Saturday, April 30, 2011

Words & Music: Modern Master, Stephen Sondheim

Anybody who knows me knows how infatuated I am with Stephen Sondheim.  So I simply must wrap up our lyricists' month with two of his tunes. 

West Side Story?  Sweeney Todd?  Candide?  A Little Night Music?  Gypsy?  On The Town?  Sunday In The Park With George?  That's him.

I chose these two tunes for contrast, and I hope you enjoy them.

First, "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" from Sweeney Todd, which Knopf sent around last week in their poem-a-day email for National Poetry Month.  Their take: 
"'Green Finch and Linnet Bird,' sung by the character of Johanna in Sweeney Todd, may not be a poem, but to read it without its haunting, angular melody is to 'hear' it slightly differently."
See what you think...
Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?
How can you jubilate
Sitting in cages,
Never taking wing?

Outside the sky waits,
Beckoning, beckoning,
Just beyond the bars.
How can you remain,
Staring at the rain,
Maddened by the stars?
How is it you sing
How is it you sing?

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?

Whence comes this melody
    constantly flowing?
Is it rejoicing or merely halloing?
Are you discussing
Or fussing
Or simply dreaming?
Are you crowing?
Are you screaming?

Ringdove and robinet,
Is it for wages,
Singing to be sold?
Have you decided it's
Safer in cages,
Singing when you're told?

My cage has many rooms,
Damask and dark.
Nothing there sings,
Not even my lark.
Larks never will, you know,
When they're captive.
Teach me to be more adaptive.

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
Teach me how to sing.
If I cannot fly,
Let me sing.
It's not a Sondheim favorite of mine, but I admire the way his melody supports character development:  Check it out on YouTube to see the contrast between words-on-the-page and melody-driven, embodied music... .  You get the sense that Joanna is a tad touched, no?  And that her condition has quite a bit to do with her forced captivity...

And for sheer verbal play and showbiz fun:  "Agony" from Into The Woods.  In the lyrics below, the Princes Charming debate whose love life trumps whose.  Neither has wedded his conquest yet at this point...
I hope you'll enjoy the lyrics for their comic allusions, character comedy, and insights into human nature...AND, I found a video of the reprise, in which the two princes have married but haven't quite conquered their innate wanderlust.  This video stars the two original Princes from the Broadway cast: They are truly funny, and fine singers, so do scroll down and take a look!


Did I abuse her
Or show her disdain?
Why does she run from me?
If I should lose her,
How shall I regain
The heart she has won from me?

Beyond power of speech,
When the one thing you want
Is the only thing out of your reach.

High in her tower,
She sits by the hour,
Maintaining her hair.
Blithe and becoming and frequently humming
A lighthearted air:

Far more painful than yours,
When you know she would go with you
If there only were doors.

Oh, the torture they teach!

What's as intriguing-

Or half so fatiguing-

As what's out of reach?

Am I not sensitive,
As kind as I'm handsome
And heir to a throne?

You are everything maidens could wish for!

Then why no-?

Do I know?

The girl must be mad!

You know nothing of madness
Till you're climbing her hair
And you see her up there
AS you're nearing her,
All the while hearing her:




Though it's different for each.

Always ten steps behind-

Always ten feet below-

And she's just out of reach.
That can cut like a knife!

I must have her to wife.

Of course, as is true of all great songwriters, Sondheim leaves breathing space for the music to create a perfect marriage.  If this sparks your interest, I recommend Finishing The Hat, Sondheim's recent collection of annotated lyrics and dishy commentary (he's his own toughest critic, but spares nobody).  Great vintage photos and insights into this master-writer's process too.

As always, please support the songwriters who change us with their art.

MFB, on Broadway,


Deborah said...

Lovely and thought-provoking post - like the phrase about the words giving breathing space for the music.

Coincidentally, I put a music post up on my blog this morning - the wonderful voice of Stacey Kent.

As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

Hi! This isn't actually related to your Sonheim post (though I found it very interesting), but you're the winner of my blog giveaway at As the Crowe Flies and Reads. Could you contact me with your email information so I can get the process rolling? Basically you win a book of your choosing from among the dozens & dozens of signed books that are in stock at my bookstore, The Odyssey Bookshop, in South Hadley, MA, USA. If you'd like a complete list of author events we've had since the beginning of the year, I can probably hook you up with that.

Thanks for following!

llevinso said...

I love this post! I need a poetry-related post to round out the month but I couldn't think of anything. I might actually steel this, with a few changes of course... (and by steel I mean I'd obviously give you full credit).

Though I might not have time to actually post til tomorrow seeing as how I just posted my Island of Dr. Moreau review.

llevinso said...

Just got my Sondheim post up (finally!) and linked you :)

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