Tag Archive: Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at Glimmerglass

Greer Grimsley in the title of The Glimmerglass Festival production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is dark, dark musical theatre. A vengeful barber returns to Victorian London, slits the throats of those who have wronged him and with his accomplice turns their bodies into the stuffing of meat pies. Todd’s London is as menacing as he is …

“There’s a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And it’s filled with people
Who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it …”





No matter how you slice it…Andris Nelsons’ BSO Salome, plus other Boston treats

I was part of the capacity crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall (March 6) that rose to its collective feet to cheer BSO music director designate Andris Nelson’s first opera with his new orchestral family. Richard Strauss is one of his favorite composers, and at the press conference the day before he announced that among the ten relatively conservative programs he’s doing in his upcoming first season as music director, he’s scheduled two familiar Strauss tone poems, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life—“Not about myself,” he joked). The BSO’s only opera next season, one of its few daring choices of repertoire, will be Charles Dutoit leading the first BSO performance of Szymanowski’s King Roger, with Polish baritone Marius Kwiecień repeating his Paris and Santa Fe triumphs in the title role.



Nachtmusik: Sondheim, Anne Hutchinson, Denk, Levin, and Abbado

David Kravitz as Frederick, Krista River as Charlotte, Kristen Watson as Anne (Julian Bullitt photo)

The title A Little Night Music is only the first of the many inspired elements of Stephen Sondheim’s inspired 1973 musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (or, more correctly translated, I’m told, Smiles of the Summer Night—i.e., the night of the summer solstice). Of course it calls up both Bergman’s most subtle comedy as well as Mozart’s most famous serenade. And although Sondheim’s stream of waltzes and other triple-meter dances more directly evolves from Viennese operetta than Viennese opera, there’s a consistent Mozartian elegance and chiaroscuro to this work. The high water mark of Sondheim’s career was probably in the 1970s, the decade of Company (1970), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979), all collaborations with director Hal Prince. Everything that followed was more problematic, although many admirers would add Into the Woods (1987) to this list, and I’d also include the moving Passion (1994). Sondheim himself regards his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George (1984) as his best work.



Good Times, Bum Times: Last Year in Boston

Stephen Sondheim’s lyric from Follies seems especially suitable for this past year in Boston, and for the classical music world in general. There was a lot of terrible news: the folding of the New York City Opera, the cancellation of Minnesota Orchestra concerts and the ensuing resignation of Osmo Vanskä, the music director who put it on the map (even George Mitchell couldn’t make peace between labor and management). The worst thing to happen to Boston, especially for the arts, was the sudden shutdown of its most important weekly newspaper, The Boston Phoenix (I’m biased, of course, having written for the Phoenix for some 35 years). With only a day’s notice, some wonderful writers were suddenly out on the street, and the go-to place for listings and reviews became the sound of silence.



Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show at Menier Chocolate Factory

Music at the close. The adage is leave ’em wanting more, not less, but Stephen Sondheim has barely skirted the latter fate. At eighty-one, he’s been erratically revising a problem child since 1999 that is now called, blandly, Road Show. Under various uninspired titles — Wise Guys, Gold!, and Bounce — the musical flipped and flopped around the country from Chicago to New York and Washington D.C. At every step of the way Sondheim, being Sondheim, attracted the biggest names to direct and star, including Hal Prince and Nathan Lane. But no luck.





Sondheim at 80 – excerpts from Sondheim Works

Master of all trades. Stephen Sondheim’s career has been a slippery alloy of brilliance and spite. The brilliance is entirely his; the spite seeps from Broadway‘s “vultures, hangers on, and harbingers of bad news.” The quote is from a BBC interview this spring, indicating that at 80, Sondheim either feels the old barbs or is reconciled to being the perpetual outsider. His melodies can be as sweet as cream toffee, but you have to walk over broken glass to get to them. Addicted to puzzles and word games, he inserts them liberally into his lyrics, which are never for the dull witted. Before him, the American musical was a national pastime. Show tunes made the top 40, and everyone knew the numbers from Oklahoma. (In Sondheim, the corn is as high as a salamander‘s eye.) Even Kurt Weill cottoned that he had to transform the scabrous ironies of his Berlin work into something anodyne and folksy once he crossed the Atlantic. Sondheim alone was willing to write with a razor and strop. The way that critics reviled him, you’d think he filched the champagne from Die Fledermaus and substituted cyanide.



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