Sondheim shows on campus
Why is it that Sondheim’s shows are becoming more popular on college and university campuses?
The director writes about The Frogs at Trinity College
In a tangle of wires, Passion becomes a film for television and video
A bittersweet closing night
Passion: 19th century romanticism, 20th century realism
News and Notes
Sondheim is writing a murder mystery with George Furth; more on the promised big musical; Follies in Houston; Whistle in concert
Children present Into the Woods; a Sondheim hour on Ohio radio; Assassins extended in L.A.; Woods in Palo Alto
Forum in Spain and Israel; a Sondheim concert in Singapore
Out-takes from Martin Gottfried’s Sondheim
Five poets analyze Sondheim’s lyrics and proclaim him a poet
Although Do I Hear a Waltz has long been maligned, there are indeed some gems in this Rodgers -Sondheim score
Color and Light, the new jazz Sondheim CD, is reviewed
For Your Amusement
The Sondheim Menu Quiz
The Contest: A cast for a film of Follies, plus another contest to enter
The Sondheim Crossword Puzzle
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S. and elsewhere
More than the true poet of our theater
By Carol Bennett Gerber
A star-studded New York gala in September 1992 has resulted in the publication of The Poetry of Song: Five Tributes to Stephen Sondheim. It is a small book, but the first in which poets assess Sondheim’s work as a lyricist.
Press accounts of the black-tie event highlighted the surprise appearance of a weepy Mia Farrow, who read the lyrics to Cinderella’s song, “On the Steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods and, with Paul Newman, “Barcelona” from Company. George Plimpton and Phyllis Newman also read lyrics and Maureen McGovern and Victor Garber sang. Celebrity aside, the evening was important because it focused on Sondheim the poet. The Poetry Society of America considered its benefit a great success, both as a fund-raiser and in fulfilling its primary mission of “building public awareness of poetry.”
The Poetry of Song, which resulted from that evening, is only a 20-page pamphlet of essays, but its very existence should bring solace to those avid fans who find identity in Sondheim’s work. The essays will gratify anyone who wonders about words and their power to shape our awareness. They are penetrating in their arguments-and delightful reading.
In a short introductory essay, “A Happy Conjunction,” Richard Wilbur, co-lyricist for Candide, recalls competing with the young Sondheim for Leonard Bernstein’s time. He muses over words to songs he has never heard (he read the lyrics from a new CD set even though he didn’t own a CD player).
Wilbur speculates on why these lyrics are “singularly readable, as most people’s unaccompanied lyrics are not.” He cites their “virtuoso rhyming,” shunning of the predictable and a “supple vocabulary” that is grounded in the vernacular of conversation but also rises to the demands of sophisticated ideas.
“But above all,” he says, “I think these lyrics make good reading because their irony and their mixed feelings give them a poignant psychological truth.”
J.D. McClatchy’s essay “Laughter in the Soul” takes other poets’ conjectures about poetry as the standard against which he measures Sondheim. “Valery once said that poetry is not speech raised to the level of music, but music drawn down to the level of speech. That is what these songs do: Music becomes speech, speech that flickers and gleams within the glass lamp of form.”
McClatchy puzzles over the conflict among “the quintessentially ironic energies of Sondheim’s lyrics,” the narrative responsibilities of a Broadway song to reveal character, and music’s tendency toward clarity of form. It is Sondheim’s singular ability to accommodate these divergent forces and to use the resultant tension as a creative tool that sets him apart.
“Simplicity of utterance alone is suitable for song; and, in addition, show tunes have narrative responsibilities, a psychological duty to reveal the character of the singer, and the dramatic business of opening up that part of the musical. To have seen to all that, with a breath-catching thoroughness, and still to have those words take on an independent life in a listener’s imagination, not merely to have amused but to have puzzled and challenged the listener, puts this lyricist in quite another class. Sondheim is more than the true poet of our theater. He is one of those rare writers by whom our language lives.”
In his command of metaphor and use of detail, Sondheim finds kinship with the lyric poets: looking through the particular to see the whole. Sondheim himself describes this poetic process in Pacific Overtures.
It’s the fragment, not the day.
It’s the pebble, not the stream.
It’s the ripple, not the sea
That is happening.
Often, the effect of a Sondheim verse depends “not on its quick-wittedness but on a homely detail lifted from context into wrenching significance.” As an example, McClatchy quotes this lyric from A Little Night Music, finding it like Edna St. Vincent Millay imitating Emily Dickinson:
Every day a little death
In the curtains, in the silver,
In the parlor, in the bed,
In the buttons, in the bread,
Every day a little sting
In the heart and in the head.
Every move and every breath,
And you hardly feel a thing,
Brings a perfect little death.
Looking to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ claim that poetry is “the current language heightened,” he finds “the sound of Sondheim, the idiom of the cocktail party, the bedroom, the shrink’s office, the nail parlour, the idiom of foreplay and daydream…the way we speak with each other and with ourselves. But heightened, yes.”
McClatchy quotes Dr. Johnson: “The size of a man’s understanding might always be justly measured by his mirth.” He stresses Sondheim’s understanding because it characterizes his mirth and his verse.
“There is a penetrating intelligence and clear-eyed humanity here that can accommodate and balance the absurd and the solemn, the painful and the frivolous. It is, finally, a laughter in the soul.”
Grace Schulman, in “Stephen Sondheim’s Dramatic Poetry,” deems his lyrics good enough to stand alone as poems and describes the qualities that make them so: humor and intricacy. His humor, she believes, ranges from urbane wit to broad comedy, citing as one example, from Follies:
Could I recover,
Give up the joys I have known?
Not to fetch your pills again
Every day at five,
Not to give those dinners for ten
From the U.N.-
How could I survive?
She relishes the risks he takes with complex ideas, simultaneous and often contradictory feelings, and multiple voices embodying conflicting outlooks within a lyric, as in this from Sunday in the Park with George:
I chose, and my world was shaken-
The choice may have been mistaken,
The choosing was not.
You have to move on.
But depth alone doesn’t make him a poet; she examines his words in the context of form. In their musical and dramatic settings, Schulman finds them reminiscent of John Donne and Ben Johnson, conversational and fitting their musical contours without violating their spoken accents. She also acknowledges lyrics that have their own inherent poetic form, as in this excerpt from Pacific Overtures.
On the silver birch
Like my lady’s tears.
Like the whisper of the silk
As my lady kneels.
Tracing shadows of the pines
On my lady sleeping.
Schulman sees Sondheim’s consummate achievement as that of a dramatic poet. “(His works) show his supreme fictional technique of creating songs whose speakers are unaware of their motivations and deepest desires. In some dramas, that ignorance has evil consequences; in others, tragic effects. In all, the lapsed knowledge makes us uncomfortable because it reminds us of ourselves.”
Considering in his essay “Mr. Sondheim, Poet” whether a writer of song lyrics can ever be considered a poet, Robert Creeley quotes Ezra Pound: “Poetry is a composition of words set to music…The proportion or the quality of the music may, and does, vary; but the poetry withers and ‘dries out’ when it leaves music, or at least an imagined music, too far behind it.”
The separation of “poetry” from “lyric” is really a distortion of modern usage. In truth they are the same. The question is not whether Sondheim’s writing is good enough to be poetry. Of course it’s poetry; that’s what makes it so good. The general public just doesn’t think of their enjoyment as a response to poetry.
Creeley envies Sondheim his variety of emotional sources, always viewed with the “ironic, if wistful, recognition of how far our world has fallen from any previously securing unity or pattern.” What is remarkable is Sondheim’s ability to draw the common situation that every audience member shares unwittingly. We recognize a semblance of ourselves. We are the observer and discover that we are also the observed, as in the lyric:
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.
Creeley admits to “simply claiming him for our side.” He finds the poetry of Sondheim’s lyrics in “a quick sense of intimate feelings and a testament to that small yet vulnerably open place we all become real in, ourselves. Poetry lives there, it’s the home it must have.”
And he continues:
“Listening to Sondheim’s words, one soon comes to feel their edges, the brittleness of their circumstance , the shattered integrity of their often despairing meanings. They sing to us, of all things, that our lives are a painful exposure of our own defenselessness, and if we can find others even more at risk, we are not by that protected….If Stephen Sondheim has for years now written it all, the words and the music, it’s because they have for him been long inseparable. It was always there to be said.”
John Hollander in “Beating Time” begins with a different criterion for reckoning what is poetry. Sondheim’s songs “are poetic in that, like his larger conceptions of musical theatre generally, they revise conventions and redefine genres even while using them.”
Hollander has no hesitation in accepting song lyrics as poetry. He looks to Milton’s appraisal of the natural kinship of song and poetry as “sphere-born harmonious sisters.” If this eternal relationship is unfamiliar to modern audiences, it is because popular songwriters so often betray it. Sondheim keeps it honest.
If poetry is common speech heightened to reveal its subtleties and complexities, then song can be poetry heightened yet again.
“Sondheim’s kind of song can make us think thrice about our idioms and clichés, animating them by opening them up, playing with their hidden or misplaced literal meaning, making us momentarily conscious of our language, as if it were part of the natural landscape we usually rush through without noticing. This is one of the tasks of all poetry.”
The Poetry of Song is not a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book, but it offers a simple, elegant presentation of the essays. The flyleaves may be of special interest to Sondheim enthusiasts: the reproductions on vellum of a page from Sondheim’s legal pad, an early worksheet for “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” from Follies, lend an interesting insight into Sondheim’s process as a wordsmith.
The Poetry of Song: Five Tributes to Stephen Sondheim is available from the Poetry Society of America, 15 Gramercy Park, New York NY 10003. Normally $25, the booklet is available to Sondheim Review readers for $15.
Carol Bennett Gerber is a stage director living in New York City.
“Someone in a Tree,” “Poems” (c) 1976 RILTING MUSIC, INC.
“Every Day a Little Death,” “Send in the Clowns” (c) 1973 RILTING MUSIC, INC.
“Could I Leave You?” (c) 1971 RILTING MUSIC, INC.
“Move On” (c) 1984 RILTING MUSIC, INC.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission
All rights administered by WB MUSIC CORP.
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