Avert your eyes: Dorkus Malorkus has something to say...

WARNING: This post is about showtunes.

I know I've posted about Sondheim before, but let me tell you. Let me just tell you why. No, wait, let me tell you how...

I didn't start out this way. It all changed in grade 6. The details of that night are vivid: I was doing my math homework one night, multiplying fractions on a yellow legal pad. I kept forgetting if I should switch the numerator and the denominator before or after I multiplied. I was chewing the eraser of the pencil to bits as I sat on the couch, when my mom came in and popped a tape into the VCR and said that she was taping something on PBS and I might enjoy it.

My mom used to do that. She'd tape just everything. Half the movies I loved as a child are grainy things with 80's commercials taped on thrice-taped-over VHS cassettes off of Channel 9 in the middle of the night. My parents' pack-rat-ism extended to everything, even late-night movies. This time it turned out to be more than enriching. It was fucking life changing.

On "American Playhouse" that night was an airing of the 1988 Original Broadway Production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.

It wasn't my first experience with Sondheim; I had seen the movie of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and had probably been exposed to Gypsy (his lyrics) at that point, but as an 11-year-old, composers meant nothing to me. It was because of this musical that I would learn his name and come to consume, slowly and over a period of many years, nearly everything the man had written. (And I'm not done yet...)

What was it that grabbed me at the time? It wasn't a sophisticated love of clever lyrics or challenging melodies. I'm sure, at the time, part of it was the performances (no one will ever be The Witch to me but Bernadette Peters, and may Vanessa Williams be slapped around mercilessly with a giant fish for even trying to turn those songs into some sort of easy-listening smooth jazz/soul video. And Joanna Gleason's Baker's Wife has been, since that day and to date, my favourite character in the history of musical theatre.) Part of it was the subject matter-- I was 11, and I loved fairy tales. Still do. I like magic, I like scary magic, I like that we are fucked up by and proceed to fuck up our children by telling them gruesome tales with happy endings.)

But as I got the tapes (later, the CDs-- this was 1990) and wore them to death, I began to realize how much smart, how original/haunting/offbeat Sondheim's songs were. I was developing a particular passion for harmony and counterpoint, and Sondheim is a master of blending and arranging music in unexpected, beautiful ways. And he could get away with lyrical acrobatics that someone like, say, Andrew (blech) Weber would never dream of. One of my favourites from Into the Woods is when Jack's mother is singing to her dreamy-headed boy about the need to sell his beloved cow:

Son! We've no time to sit and differ
while her withers wither with her
And no one needs a cow for a friend...
Sometimes I fear you're touched.

You know that cheese sketch from Monty Python, where Cleese is trying to purchase cheese from Palin, and the point of the sketch is to basically see how long they can get away with just naming cheeses? It reminds me of a lyric from On the Steps of the Palace, where Sondheim is just trying to see how long he can sustain the repetition of this rhyme:

You'll just leave him a clue--
for example, a shoe...
and then see what he'll do.
Now it's he and not you
who is stuck with a shoe
in a stew
in the goo
and you've learned something, too,
something you never knew...

It doesn't come across without the music, and, okay, some repeated listening. But this stuff just got inside of me and wouldn't come out. And so I sought more. It helps that the man picks some of the more interesting subject matter: presidential assassins, murderous barbers, Swedish love triangles, the life of Georges Seurat, the opening of Japan to Western contact... I found Sunday in the Park with George... A Little Night Music... Company...Assassins... Sweeney Todd... Pacific Overtures... Merrily We Roll Along...

...and I'm not done yet...


Anonymous Tina said...

Dude, Into the Woods is a GREAT fucking musical. I was Little Red waaaay back in the day (11? 12) and didn't get some of the blue humor, but I think my favorite song is the one that the two suitors sing. The whole book is just so darn clever and hilarious.

11:13 AM, August 15, 2005  
Blogger therese said...

I heart show tunes! (as long as they aren't of the Andrew Lloyd Weber variety) Though I do fall more into the "classic" camp- Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart, Lerner & Lowe, Meredith Wilson, etc. But Sondheim? Fabulous.

3:09 PM, August 15, 2005  
Blogger Tavie said...

"Agony"-- I love that one. The reprise even funnier. Bet you were quite the impressive Little Red!

I have a healthy love for the classics (some, anyway) and a deep distaste for Lloyd-Weber (with the exception of JC Superstar, which is just fun.)

10:56 PM, August 15, 2005  
Blogger d said...

I was watching some show somewhere where apropos of nothing jim carrey busted into the first judas song in jc superstar & this is one of the many reasons why I can't hate the carrey.

the first sondheim I saw was sweeney. so yeah, it will always be sweeney for me. little night music being a close second 'cause I love the overlapping song thing. probably from overexposure to the tonight/maria/the jets... bit in west side story. yeah. I am from dorkitron.

11:56 AM, August 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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12:32 PM, August 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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1:05 PM, August 16, 2005  
Blogger therese said...

Thanks to this post and related comments, I will be humming an Into the Woods/West Side Story/JC Superstar Medley for the rest of my life. I'm in Agony because I Don't Know How to Love Maria.

PS- What's up with the comment spam?!

1:29 PM, August 16, 2005  
Blogger d said...

yeah...unfortunately, I want to be able to keep the comments open to anyone who wants to say something as opposed to just contributors but we shall see how this develops.

I forgot about sunday in the park...!

1:57 PM, August 16, 2005  

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