Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber: The New Musical (The Great Songwriters)
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Stage Musicals by Stephen Sondheim:
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Sondheim vs Webber
The Judy Garland cover is featured on the soundtrack for the biopic, in theatres September As described by Gordon, "Johanna has a blue note in it which makes the music a source of anxiety" As an audience, our senses are continually assailed by periodic shrieks and thunderous bass lines which as a mix is a potent brew to keep us off balance. It is not a wonder then that audiences are not very receptive to Sondheim's music. In the review by Kerr, he ends off his review by stating, "We are not lured into sharing it" The fact that we are not lured into sharing the musical is probably a large factor in deciding how well a musical does on Broadway in terms of commercial viability.
As an additional comparison, I want to consider general perception of the genre of the two musicals. According to Walsh, " Evita from the first was intended to be an opera" and he goes on to say " Evita had a polished finished gloss. It was no ad-hoc affair, evolving as it went along as Superstar had been, but a fully formed dramatic entity: an opera, as surely as Strauss's Salome or Elektra - or Sullivan's Ivanhoe - was an opera, but one conceived directly for disc" Yet critics like Bernard Levin were infuriated by Webber for believing that Evita could actually be placed into the genre of classified as an opera, "There is a still greater corruption at the heart of this odious artifact, symbolized by the fact that it calls itself and opera and has been accepted as such by people who have never set foot in an opera house, merely because the cliches between the songs are sung instead of spoken" The fact that Evita started being conceptualized as an opera and ended up as a pop and rock "opera" helped boost its popularity.
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It is not far fetched to comment that opera as an art form has a sense of snobbery associated with it. If Evita was totally marketed as an opera, I posit that it would have not done as well as it did. The fact that it was billed finally as a rock opera meant that it could appeal to the wider market, thus ensuring it became a commercial success. In contrast, the problem with a Sondheim musical is his reputation.
Drawing from Forbidden Broadway's Sondheim Blues, we note that his reputation is such that it only captures a small sector of the market. An article from the Sondheim Society writes, "Sondheim's popular appeal is demonstrably narrower than that of the great Broadway songwriters of the past" In the same article, there is a debate over if Sondheim's works should belong to the opera house. Kerr writes, "Mr. Sondheim does not write pretty tunes. And when he is carrying the narrative here - with so much near recitative - he edges close enough to an opera to make you wish he had gone all the way" With so many revivals of Sweeney Todd in opera houses all over the world, it is small wonder Sondheim has developed a reputation for being inaccessible.
Yet Sondheim himself makes no secret of thinking otherwise. According to the article, "He even affects not to like opera, and has never written a work intended for opera-house production" Yet we cannot discount the fact that perception of genre is a very important part of marketing strategies. If the general public is fed with the perception that his tunes are difficult and the musicals verge on the edge of being an opera, chances are that they would be repelled from making a commitment in watching the musical.
Enhancing the accessibility of Evita was the workshop process of developing it into a musical. Before the advent of records and radio broadcasts, public access music was via Tin Pan Alley where scores were sold to consumers. Consumers would bring these precious scores back home where they would play them on the piano.
Broadway tunes were thus disseminated by this method.
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In recent decades, however, popular musicals are having original cast recordings sold as memorabilia or as a form of publicity. Drawing upon this history, Evita began as an album rather than a book musical. Music producer Freddie Gershon describes, "We had recorded the score for Evita and the album soared. As a musical play, it had no form or substance. It was just this record album" The double album followed and was a smash hit quickly going gold. This success meant that songs from Evita were getting heavy air play and audiences were familiarizing themselves with the songs. When the musical was finally released in London and subsequently Broadway, audiences were already familiar with the songs and could therefore very quickly relate to the musical.
The album itself was a great publicity mechanism. In contrast, the production mechanics of Sweeney Todd was completely different. It went through the usual route of book writing, score writing and lyric writing. While in rehearsals, Sondheim was often tweaking music and lyrics to ensure that it flowed seamlessly with the production. In a sense, this meant that when the show previewed, audiences were not familiar with the tunes. Adding to the unfamiliarity of the songs was the problem of complicated lyrics and music. Audiences were just not prepared to deal with difficult scores.
If audiences do not enjoy the music, it did not matter how artistic or cutting edge; they will not buy the cast album.
Cast albums do not only provide extra sources of revenue but they provide publicity for the musical which is usually not valued. Consumers who buy cast recordings are likely to listen to it for a period of time influencing family members and friends in the process.
This process is a wonderful form of publicity and potentially leads to continuous ticket sales. It seems hardly fair to complete a discussion of Sondheim and Webber without discussing ; a year where The Phantom of the Opera and Into the Woods went head to head in the Tony Awards.
Into the Woods is arguably most well known musical with its premise set in the world of the Grimm Brothers fairytales. In addition, the premise of the musical is familiar material; the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel are etched in the childhood of many. It also had Bernadette Peters starring as the witch. Bruno Bettelheim comments that audiences enjoy fairy tales because of the "pleasure derived from happy memories of childhood experiences that can now be enjoyed in an adult manner" Therefore, we would imagine that with an award winning score and book coupled with familiar premise would ensure that Into the Woods would be Sondheim's Cats.
Yet we are confronted with the reality of the situation. It seems so improbable that a show that had so much going for it would end up a commercial flop. Again, it is enough to comment on the complexities in music which makes Into the Woods another very difficult musical for audiences to absorb. In terms of musical accessibility, Sondheim combines different techniques. In an interview with Horowitz:.
MH: How do you compose a song where the harmony itself is so uncertain - if you can't be sure if you are in the dominant or the tonic? This short excerpt is a sample of how Sondheim views his music. From the interviews compiled by Horowitz, I am able to derive a sense of the technical genius of Sondheim who is focused very much on musical techniques.
An exchange between Richard Rodgers and Sondheim was mentioned. Sondheim had gone up to Rodgers to pay tribute to the inversion technique of "People will Say we are in Love". Rodgers looked at Sondheim as if he were crazy. He had no idea what inversion was - to Rodgers, inversion was instinctive concept while to Sondheim it was a technique. I would suggest that the problem with Sondheim's music is that they are not as instinctive as they are technical.
Andrew Lloyd Webber - Concerts, Biography & News - BBC Music
This craftsman pays too much attention to the intricacies of individual pieces and loses sight of the bigger thematic sweep of a piece of music. Kissell who writes for the Daily Times comments, "How much effort does Hairspray require?
Sondheim's genius is a double-edged sword; his music is of seminal importance in musical composition yet his music is also what prevents a wide popular appeal. Thematically, Into the Woods was conceptualized by Sondheim and Lapine. It being a flop can also be attributed to the themes presented.
According to Sondheim, "All fairytales are parables about steps to maturity. The final step is when you become responsible for people around you, when you feel connected to the rest of the world" Yet this is exactly what audiences do not want to do when they enter into a musical.