And now, for our next number, some insights from the musical theater

In light of a Bark conversation on the point of it all, some recent comments by Stephen Sondheim jumped out at me. You know, Sondheim: Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods; one of the marvelous people who drift through Leonard “Lenny” Bernstein’s apartment as described by Tom Wolfe.

I’ve never been much of a musical theater fan, save, for sentimental and political reasons, Oklahoma. Sentimental: My dad – a huge musical theater fan and participant, via the pit – used the soundtrack to wake us kids up in the morning when we had to get moving extra early; I’d be humming “I Cain’t Say No” all the way to sixth grade. Political: I do believe the farmer and the cowman should be friends.

However, I thought some of the things Sondheim told Terry Gross might apply:

Sondheim on why people create art

The world has always been chaotic. Life is unpredictable. There is no form. And making forms gives you solidity. I think that’s why people paint paintings, and take photographs, and write music, and tell stories and that have beginnings, middles and ends, even when the middle is at the beginning and the beginning is at the end.”

Order out of chaos. It’s not the most original concept, but it makes as much sense to me as anything when applied to the point of literature – perhaps as a reader even more than as a writer. Experience is huge, the world is limitless; you can’t comprehend it all at once. But literature helps to break it down while simultaneously illuminating it, to examine it in bits, from one angle and then another.

Of course, some literature seems only to add to the chaos. An interrogative essay might explore a dozen potential answers to a question and determine at the end that the question is unanswerable. Still, at least the question has been explored, synapses have fired, an organized examination has been undertaken. Or, in a novel, all the characters might die at the end, nothing resolved to the reader’s satisfaction, and the uncaring world keeps spinning. But the novel offers us a way to ponder the troubling truth of all that.

Sondheim on audience

Sondheim worked with composer Milton Babbitt, who in 1958 published an essay called “Who Cares if You Listen?” that suggested that, as Gross put it, “composers should withdraw from the public world to a world of private performance and electronic media and eliminate the public and social aspects of composition.” Sondheim wasn’t too into that.

… I’m interested in the theater because I’m interested in communication with audiences. Otherwise I would be in concert music. I would be in another kind of profession. No, I love the theater as much as I love music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and exciting them or making them laugh or making them cry or just making them feel is paramount to me.

Musical theater is kind of made for “exciting them or making them laugh or making them cry or just making them feel.” I don’t know if you can really hold a tendency for sometimes-cheapish emotional management against a medium that’s really in it for the singing, dancing and cleverness. But Sondheim could have chosen some other musical profession – the connection with the audience is important to him and as artist … not just a connection, but a connection you can see instantly as the audience cracks up and/or weeps as if on cue.

Literary artists might share this desire, somewhat. Don’t you hate it when a reader doesn’t laugh when they’re supposed to? Is there a point to creating art if no one appreciates it? Wouldn’t that be called therapy?

Sondheim on improvisation

He doesn’t do it in public. Rather, he says, he is a worker bee. A finished piece by Sondheim stems not from “inspiration” but from an “idea,” and it is, apparently, the result of much honing.

I think by nature I’m too conservative. … I only improvise at the piano when I’m writing a song, but I never improvise for anybody else or in front of anybody else or at a party or anything like that. And I don’t think I would be good at it. I’m much too constrained. It’s partly my training. My first music teacher, which who was a professor at Williams College, was a very, very kind of Mary Poppins kind of teacher with, you know, he laid down the rules. And that appealed to me a lot, the idea of rules of how you write music, that say what music consists of. That it’s not just sitting and waiting for an inspiration but that you take a melodic idea that you have that might be an inspiration, but then you develop it and you work with it and work it out.”

Is a first idea never really the best one? Could Sondheim, or someone with similar worker-bee tendencies be limiting himself to finished pieces that all kind of resemble one another because they result from the same process?

1 Comment

  • Asa Maria says:

    ” Is there a point to creating art if no one appreciates it? Wouldn’t that be called therapy?”
    I often feel like nonfiction workshop is just like therapy. :-)

    I don’t think that leaning on the same process when you create art will always result in pieces that resemble each other. I think the basic principle of creativity is that even if you follow a step-by-step process or rules, you end up somewhere unexpected each time–the art will take you there whether you want to go or not.

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