Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Intransitivity of Affinity: Peters, Sondheim and Me

The Teleospouse and I went to a concert over the weekend. Bernadette Peters was performing with the North Carolina Symphony and, knowing that I have always liked Ms. Peters, my loving wife bought me advance tickets as a Christmas present.

Ms. Peters, who will turn 60 next year, can still strut her stuff -- at least for people in the back of the auditorium; I can't speak for the experience from the front row. The little-girl speaking voice is still there, as is the singing voice that can be dialed from Betty Boop at one end of its range to a near-Ethel-Merman bellow at the other. It's that range of dynamics that makes Peters fun. She is very expressive in the quiet parts of a song but can wake 'em up in the balcony when the music calls for it.

My favorite parts of the program were from the first half of her performance. She did a very enjoyable version of Davenport and Cooley's 1950s hit, Fever, complete with lounging on the piano and striking poses on the rim shots. It was great fun. Also fun was her version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Nothin' Like a Dame from South Pacific. Her version of the folk song Shenandoah was enchanting. Both the Missus and I noticed that she had left out the line "Oh Shenandoah, I love your daughter" that appears in most versions, a change that makes the song more suitable for a female singer. Such editing is often jarring but with Shenandoah it is, oddly, an improvement. In it's original version (to the very limited extent one can say what that is) the song Shenandoah is a rather pedestrian story of a sailor in love with an Indian girl who he can't get away from her father, the chief. (See this for some representative possible lyrics.) It's such a lovely, sad melody that the more of the lyrics you leave out the stronger the song becomes, transforming from a rather ordinary love ballad to a haunting evocation of displacement, loss and longing. It was beautiful... And, oh yes, when Bernadette Peters sings Shenandoah it has all four syllables -- shen-an-do'ah, not shan-an-doe like most people sing it; there's real artistry for you!

You may have noticed that the three songs I have mentioned consist of two fifty-something year old songs, and one song that is so old that no one knows for sure how old it is, and that these songs all appeared in the first half of Ms. Peters' performance. The newer songs mostly appeared in the second half of her show which featured the songs of Stephen Sondheim. This leads me to a confession and an observation about intransitive operations.

I like Bernadette Peters a lot. I am a fan. Ms. Peters likes Stephen Sondheim. She is a fan, too. You might think that this would mean, arguing from transitivity of operations, that I should be a fan of Stephen Sondheim. But you would be wrong there. I'm not... I know, I know Sondheim is a genius who has dominated the American musical theater scene for the last thirty-plus years. He bypasses the more traditional musical forms to find ways to express ideas and emotions much more directly and forcefully, using lyrics and tonality to give his music an immediate impact that is difficult to achieve within the restrictive formalism of conventional melodic phrasing. His music is difficult to perform but is loved by the performers who can master it -- and by aficionados of the musical theater who appreciate the skill needed to carry it off.

Which leads to my confession. While I appreciate the skill needed to sing his songs I think they are not merely difficult to sing but hard to listen to as well. I am not worthy. To my willfully untrained ear Sondheim's musicals always sound more like recitative than music -- as if he showed up for rehearsal with the lyrics and a few chords but no music. He then gives the the list of chords to the orchestra and tells the singers "Here are the words to sing. The key is F-sharp minor. Make it sound like me."

I have often suspected that the members of the musical theater like difficult music for much the same reason the recording industry likes copy-protected digital music formats. Anyone who has seen South Pacific can hum a recognizable version of most of the tunes after a single viewing. It's a bit like having your own copy of the show right there in your head. Some enCHANTed EVEning, you may See a Stranger, you may SEE a STRANger -- aCROSS a CROWDed roooom... But, if you've seen Into the Woods there ain't much to hum. No one is aLONE... You're NEVer aLONE... something... dah dah dee... the heck with it! If you want to relive that experience you have to go back to the theater again. And when you do, there's nobody who can sing the difficult songs for you better than Bernadette Peters.

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