Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday Feature: Tara Litvack explores the work of Stephen Sondheim

The Challenges of Sondheim
by Tara Litvack

Tara Litvack is a Toronto-based musical director, accompanist, arranger, and vocal coach. She is an honours graduate of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Tara is on faculty at Bravo Academy and is the resident accompanist for Tracy Michailidis’ Songbook Masterclass Series. Selected Credits include: Falsettos, One Song Glory (Acting Up Stage Company), Set Those Sails: A Night of William Finn (Self-Produced), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Hart House Theatre), tick, tick…BOOM! (Half-Pint Theatre), Into the Woods (Bravo Academy), Spring Awakening, RENT (Toronto Youth Theatre), How To Clean Your Fridge with Laura Caswell (Green Door Cabaret), Life Is Sweet, There’s Something About Ashley (Ashleyx2 Productions), Honest Aesop's Fables (Tarradiddle Productions), The Laramie Project (Composer – Theatre Aurora). Upcoming projects include Make Me A Song, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Bravo Academy) and The Life Is Sweet Project (Angelwalk Theatre).

I feel I speak for many musicians when I say that Stephen Sondheim is the composer with whom I most resonate. He is an absolutely distinct voice that has elevated the genre of musical theatre and brought the relationship between music and text to a completely new level. He is one of the most efficient, effective composers while tackling some of the most complex texts, psyches, and environments. I think collectively, as artists, as musicians, it is of utmost importance that we take a lesson from Sondheim's work and always seek for necessity in our art. What is the simplest, most powerful, most focused and specific message we are trying to communicate? How can we communicate this through music? What is necessary?

what I do appreciate of what makes Sondheim challenging is the infinite details

Those are questions I continually ask myself as a music director and a pianist. When I play or music direct Sondheim's music, it's almost as if it is entirely laid out for me - and all I need is a sensitive and keen eye and ear to discover that. His music is the easiest way to remove my ego from my work and focus on the music's intent. Because, if I were to layer anything from my ego on top of what is written, I would be draining the power of the music. 

Sondheim c. 1970
So that does beg the question - if everything is laid out for us as artists with Sondheim, why is it considered so difficult? Well, firstly, I personally don't find Sondheim difficult to play or understand. My ear understands the sonorities, atonal as they may be. This is because Sondheim is just such high quality and musical writing. I find good, musical writing allows music and playing to come with ease. But, this is a personal opinion and just how my brain works. I have a both mathematical and scientific brain, am highly analytical, focus on tiny details, while having an incredibly sensitive disposition. All qualities that mesh well with Sondheim. BUT - what I do appreciate about what makes Sondheim challenging is the infinite details that perhaps Sondheim himself was not even aware of, that requires an absolutely open heart and open mind so that those details can guide the work you create. That openness is difficult to achieve.

Let's talk about the nuts and bolts behind Sondheim music. It's a well known fact that he is an absolute master of text and rhyme. One of my favourite examples (that I giggle at every time because my ear is so tickled and pleased) is the Witch's Rap in Into the Woods. "He said alright! But it wasn't quite, cause I caught him in the autumn in my garden one night." Speak it out loud. Even if you don't know the music, you will likely have a good sense of the pitch inflections that accompany these words. Sondheim is able to tap into the musicality of our speech patterns with such perfection - but phrase, by syllable, by consonant and vowel. There is a big shape to this phrase and a small shape to this phrase - the big shape being the lyricism of the phrase and the small shape being the percussiveness and rhythm to it. I find this particular phrase expands and condenses and expands again, reflecting the emotion of the character as well. A little abstract and difficult to communicate in writing, but if you speak it out loud, you may grasp a small sense of what I mean. Now, let's look at the rhyme. We first have the word "alright" lending to the expansiveness to the start of the phrase - the "ight" being a broad sound. It's bookended by the end of the phrase by "night". We also have the word "quite" that continues this pattern, but throws in a bit of a hardness with the "qu" sound. It then barrels on with that idea of percussiveness with "cause" "caught" and "garden", with the "g" softening the phrase up again so it can expand outwards. Then we come to my favourite part - "caught him" (when pronounced correctly specific to the character of the witch as "caught 'm") rhyming with "autumn" and then playing a trick on your ear as that pattern is set up and then thrown for a loop with "garden". It doesn't rhyme, but is so close to rhyming - an example of well thought out assonance. Whether he consciously thought of these details or not, it's perfection, and not only perfection in a grand sense, but perfection to the specificity of character and story.

Let's be flippant for a second and pretend Anthony said "I get you, Johanna".

Now, let's move on to pitch. I'll use the example of perhaps my favourite lyrical song of Sondheim's - Johanna in Sweeney Todd. We are in the key of Eb major - the opening interval being G to an Eb (a minor sixth interval) on the words "I feel". First, starting on the third of the key on such a broad sound of "I" and such a vulnerable word of "I" - it completely dictates where the song should emotionally start. Stretching up to a minor sixth interval creates that heart string pull, that longing, reaching. The major sixth interval to me is already a soft one, (in my synesthete brain it is a soft blue), but lowering it by a half step makes it both softer and more tense and fragile - making the letter "f" and the "l" of "feel" have an internal pull to it and stand out. On any other word it would not make musical sense. Let's be flippant for a second and pretend Anthony said "I get you, Johanna". That minor sixth interval would make absolutely no sense to the emotion or musicality of the words. The moment would be weakened and the whole cohesiveness would be shattered. That interval and the word "feel" is necessary to communicate the fragility, vulnerability, as well as strength and courage that is needed for Anthony in that moment. It is necessary

I think we need to challenge ourselves as artists to look for the necessary, to look for the details in our work to maintain the quality of art in musical theatre

You can find examples like this in multitudes throughout all of his work. It permeates it, as I mentioned before, on an infinite level.

Lastly, let's look at the environment in which Sondheim's shows are set. I feel like Sondheim's characters and stories tend to live on a different level than we do. I often compare William Finn's work to Sondheim's, one major difference being the level on which the characters live. Finn's being on ground level, living in the grit of reality, and Sondheim's often floating above. For example, Sunday in the Park with George. We could easily separate ourselves from these characters due to the sheer contrast of time, place, language, and circumstance. And yet, we find ourselves connecting with George and Dot on a core level we would not find in characters that reflect us in a literal sense. Sondheim brings out the common threads of humanity no matter what era the players may live.

I think we need to challenge ourselves as artists to look for the necessary, to look for the details in our work to maintain the quality of art in musical theatre and continue to push boundaries in the genre. Musical theatre is amazing - or at least it can be so powerful - but sometimes we fall short of that when sloppiness and lack of specificity hinders our work. Take it from Sondheim. Music must be specific. Music must be detailed. Music must be examined on both large and small and infinite scale. Music must be necessary.

Ms Litvack accompanies workshops with Tracy Michailidis throughout the year, with some workshops dedicated to Stephen Sondheim. While the August 15th workshop is full, future workshops like these are planned for the coming months.

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