On the Cover: Satan Sings Mostly Sondheim
Early signs of talent
Wisconsin archives reveal Sondheim’s youthful evolution
BY MARK EDEN HOROWITZ
Sondheim scholars and aficionados, rejoice and be grateful! “The Stephen Sondheim Papers, 1946-1965,”a collection of largely unknown early manuscripts and papers, improbably resides in the capital city of America’s Dairyland. The University of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research preserves these valuable manuscripts of the young Sondheim’s work and makes them available for study in the library and archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society, in Madison. But why are Sondheim’s early works here?
The Wisconsin Historical Society began actively collecting in the area of mass communication in the 1950s, acquiring collections from NBC, David Brinkley, Robert Novak, H.V. Kaltenborn and others. Subsequently, under the somewhat mistaken impression that no institutions were similarly preserving theatre-related materials, the Historical Society Archives contacted the university’s Speech and Theater Department: If the department agreed to collect and process such collections, the Historical Society would house them and make them accessible to scholars. The success they achieved was quite remarkable; they obtained collections from S.N. Behrman, Marc Blitzstein, Jerry Bock, Abe Burrows, Paddy Chayefsky, Howard Dietz, Edna Ferber, Dorothy and Herbert Fields, George S. Kaufman, David Merrick, Harold Rome, Joseph Stein and dozens of others.
In June 1961, Robert H. Hethmon, director of what was then called the Wisconsin Center for Theater Research, first approached the young Sondheim, who had only two serious credits to his name: the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. Clearly Hethmon was extraordinarily prescient. A courtship by correspondence (and possibly at least one meeting) followed, and on Dec. 19, 1963, Sondheim signed the deed of gift for the majority of his writings up to that point.
The archives include two appraisals, one in 1963, and one in 1965, when additional materials were added to the collection. The second estimates a market value of $19,780 for that portion of the collection. The appraiser itemized materials for the song “Comedy Tonight”—12 pages of music manuscript, 16 pages of manuscript lyrics and “working-out of lyric lines” and 10 pages of typed lyrics, four of which have holograph (handwritten) notations — and gave them a total value of $170. Lest it seem that evaluation was extraordinarily out of sync even for its time, by comparison, at another institution in 1970 the most expensive manuscripts from Robert Wright and George Forrest’s Kismet were valued at $65 per page. Unfortunately for both creative artists and institutions collecting their work, the U.S. tax laws changed soon thereafter to forbid the deduction of the full value of donated works by their creators, curtailing relationships that had proved invaluable to museums and libraries.
To give an idea of the size of the collection, the Stephen Sondheim Papers in Madison are housed in 20 boxes, some vertical and some flat. The materials comprise juvenilia and Sondheim’s early works through Do I Hear a Waltz? (The collection’s finding aid is available online: http://bit.ly/1rslP59.) Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz? and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum have the most materials, followed by Gypsy, Saturday Night and West Side Story. All the shows have lyric sketches, lyric sheets and music, but equally intriguing are the various scripts. For Forum alone there are 12 drafts (one of which is for the 1966 film); the earliest dates are from 1958. For West Side Story there are eight.
The collection also includes a small quantity of personal correspondence; student papers, including one on a pair of Ravel piano concertos; teleplays for 10 episodes of Topper that Sondheim wrote or co-wrote (sometimes in multiple versions); draft scripts for unproduced television shows; a radio play (The Rats in the Walls, based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story) and the draft of an unpublished novel, Bequest.
The earliest —and mostly unknown —music is particularly fascinating. It reveals the speed at which Sondheim matured musically and lyrically. Almost from the beginning there were signs of a startling individual talent. There are four songs for By George!, the musical Sondheim wrote between 1945 and 1946 when he was 15, the first he showed to Oscar Hammerstein II and for which he received a devastating if hopeful critique. The title of one song, “It Must Be Spring,”reflects Hammerstein’s influence, especially in its opening quatrain:
I go round in circles
Haven’t learned a thing.
Just can’t concentrate
It must be spring.
It’s worth noting that the somewhat similar Rodgers and Hammerstein song “It Might as Well Be Spring”is also from 1945. Sondheim’s hand is immature at this point, and for this
song there is only a melody, no harmony or accompaniment. But a short three years later, the 19-year-old writes a handful of songs for his musical version of the 1936 Maxwell Anderson play High Tor. Musically, Sondheim has progressed far beyond his years. Accompaniments are rich and varied with daring chromaticisms, inner lines and accompaniment figures. One song, “List a While Lady,”is —somewhat shockingly for the time —in 5/4. (It would be another 10 years before the Dave Brubeck piece “Take Five”would become the first popular number in quintuple meter to achieve broad popularity.) Sondheim is already avoiding musical clichés. One can still hear the bucolic and poetic Hammerstein influence in the lyrics. The ballad “No Sad Songs for Me” includes:
Somewhere lilacs don’t die,
And the wind is softly sweeping the sky,
But I’ll never know if that windswept sky
Ever meant its magic for me.
For the only sky I have known
Is a lonely wint’ry thing.
But notice the inner rhyme of “lonely”with “known.”Even if it’s a tad purple, it’s by no means a lyric to be ashamed of. And there’s something ear-catching in this unexpected rhyme in “List a While Lady”:
But, though he be gay and flip,
Even a sailor needs companionship.
My most fascinating discovery was the materials for Sondheim’s musical Climb High. Written between 1950 and 1952, it is an original musical with book and score by Sondheim.
This is Sondheim just before what was to be his first Broadway show, Saturday Night (suddenly canceled because of the death of the producer). Consider this lyric from the earlier show:
I don’t want to fall in love with you,
That’s for sure,
You’re too pure
I ought to fall in love with someone who
Is immensely rich,
Can afford to keep me in the style to which
I would love to become accustomed.
It’s almost identical to Helen’s consideration in the verse to “So Many People”in Saturday Night. If one word were to characterize Climb High, it would be “ambitious.”There are three substantive scripts, one of which runs to about 170 pages and lists 19 song titles plus reprises. These papers indicate that Sondheim completed the music for at least 14 numbers, although some are instrumentals/dance pieces and others lack lyrics on the music (though some appear in the scripts). Several numbers are complex and remarkably long. The “New York Sequence”runs to 14 pages! The show also reveals the emergence of an urban and cynical Sondheim, seemingly beyond Hammerstein’s sphere of influence. There are a lot of glimmers of things to come and, in some cases, they seem eerily prescient of later works. The song “Yoo-Hoo!”shares its title with an otherwise unrelated number cut from Sunday in the Park with George, but in spirit is very like “The Blob”from Merrily We Roll Along. Climb High’s party guests sing cattily:
Yoo-hoo! Hi there!
Who do I spy there?
Goodness, it’s good to see you,
Let’s have a drink!
It’s good to see you,
Indeed, much of Climb High anticipates Merrily. Both tell stories of competing ambitions among young people yearning for that first big break in show business in Manhattan. Consider some Climb High song titles: “Nice Town, But,”“Pavement Pounding Sequence,”“When I Get Famous,”“In a Year from Now”and “Party, Party.”Even the title song points toward “Our Time”and “The Hills of Tomorrow.”And couldn’t George Furth have given this Climb High exchange to Charley and Mary in Merrily?
NORMAN: When are you going to start pounding pavements?
DAVID: No time like tomorrow.
Two numbers could combine to become “Opening Doors.”The first, “In a Year from Now,”imagines a hoped-for successful career, but fears it won’t come to pass. The second is a production number that Sondheim begins describing in the script:
THE NEW YORK FOLLIES is a DANCE which depicts the next three months in David’s life. It is a reiteration of the first nine [:] the weary round of producers’offices, the attempts to be seen, the occasional TV bits …
It’s hard to fathom why more hasn’t been made of the Sondheim Papers in Wisconsin, but they’re rich and fascinating, and they reveal a lot about the birth and evolution of a great artist. |TSR|
MARK EDEN HOROWITZ, contributing editor of TSR, is a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The author of Sondheim on Music, he has been associated with this magazinesince 2000.