I’m belated in pointing out that Tim Hulsey wrote a thoughtful post last week on the occasion of Stephen Sondheim’s 75th birthday. I’m a newly minted fan of Sondheim’s work–well, of precisely two of his plays so far–and can’t offer anything nearly so knowledgable. But I can free-associate!
In 2004 I had my first glimpse of Sondheim’s work at a Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of A Little Night Music that swept me off my feet and left me in tears (this, I find, is happening a lot more often the older I get, and bears no necessary relation to the quality of the movie/book/play/sporting event). A few months later, in New York, Terry took me to see an all-stops-pulled-out production of Sweeney Todd at City Opera, and several months after that we saw a tiny, black-box-theater version of Todd back here in Chicago. I guess I got lucky–every one of these stagings was played with talent and conviction, and after spending half a life unaware of the force that is Sondheim, I was half in love.
What pushed me the rest of the way, into a full-fledged liaison with his work, was receiving the original cast recording of A Little Night Music as a Christmas gift. Now I could listen at will, and I learned that the songs more than held up to sustained attention. For a few weeks in January I was listening to nothing but (the neighbors are still looking at me a little funny). Musically the songs are irresistible, but I don’t have the expertise to talk about that. The lyrics, however, just slay this former English major, they’re so rich and so unbelievably deft at creating and revealing the characters who sing them. But what might get me most is simply the unabashed feeling with which the songs are performed.
To some of you the following transition will seem very sublime-to-ridiculous, but the first time I saw the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical special, “Once More with Feeling,” I was braced for the worst, ready to laugh my way through it all. Not at all practiced at watching musical theater, I was deeply suspicious of the entire enterprise. I was surprised, then, when the Buffy musical grabbed me by the heartstrings, but by way, somehow, of the head. The wittiness of many of the lyrics authorized the heart-on-the-sleeve emotion in the show and freed me up to savor it. (Imagine my dismay, then, when at the climactic moment of Buffy’s rescue from the dancing demon’s spell, my videotape cut to the unlovely mug of Dennis Franz–I had set the VCR that night to tape Buffy followed by NYPD Blue, unaware that the musical ran an hour…plus seven minutes.)
The next day, I ran into an acquaintance who was also a Buffy watcher. I asked her what she’d thought of the musical; she laughed a bit unsurely and said, “I thought it was embarrassing.” And while I didn’t quite believe her, I also knew exactly what she meant. I had felt a temptation to react that way at first, and even into the middle of the show. Emotional content is so regularly faked, overplayed, and abused on television and in movies, you really feel like you have to start from a position of suspicion toward anything unironical. There’s something essentially unironical about singing, though, let alone singing in a musical. This is not to say there aren’t plenty of counter-examples, but song just doesn’t seem to be the same sort of natural habitat for irony that it is for feeling. In any case, I was pleased to have gotten over my own initial embarrassment toward the musical, and proceeded to establish my liberation beyond a doubt by watching it fifty more times in quick succession. When I showed it to Terry during his next visit to Chicago, he almost immediately noted the heavy influence of Sondheim, and I nodded in sage agreement, having no idea of Sondheim at all.
Obviously I see the influence now. And if one somewhat sad consequence of my new understanding has been to knock down the Buffy musical a slight notch by comparison with its models, I can’t help thinking that Joss Whedon provided some crucial paving of my way toward appreciating A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and (next up) Sunday in the Park with George in full. It would be nice to claim that I wasn’t the kind of person who needed to come to it in baby steps, led by an instance of Pop Culture with a capital P, but that’s how it happened. The neighbors might be embarrassed for me, hearing show tunes through the thin walls, but I really do love this stuff too much to care.