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Sondheim and Opera


When Stephen Sondheim passed away recently at 91, I was reminded of his incredible contribution and how lucky we are to have his works forever…just like other great composers. Plus, the man was incredibly productive until the very end, reportedly working on something new. His influence is truly a giant umbrella that looms - in a good way - over Broadway and everyone in it.


My first encounter with his work was while I was still in high school. OU’s (the University of Oklahoma, that is) summer stock theatre was doing Company only a year or so after it premiered, and somehow I ended up playing clarinet in the orchestra pit. I loved musicals and was very excited for the opportunity to play with all those graduate students. The whole experience was a revelation. Sondheim’s music and lyrics had some sort of urban sophistication I couldn’t even describe at the time. I leaned into it and went down the Sondheim rabbit hole for a while.


Sondheim, famously, didn’t think much of opera. Alas, but no point in arguing about that now. However...great, musical storytellers are great, musical storytellers. They all convey to us the depth of humanity and struggles inside their characters through words and music. Sondheim definitely has that in common with Verdi although Sondheim said that Verdi didn’t touch him at all. Violetta in La Traviata and King Philip in Don Carlo are wrestling with the world and themselves just as much as Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George or Bobby in Company.


On the musical side and a bit closer to the surface, his use of rhythm in the vocal line also has a connection to opera. Sondheim’s songs are, by all reports, very difficult to learn. His language is very precise, and he notates it with equal precision. Notated speech rhythms look crazy on the music staff. Ask anyone on the opera side who has learned Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, Nico Muhly’s Marnie, and Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice among others, and they’ll tell you that those “chatty” parts are tough to master. In both genres, those sections are all accompanied by the orchestra, and a singer must stick with the orchestra like glue while at the same time, sounding spontaneous and conversational. To me, all of the above qualify as a kind of written-out recitative. Cue the connection to operas from centuries past. Recitative by Mozart and others is written out in a much freer way - mostly with eighth-notes. But it is predominantly unaccompanied - a keyboard gets a singer going in the right key, and other chords come mostly at the end of the phrase as a form of punctuation or answer to the character. So the singer has more control to create the ebb and flow of the rhythm, the language and make it their own as the character demands.


I could go on with more examples but suffice to say this. Sondheim and all musical theater composers - no matter how innovative or creative and whether they prefer Broadway or the opera house - owe a lot to their predecessors. As Harry Truman put it, “there is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”



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fergjd
Dec 18, 2021

I just learned something interesting, insightful and succinct with a good Truman quote in 2 minutes!

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