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Jeff Simon: Finally lending an ear to a great American composer

Jeff Simon

I want to tell you about my favorite record of the past 6 months: Melissa Errico's "Sondheim Sublime" (Ghostlight/Deluxe). I can't seem to get the thing out of my machine.

It's bigger than just that, though. This is an "old dog/new trick" story. I'll freely cop to being the old dog here, but that's because the number of "old dogs" in our world is huge and there isn't a single one of us who couldn't stand to learn a new trick or two.

My new trick, in this case, isn't the slightest bit new for the world; it's only new to me. "Sondheim Sublime" has made me realize how much a certain kind of performance can make me love the music of Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim will be 89 at the end of March. He is a revered genius of American musical theater. It's taken me a lifetime to fully get him. He certainly hit the ground running in 1954 with the lyrics to Bernstein's "West Side Story," which is — get this now — going to be filmed again, this time by Steven Spielberg.

A Sondheim collection is new for me because I've spent a substantial lifetime resisting musical theater. The reasons for that turn out to be nothing, if not ironic.

I grew up in the '50s. Yes, it was when rock and roll was born, but it was also, earlier, when Broadway show music seemed to rule the American hi-fi (as they were known back then). It certainly did on those early '50s LPs that played with disaffecting frequency in our house.

I'm talking about "Carousel" and "Oklahoma" and "South Pacific" (a particular bête noire, despite how much I liked Bloody Mary when my mother took my brother and me to see it in the long-gone Erlanger Theater).

I was a little bit happier with the "Pajama Game" record (I loved all the hissing on "Steam Heat" and the jauntiness of "Hernando's Hideaway") and "My Fair Lady." (Especially "Get Me to the Church on Time," featuring English music hall star Stanley Holloway. Little boys instinctively understand English music hall. They're natural born vaudevillians.)

Also please note the common factor in all the music I disliked so much: Rodgers and Hammerstein, the bludgeoning bullyboys of Broadway show music of the '50s and a musical nightmare for this kid growing up. When I got a little older and more aware, I discovered my problem wasn't with Richard Rodgers when I heard the music he'd made earlier with his first great lyricist Lorenz Hart. That stuff was wonderful. ("The Lady is a Tramp" alone was worth all of "South Pacific" and "Carousel" as far as I was concerned.)

It was Oscar Hammerstein Jr. whose corn-stuffed lyrics made me want to run and hide.

Because of Hammerstein, I was convinced that all musical theater was guilty until proven innocent. The films of their work didn't change my mind either. Quite the contrary — not even "Oklahoma" in glorious "Todd-A-O" — despite Gloria Grahame. That prejudice has been with me my whole life.

When I discovered jazz, of course, I instantly embraced an entirely different way of listening to what came to be known as "popular standards." Music that had mostly bored me on Broadway cast albums suddenly blossomed in jazz hands and throats into something I could listen to for the rest of my life.

When "Shelley Manne and His Friends Play 'My Fair Lady'" (i.e. bassist Leroy Vinnegar and prodigy Andre Previn on piano) came out with their jazz piano version I was in heavenly transport. Here were three guys who understood everything implicit in "Get Me to the Church on Time."

Jazz opened up all the great "standards" for me and their composers — George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, even Rodgers and Hart. When, at long last, I heard the Miles Davis Quintet version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," I found it so fresh I wondered why on earth anyone would ever again want to hear the lyrics (and on a cast album where it shared space with "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," no less).

By the mid-'50s I was beginning to be afraid I was culturally dyslexic. I didn't seem to appreciate anything that America was pushing so hard on us all. The arrival of Janet Leigh, Inger Stevens and Lee Remick in movies reassured me considerably.

It all seemed to pass me by. I felt like Andy Kaufman's "Foreign Man" from the '70s era to come. Until jazz came along — and, rhythm and blues and rock and roll — I felt alienated from it all. I can't tell you how directly Little Richard's "Ready Teddy" and Chuck Berry's "School Day" finally spoke to me.

I remember having a vigorous and frustrating discussion with a high school English teacher about Johnny Mathis' record "Small World," which was from the musical "Gypsy" and had Sondheim lyrics. I couldn't convince him to ignore Mathis and just listen to the offhand colloquialism and simplicity of Sondheim's lyrics, which were almost shockingly modest. They were in another world from Cole Porter, understandably every English teacher's idea of a great American songwriter.

Flash forward four decades to Errico's record. In the meantime, I've successfully avoided most musical theater while hearing Sondheim's huge and throbbing claque promote their unanimous feeling he'd taken musical theater to a previously unimaginable plateau.

Until Errico's record I was happy for his fans, but avoided their devotions assiduously. Everything I knew about his work seemed tangential to me. When my wife, daughter and I saw "Sweeney Todd" my cultural dyslexia returned. I admired Len Cariou's marvelously strange tearful ode to his murder instruments vastly more than Angela Lansbury's Lucille Ball-ian slapstick.

It never occurred to me the "Sweeney" song "Nothing's Going to Harm You" could be sung in an entirely different way that I'd find a powerful improvement over its appearance in "Sweeney."

Until Errico's record, that is.

"Sondheim Sublime" is everything the title says it is. I can't claim Errico is perfect for this music. She's from musical theater, which means you'll hear a fair amount of the vibrato stage actresses use to reach the back rows.

She reveres Sondheim's lyrics and melodies, as a singer should. (Listen to jazz vocal virtuoso Sarah Vaughan's total respect for "Send in the Clowns" sometime. Making "jazz" out of Sondheim would be pure jive.) Errico brilliantly wrenches songs from their original context and lets them stand on their own with their extraordinary wit and intelligence.

The songs are allowed to speak for themselves. She's accompanied by a pianist and arranger, Tedd Firth, most of the time. Sometimes they're joined by a bassist and a drummer, but never obtrusively. This isn't really jazz, it's uncommonly artful cabaret music.

It's that Sondheim combination of intelligence and simplicity that, finally, stunned me in this record. It was as if, finally, late in the day, I was hearing Sondheim's work for the first time.

Here's a choice, star-spangled irony to go with it.

The lyricist who originally sent me fleeing from American musical theater my whole life — Hammerstein — was, early on, Sondheim's most cherished mentor.

Sondheim has brilliant and savagely critical things to say about his mentor's work in his own first volume of collected lyrics called "Finishing the Hat," but he also points to Hammerstein as one crucial source of his credo as a songwriter, which is: "Less is More; Content Dictates Form; God Is in the Details" and "All in the Name of Clarity."

The first time I've been able to hear all of that in Sondheim's songs in large quantity is "Sondheim Sublime."

We old dogs are never too old to play a happy game of "fetch."

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