Saturday, November 27, 2021

have you finished the hat?

The news came last night as news of this type always does. On my telephone.

Stephen Sondheim had died.

The man whose intricate lyrics and challenging music had breathed life back into the American Broadway Musical was dead.

And, like one of his characters, I read the headline, reacted with an ambiguous "mmm," and returned to my reading. If there is one lesson I learned from Sondheim's work, it is that emotions are simply another type of thought -- and all thoughts require discipline.

I have told you the tale of my misbegotten career as a Broadway musical hobbyist (being dan). I do not care for music unless it can withstand serious analysis. Most Broadway music cannot. It is as predictable as its cousin "popular music." It is that word (predictable) that dooms popular music (and a lot of other art forms) from being very interesting.

I had a bet with a friend that if he hummed me the first four bars of any popular tune I had never heard, I could guess the next four bars. I got five out of six. Not because I am some kind of music wizard, it is merely that scribblers of popular tunes write in predictable forms. That is what makes the music popular. The listener knows what to anticipate. They know what they like, and they like what they know.

Great composers -- great artists -- do not settle for predictability. They strive to make their work an individual statement that is inevitable, but not predictable. In Sondheim's words: 'If a composer's work is not inevitable, it will seem contrived and self-important." And Sondheim's work never fell into that trap. (Well, that is, if you ignore "Pretty Little Picture" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.)

What drew me to Sondheim's music and lyrics was the sense of the inevitable. The music was so intricate that it lent itself to serious analysis. For years, I subscribed to The Sondheim Review. Despite the name, it was not a fanzine. Most of the articles would have felt at home in an academic journal.

But his works were meant to be shared with others, not merely to be analyzed. That is why he wrote for the theater. He wanted to see and hear people reacting to what he wrote.

In the Air Force, my friend George Keys, who is now a hot-shot lawyer in DC, and I would pore over the lyrics of A Little Night Music to ferret out the Bergman references. I joined my friends Ken and Patti Latsch at performances of Assassins, Pacific Overtures, and Follies after which we would stay up until the wee hours discussing what we had learned about ourselves and others. They were particularly fond of "It Takes Two" from Into the Woods during their quest for a child.

The point of all that is that Sondheim's works did what what an artist's works should do. It taught the world -- or, at least, the four of us -- something new. Do you know that feeling when you are trying to describe something and someone else comes up with just the correct word? That is what it is like listening to Sondheim pieces. We nod our heads in recognition when we recognize that relationships are "Every Day a Little Death."

In "Finishing the Hat," Sondheim put his philosophy about relationships and creating art in the mouth of the painter George Seurat. He then developed those words in his two books that describe his process of writing lyrics: Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat.

Sondheim's music is not about Mexico, but all of his music is. In the sense that the themes he has written about, the characters who populate his works are not cultural prisoners of Broadway, His work is as universal as that of Tolstoy, Dickinson, or Tamayo. We know them because we recognize ourselves in their struggles.

And, for that, we thank you, Stephen Sondheim. You made us a bit better because you have let us see what we can be by showing us who we are.

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