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The Other Odd Couple: Bernstein & Sondheim

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'The Other Odd Couple'
There was an undercurrent of rivalry to the friendship between Stephen
Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein
By RICHARD B. WOODWARD

The Other Odd Couple: Bernstein & Sondheim
Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim deserve a dual biography.
Arguably the two most innovative figures of postwar American musical
theater, they knew each other from 1955, when the unknown Mr. Sondheim
was hired to write lyrics for "West Side Story," until Mr. Bernstein's
death in 1990. While whoever assumes the task should have plenty of
material to ponder, only a skilled interpreter of musical scores and
egos will be able to chart the transit of influences and the course of
a friendship that had elements of a master-pupil rivalry.

This fall a couple of artifacts came into public view that future
scholars might want to study closely. Exhibit A was the New York
premiere of Mr. Bernstein's opera "A Quiet Place." Derided by American
critics on its debut in 1983 at the Houston Grand Opera, it did not
have another production in this country until the New York City
Opera's staging this fall, when the reception was generally kinder.

Begun after the 1978 death of Mr. Bernstein's wife, whom he had left a
year earlier to pursue an affair with a man, "A Quiet Place" is akin
to watching someone have a nervous breakdown on stage. The setting is
a funeral for the alcoholic mother of a New England family. The main
character is her psychotic son, Junior. A draft dodger with incestuous
feelings for his sister and a homosexual attachment to her husband,
Junior seems most tormented by a sense of having failed his father, a
successful businessman. Conflicts are magnified by music wavering
between homey tonality and atonal chaos.

There is no mention of "A Quiet Place" in Mr. Sondheim's opinionated
and self-critical new book, "Finishing the Hat" (Knopf)—exhibit B for
musical-theater historians. But in passages about Mr. Bernstein, the
80-year old mingles a tone of respect and affection with less
flattering judgments about his former musical partner.

Mr. Bernstein was not yet 30 when he achieved his first renown as a
composer of Broadway musicals. Mr. Sondheim recalls that the offbeat
phrases and time signatures of "On the Town" (on Broadway from 1944-46
and then a movie in 1949) "exploded" on him when he was a teenager and
learning to write shows from his Westchester, N.Y., neighbor, the
old-school Oscar Hammerstein II. "From Lenny I learned to approach
theater music more freely and less squarely," writes Mr. Sondheim.

From the start of their friendship, though, he claims to have been
less enamored of Mr. Bernstein's taste for "poetic" lyrics. His
reservations about their work on "West Side Story" have appeared in
several interviews recently. In "Finishing the Hat," he says that even
at their first 1955 meeting, when the 23-year-old was trying out for
the already established composer, Mr. Sondheim kept under wraps
examples of his "early overripe" romantic songs, "which I suspect
Lenny would have loved."

Mr. Sondheim calls their collaboration "a delight in every way except
for the lyrical result." He expresses shame that his youthful
insecurity prevented him from vetoing purplish diction and images that
ended up in the show because Mr. Bernstein insisted on them. The
lyricist is particularly chagrined that "street kids of the pavements
of New York City" should have ended up crooning lines such as "Today
the world was just an address" from "Tonight." As he says, "Lenny kept
encouraging me to come up with these maunderings."

Another regret is that "West Side Story" stereotyped Mr. Sondheim as a
lyricist, even though he had been writing entire shows since prep
school. As he says in "Finishing the Hat," when his music "finally
popped into the open" with "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the
Forum" in 1962, "I was dismissed as an overly ambitious pretender who
should stick to his own side of the street. (The label has persisted
to this day, though with less intensity.)"

After "West Side Story," the careers of the two men diverged more than
they intersected. For Mr. Bernstein, nothing less than universal
adoration and mastery of all musical genres would do. A world-class
pianist and conductor, he also became a television pioneer, teaching
mass audiences about Stravinsky and Hindemith. Without ever shunning
the popular theater, he spent much of his last 30 years seeking
recognition as a "serious" composer of classical music.

The more guarded Mr. Sondheim chose instead to remap the frontiers of
Times Square, at times gently and more often boldly pushing them
outward. He calls himself a "conservative" in honoring the discipline
of rhyme schemes and other constraints. "Consistency may seem like a
stodgy substitute for imagination, but it is frequently the basis for
satisfaction in art, especially in small forms like song lyrics," he
writes.

His exacting temperament would never allow him to write something like
Mr. Bernstein's "A Quiet Place," with its mood swings and blatant
sentimentality. Then again, the brashness and sensuality in Mr.
Bernstein's scores are hard to find in Mr. Sondheim's oeuvre. "West
Side Story" rides on the hot, slinky rhythms of Latin jazz, whereas "A
Little Night Music" is an ingenious set of variations on the waltz.

In his program notes for "A Quiet Place," the opera's librettist,
Stephen Wadsworth, writes that during their 1980-83 collaboration, he
and Mr. Bernstein wanted to try something unprecedented and drew on a
grab-bag of role models, from Lorenzo Da Ponte to Leoš Janá?ek. "Rhyme
schemes, meter schemes, closed forms, 'well-made play' schemes were
viewed suspiciously and only grudgingly allowed."

It would be interesting to know if Mr. Bernstein saw "Sweeney Todd"
during its 1979-80 Broadway run. If he had, he surely would have
recognized that his former protégé had written a masterpiece to rival
his own earlier "Candide"—only in this case Mr. Sondheim had done both
the music and the words. Would "Sweeney Todd" have invigorated or
depressed the aging composer as he struggled with "A Quiet Place"?

That Mr. Bernstein was spreading himself too thin was a standard gripe
by the time it was echoed by Mr. Sondheim in his new lyrics to the
Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin ballad "Saga of Jenny" for a Tanglewood event
celebrating the maestro's 70th birthday in 1988. "Saga of Lenny" is
about a man who "couldn't make up his mind" and includes the barbed
lines "Poor Lenny / Ten gifts too many…"

Mr. Sondheim still sounds ambivalent about his friend. In "Finishing
the Hat," he claims that the "largest lesson" he learned from their
relationship was "the one I took from both his art and his life:
namely, that the only chances worth taking are big ones. All of the
mistakes he made, if indeed they were mistakes, were huge—he never
fell off the lowest rung of the ladder."

Despite this expression of bravado, Mr. Sondheim doesn't take big
emotional chances in his autobiography. The mistakes he admits to seem
trivial and work-related. Instead of revelations from private life, we
are treated to a master class on the craft of writing for the musical
theater, taught by the wisest professor on the faculty (and the
hardest grader). Oddly, for someone who dislikes being typecast as a
lyricist, his book doesn't subject the music composed by himself and
others to the same rigorous analysis he gives to words. Perhaps, he is
saving that expert commentary for the second volume, scheduled for
release next year.

Updated On: 12/3/10 at 07:40 PM
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bob8rich
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"Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.....Arguably the two most innovative figures of postwar American musical
theater"

Arguably is the word - I'm a massive Sondheim fan, but without Oscar hammerstein musical theatre as we know it today would not exist. It was his innovative genius that revolutionised the development of the musical. Sondheim et al built on the foundations he laid. (And then ALW et al came along and started knocking it all down lol).
THEATRE 2019: ASPECTS OF LOVE**** FRANKENSTEIN (Paris)**** AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE**** COMPANY***** [title of show]**** CAN CAN*** THE CEREAL CAFE**** BAD GIRLS**** RAGS***** LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE***** FOLLIES***** ROMANCE ROMANCE**** THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES*** LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE***** QUEEN OF THE MIST**** SIX** THE PRICE***** MAGGIE MAY **** CALENDAR GIRLS** MAN OF LA MANCHA**** WAITRESS***** FANNY AND STELLA***
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mallardo
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Personally I would agree with Sondheim and Bernstein as the two most innovative guys.

And I love "The world was just an address" line. What's wrong with being a little poetic in a musical?
Faced with these Loreleis, what man can moralize!
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bob8rich
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My point is that what Hammersteion did with Showboat and later with Oklahoma!, Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific, Me And Juliet.......was not just innovative - it was revolutionary compared to what musical theatre writing was at the time. Had he not done that (in both his pre and post-war writing), what Sondheim, Bernstein and everyone else who came after did would not have been possible. Also - though musically Bernstein could be considred innovative, he only wrote the score for four musicals in his career - hardly sufficient to label him as one of the "two most innovative figures of post-war American musical theatre".

Sondheim certainly deserves to be given that high accolade - but he would be the first to admit that he simply built on the legacy of his mentor, Hammerstein, who basically taught him almost all he knows about musical theatre.
THEATRE 2019: ASPECTS OF LOVE**** FRANKENSTEIN (Paris)**** AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE**** COMPANY***** [title of show]**** CAN CAN*** THE CEREAL CAFE**** BAD GIRLS**** RAGS***** LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE***** FOLLIES***** ROMANCE ROMANCE**** THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES*** LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE***** QUEEN OF THE MIST**** SIX** THE PRICE***** MAGGIE MAY **** CALENDAR GIRLS** MAN OF LA MANCHA**** WAITRESS***** FANNY AND STELLA***
Updated On: 12/4/10 at 09:43 AM
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The Other Odd Couple: Bernstein & Sondheim




Updated On: 12/5/10 at 09:38 PM