes," he explained to TSR, "you become attuned to the rhythms of human speech. My writing isn't metric, but it is musical." Whedon exploited this gift when, in the role of a major Buffy villain, he cast Harry Groener, who played George (replacing Robert Westenberg and Mandy Patinkin) in the 1984 Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George: "What I loved about [Harry], aside from his telling me stories about working on Sunday, was that when you gave him a speech, you saw him reading it as a singer as well as an actor, planning out where to think, where to breathe." Whedon has even found ways of expressing this preoccupation with speech rhythms on the comic book page. As an almost musical opening gesture, the first page of a recent issue of Astonishing X-Men (which follows the adventures of misfit mutant superheroes) begins with three panels in a row, each set in a different location, each with identically scanning text. The effect is analogous to the tuning of an orchestra before a concert. It invites focus, attention: something extraordinary is about to start.
The music of Whedon's own speech, normally staccato, takes on a giddy energy when he talks about his favorite Sondheim songs. TSR asked him to expand on some moments that, to him, embody something quintessential about Sondheim's writing. The result is a laundry list of great moments, coupled with Whedon's acute observations:
On "Pretty Women" from Sweeney Todd: "It's the most exquisite moment in the show, inevitable but completely surprising. Sweeney and Judge Turpin share this moment but it's totally surface, all visual neither of them actually understands women. Sweeney's idealized his wife so much that he doesn't recognize her; the Judge has idealized Joanna's innocence, if only to corrupt her but neither one of has a real connection with the actual woman. They're joined, but completely alone."
On "Finishing the Hat," and "Move On" from Sunday: "It's this moment of perfection, culminating in almost childlike language that's my experience of being an artist: what I would say, but better than I could ever say it. The first act of Sunday is about being a genius; the second act is about not being one . Artists get both usually more second act than first. George [in Act II] is never going to be the artist that Seurat was, but he's still an artist. You may never be Dickens, but maybe you'll write the kids' book that somebody picks up in a used bookstore and enjoys for five minutes. There's connection."
On "Someone in a Tree," from Pacific Overtures: "The thing is, it's true experience is always about the small moment, the pebble, not the stream. It's very Japanese and it's also very existential. Existentialism is all about the ecstasy, the complete experience, of the moment. ["Someone in a Tree"] deconstructs itself as it goes along, while at the same time being completely moving, never an academic exercise. It was the first time I had seen something that did that. The Buffy episode "The Zeppo" [which told a fairly typical Buffy story from the point of view of secondary character, Xander] takes, I think, a similar approach to storytelling."
The most conspicuous influence of musical theatre on Whedon's work is surely the Emmy-nominated Buffy episode, "Once More with Feeling," in which Buffy's hometown of Sunnydale suddenly finds itself in a musical, with ordinary citizens bursting into song when emotions run high. The score is literate and sophisticated, a surprise to many expecting a gimmicky retread of Cop Rock, or the "jukebox" musical episodes of 7th Heaven or Ally McBeal.
"I knew I wanted to write a real musical episode of a TV show," Whedon explained to TSR. "Most musical episodes are variety shows; I wanted to write an original book musical with a beginning, middle and end. I knew it had to be a real episode, one that mattered, and I knew the next episode had to be just as good." Whedon succeeded. Starting with a pitch-perfect imitation of an Ashman-Menken "I want" song from a Disney animated feature, the score moves fluidly through musical comedy and rock idioms, including a "retro-pastiche" number, a power ballad, and a tension-building ensemble number with nods to Les Misιrables and the "Quintet" from West Side Story. Characters reveal secrets, make decisions, break old bonds and forge new ones that will affect the course of the show for months to come. This was not a throwaway dream sequence outside of series continuity. Defying the odds, Whedon showed that with enough inspiration and a spectacular cast, and six months of writing time (much more than an average episode) a book musical could fit into the continuity of an ongoing series.
Onstage at Wall to Wall, Frank Rich of The New York Times asked whether Sondheim was an influence on "Once More with Feeling." "I can't say I wrote just like him," Whedon replied. "I mean, step one: be a genius. He did exert a stylistic influence, I guess. But every time I hid a cheap rhyme, you were there," continued Whedon, now speaking directly to Sondheim. Whedon shrugged a gesture of acquiescence and surrender "and I'd go fix it."
TSR caught up with Whedon at the back of the theater after the discussion was over. "It was completely surreal," he mused. "I've met Sondheim. I can go home and die now." He cut the conversation short, however, as, onstage, Carolee Carmello and Gregg Edleman began to perform "Move On" from Sunday. Whedon turned and gave his complete focus to the familiar song of human connection and artistic renewal. Transfixed, he embodied the state he had only previously been describing the ecstasy of the moment. To meet Sondheim could be, for Whedon, a once in a lifetime event. But Sondheim's wise, terrifying, redemptive art remains, for him, a guidebook to the experience of being alive.
Len Schiff is a writer, lyricist and teacher who lives with his wife and child in New York City.
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