Saturday, December 14, 2013


The other night I watched SIX BY SONDHEIM, an HBO documentary about the lyricist/composer who's had more of an influence on modern musicals than anyone. Like all his own work, the documentary was a mixed bag. But the best part of it for me, as is often the case in docs about individuals, especially creators, was his own words.

Excerpting bits of interviews from throughout his career, the director James Lapine, Sondheim's main directing collaborator on his musicals, was able to edit together bits of explanations and stories about Sondheim's creative process, personal history and influences. Sondheim is one of the most honest, articulate and at times eloquent artists you probably will ever hear explain their own work.

As those who read this blog know, or even just my last post, anyone doing their best to create any work of art is appreciated by me. And when what they create is good it's a bonus. And when it is original in any aspect, I'm overjoyed. Sondheim, of course, not only does all that, he hits the highest goal for my taste, and that is creating something that changes the game in any art.

The documentary had interviews with others, as well as the subject, and several production numbers (must have been six, I guess) that were, like his work, highly original but a mixture of satisfying and almost aggravating, or at least disappointing. His work, for me, lifts the spirit with the genius he displays in his craft: the melodies he creates and the words to go with them, or vice versa.  But at the same time challenges any possible joy with a bit of cynicism and disappointment that can almost taste bitter.

The triumph is in the overcoming of life's disappointments, or maybe just outliving them, as in his song "I'm Here," which is delineated and examined from every angle and then given a production number that is in your face obvious and weirdly unexpected at the same time. The song was written for an older female character as a proud but sad declaration of survival despite the vagaries of life, but was sung cabaret style, more or less, by a man of indeterminate age [Jarvis Cocker mostly in shadows or dim lighting] with many in the on set cabaret audience older and elderly women heavily made up and looking either proud or deeply saddened by their reality reflected in the song. [Just found out that number was directed by Todd Haynes!]

I should have written this earlier when I could be more articulate about what I mean, but hopefully you get the idea. That production number left me both moved and confused, which often seems Sondheim's objective. But to hear him talk about how he structures his lyrics was such a pleasure for me. I love to hear artists who are able to clearly explain their process. It not only enlightens me about how others work, but delights me in ways it's hard to explain, partly because of the joy it gives me to hear someone describe strategies I've used (and thought I discovered), and partly the sheer pleasure I get from the commitment to the work that ends up bringing so much to so many.

I'd already read what is one of my favorite books about creating works of art, Sondheim's own recent (well, a few years old now) book Finishing The Hat, Collected Lyrics (1954-81) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. A title worthy of Sondheim.  The main title comes from one of the songs in his Sunday in the Park with George. My favorite musical of his, even though I'm not crazy about the second act and think it doesn't live up to the promise of the first. But even that act is better than most other creators' efforts.  But the first act.  For a while in the 'eighties I  would insist women I was dating watch the DVD, or listen to the CD, of that musical with me and their response would determine if I wanted to keep dating them or not.

I was so moved by it, because it's about that commitment to the work, that drive and necessity to create something you can never be sure anyone will even get, let alone appreciate, and yet you do it anyway, with all your heart and soul. So many have experienced that and ended up with so little appreciation and recognition. Including me at times, and many I know and whose work I find among my favorites and feel everyone should love though sometimes very few do.

There are terrific poems being written and read all over this country, all over the world, at this very moment, and most of them will never be seen or heard by more than a few people. Just as there are all kinds of books and plays and paintings and sculptures and songs and etc. that anyone of us would be proud to have created and yet may never be seen or heard or etc.  Sondheim captures what that means in Sunday in the Park with George, and makes, I think, an audience feel it, whether they've ever tried to create a work of art themselves or not.  That's a hell of an accomplishment.

Although Sondheim now feels the lyrics he wrote to Leonard Bernstein's melodies for Westside Story were not what he would have written if he controlled the story and music, those lyrics changed my life. I was a teenage boy who'd never been exposed to a Broadway musical or play and thought of the live theater as some rich peoples' boring high fallutin' elitist exclusive nothing-to-do-with-my-reality jive.

But then at a rich girl's house whose parents brought her to Broadway plays I heard the cast album to Westside Story, which hadn't been made into a movie yet, and I was shocked at how relevant the lyrics were to my life and how I felt, and the lives of friends and our reality. I thought, oh wait, this is what art can do?  I want more. And I want to do it.  I was already writing poetry and playing piano and fantasizing about acting in movies, but I had no models for what I was trying to do 'cause all the poetry and music and movie acting I knew, even when I dug it, never fully represented who I was and where I came from and was coming from.

I never forgot Sondheim's name and the impact his lyrics in Westside Story had had on me.  But I was often disappointed by him in later years because so much of his work seemed cold or bitter or like I said cynical. But in this documentary and book so much is made clear about the reasons for that. His mother's cruelty (she wrote him a note the night before she had open heart surgery that said she only had one regret: giving birth to him!) and as revealed in an interview when he was old, he fell in love for the first time when he was sixty!

I don't know who besides Sondheim fanatics, or those with a deep interest in the creative process, will bother to work their way through his book, Finishing the Hat, or even the documentary Six by Sondheim. And there's a lot in both that can disappoint. But the rewards, the good stuff, the revealing and moving and inspiring parts, make the effort well worthwhile.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes that I have kept above my desk for decades now, from lyrics out of Sunday in the Park with George:

"Stop worrying if your vision
is new.
Let others make that decision—
They usually do.
You keep moving on."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was an excellent essay, Michael.

With admiration,

Harry E. Northup