April 3, 2000
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: It's always noteworthy whenever the music of Stephen Sondheim is heard on Broadway. Our most gifted composer and lyricist has been writing - writing at a time when the American Broadway musical seems to be dying. Putting it together - a Sondheim review with songs from several decades of its musical recently pulled from New York after a short run - it's too bad. Sondheim's music is so rich. It's possible now to move songs from the shows around, to rearrange them like pieces of furniture, to consider them anew. Consider Miss Carol Burnett, the comedienne who made a TV career playing the comic lady next door, singing Sondheim's middle-aged, boozy anthem to society women, the ladies who lunch.
(CAROL BURNETT SINGING) Here's fought girls who keep house but clutching
a copy of Life
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I distrusted musicals when I was a kid; I was too literal. I hated it, in movies, when characters would stop speaking to burst out into song, walk down the street singing, and none of the other pedestrians seemed to hear. But generations of Americans did hear -- Jerome Kern and the Gershwins and Cole Porter and Rogers and Hammerstein. We walked down the street humming their music. The Broadway musical gave voice to a country that was struggling to understand itself.
SONG: Old man river, that old man river --
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: We forget now perhaps that a musical like "show boat" was one of the few places where Americans were able to concern an unmentionable subject.
SONG: You are beautiful --
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Or the Flower Drum Song was about assimilation.
SONG: When the idle poor become the idle rich, you'll never know just who is who or who is which --
RICHARD RODRIGUE: -- Finian's Rainbow was about sharecroppers and poverty
SONG: What's the use of wondering if he's good or if he's bad --
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: -- or that Carrousel was a musical about a life wife-beater, a loser who ends up dead and a wife who survives. I used to hear the Rogers & Hammerstein anthem from Carousel so many times at high school graduations I thought it was sugar.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: (singing) When you walk through a storm -- keep your chin up high...
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Stephen Sondheim stands in that same remarkable line of Broadway composers, composers who told the truth about America. Coming of age in the last decades of the century, Sondheim writes with wit and with toughness, about what has become of us. As a young man, Sondheim worked as a Hollywood screenwriter, but his talent was meant for the stage -- not movies.
SONG: Make of our hands one hand
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: He was lyricist with Leonard Bernstein on "West Side Story" the musical about gang warfare in New York. His breakthrough, his notoriety company with company, his 1970 musical about American sexual manners and the difficulty of loving. It is in "Company" that the bride-to-be frets and frets and pleads with us all at her wedding to please go away.
CAROL BURNETT: (song excerpts) Listen everybody - look -- I don't know what you're waiting for a wedding what's a wedding? It's -- Everyone promises fidelity forever which is maybe the most horrifying word I've ever heard. - which is followed by a honeymoon ---- Thanks a bunch but I'm not getting married go have lunch cause I'm not getting married you've been grand but I'm not getting married - don't just stand there -- I'm not getting married today.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Carol Burnett made an excellent Sondheim heroin, as did Angela Landsbury and Elaine Stritch. Sondheim's heroines are best played by actresses, not singers. The point of this song is less its melody than its hard-won intelligences.
SONG: . He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: there is something of the 18th century satirist about Sondheim, any sentimentality or emotion is torn away. Indeed, the sweetly romantic songs from Sondheim are often reserved for young lovers. They seem naive in the dark world. In "Assassins," his gothic musical at presidential assassins, the most lyrical song all night belongs to John Wilkes Booth. The racist greed is melodic as anything I've ever heard on stage -
SONG: -- the union can never recover from that vulgar high and mighty nigger lover never --
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Maybe Sondheim's point is that melody comes most easily to the madman or the child. Carol Burnett singing a harsh and raspy voice of divorce moves us closer to more mature knowledge of the heart
CAROL BURNETT: (singing) Leave you leave you how could I leave you
what would I do on my own
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Few of us want to hear the truth with our music. Sondheim is not an easy evening -- an expense account night on the town. Better to go to "Cats." But once upon a time, Broadway was bright with musicals. Once upon a time, we weren't so afraid of the dark.
SONG: -- and don't be afraid of the dark
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I'm Richard Rodriguez.