Hamilton and Sondheim

By Marisa Suescun

Let’s start with this, because it’s so charming. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shoutout to Sondheim during his Tony-acceptance speech for In the Heights, sandwiched between his cast and crew thank you’s and a waving of the Puerto Rican flag:

“Look, Mr. Sondheim! I made a hat! Where there never was a hat! And it’s a Latin hat at that!” The reference was apt – Heights was Miranda’s first hat to hang on Broadway, and it was shiny and appealing, the winsome work of a bright newcomer, a singular talent even.

For me, though, the accolade of the groundbreaking, of “where there never was a hat” – rarified musical theater territory that Sondheim has trafficked more than once in his career – belongs to Miranda’s second show, which Jay and I saw last month at Joe’s Public Theater.


Where do I start? There aren’t any real clips of the show yet, no cast recording. There is this, from the White House in 2009, which turned into the opening number of Hamilton:

There’s a Sondheimian storytelling bravura to this opening number, which covers the first 17 years of Alexander Hamilton’s life in just over 3 minutes, as told by the “damn fool that shot him.” Miranda shares Sondheim’s faculty and delight in rendering a mythic character through unconventional means. In this case, the unconventional comes not only from telling Hamilton’s story as a hip hop story – not only from applying contemporary language and composition to centuries-old history, not only from casting to play the white men of our history books a multi-racial company whose roots reflect our country’s actual founding story – but from giving Aaron Burr the first word, and Hamilton and Burr the central love story. This is the brilliant trope. The innovation in Hamilton, like that of most groundbreaking theater, is ultimately rooted in character, relationship, and plot. Not actually making something new, but looking at something familiar from a new angle or leading it down a new path. Or placing it somewhere unexpected. Where there never was a hat.

Miranda says the show is about a man who writes his way out, who makes his mark with words, whose brilliance is astonishing and ultimately historic. He speaks of the Hamilton’s embodiment of “the word’s ability to make a difference,” and you can hear Sondheim’s influence there.

Sondheim says art is teaching, and Miranda, it seems to me, is a history teacher of sorts here, as deeply vigilant to historical accuracy as he is to fashioning something new out of it. Not that Miranda upends every tradition; though we get to hear Burr’s oft-untold version of the story, and though people of color tell the story and the white man is relegated to the comic sidenote, in the form of King George at his empire’s decline (singing hilarious British pop), we don’t really hear a female voice at the center of things.

The women’s voices in the show are distinctive, at times fierce even, but decidedly ancillary. Hamilton ends with his wife Eliza in the spotlight at center stage, a nod to her character that I both appreciate and didn’t see coming (read: didn’t feel was earned). We are introduced to Eliza through “Helpless,” and though we kind of know that she’s anything but, though we wait for the moment where we see that she, too, writes her own story, and though that moment does inevitably come – nonetheless, a redemptive moment does not a central character make. Eliza is the one who fell in love with greatness, the supportive stalwart in the shadows. Hers is a secondary character trajectory, and “Helpless” a secondary character’s introduction. Hamilton and Burr are where it’s at.

This is not a critique (outside the critique of the unearned ending, when so much else was earned). Hamilton is a show about the founding fathers, and its unbridled masculinity is part of its pleasure. When Thomas Jefferson says to the audience, after a moving domestic scene, “Let’s get back to politics,” I am more than happy to oblige. And I trust it to be historically accurate that women were not “in the room where it happens,” as Burr longs to be.

I sense intent in the traditionalism of Miranda’s themes here. Miranda has a way of being at once edgy and comforting, pushing the envelope while limning the familiar. He sets up something cutting edge and contemporary, and then tells everyone in attendance they’re in on it, they’re the cool kids who get it, when in fact what he puts out is wonderfully, intelligently mass-appeal. This is not Sunday in the Park with George. Miranda’s lyrics and, in Hamilton, the ideas he explores, have a Sondheimian density, and yet, unlike “Sunday,” Hamilton’s opening number is a finger-snapper from beat two, and the story accessible to anyone who grew up in this country, or anyone who is part of our immigrant narrative, or anyone who is a striver in our land of inequitable opportunity. It’s ultimately feel-good theater, a song and dance show reimagined, at once critical and hopeful, progressive in form and conventional in theme, and to that last point, Miranda works in the golden-age tradition of Sondheim’s first mentor, who transformed musical theater storytelling, the great Oscar Hammerstein.

Or Webber. Oscar Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber? Funny how things are unconventional, until they’re conventional. Jesus Christ, Superstar: a classic Biblical story, told through rock songs. Similarly “edgy” for its time, easy-to-swallow, and undeniably excellent. Appropriating genres new to musical theater (in Webber’s case, not just rock, but opera’s recitative dialogue) in ways that exhilarated audiences without the bewilderment that often accompanies witnessing the utterly avant-garde.

This isn’t blasphemy to draw this comparison (despite the fact that Second Stage, which produced Miranda’s first incarnation of In the Heights, used to have a set of rules printed on show programs that included [and I paraphrase, from untrustworthy memory], “No smoking, no talking during the show, and absolutely NO ALW.”); Miranda spent Easter weekend tweeting Superstar lines in response to fan questions between shows. I spent Easter Saturday making cuzuppe with my mother and daughter, while Jesus Christ Superstar played from her kitchen speakers. Don’t you know, everything’s all right now?

I almost auditioned for In the Heights. Not the Broadway version, obviously. The original incarnation of that show, which I think was called In Washington Heights, hatched at Wesleyan University when I was a senior and Miranda was a sophomore. I didn’t know him, but I heard his casting call to the student body via a “bulletin broadcast,” a sort of voicemail of campuswide announcements (some relic of the past century). The audition announcement was funny and charming and entirely sung through, and I thought, “That would be fun to audition for.” True to my form in college, I signed up for an audition slot scheduled between a campus newspaper staff meeting and an orchestra rehearsal, told no one, and secretly prepared an audition song. Highly uncharacteristic of me in college (though, perhaps, more characteristic of me now), I didn’t show up for the audition. It is one of the very few things I regret about my college career. I do think it would have been fun to audition for.

As it was, I stood in line and couldn’t get into the ‘92 Theater to see the show, but I remember the buzz on campus, the heady talk of Broadway. Eight years later when I saw it in New York, I thought, I almost witnessed this at its birth. How lucky.

I feel that same sense of luck, and wistful inspiration, at seeing Hamilton in its premiere.

I have decided that Miranda’s career is one I’ll follow closely. I hope to see each of his shows the way I saw Hamilton, in its first bloom in an intimate venue, and though I know not all of his works will be masterworks, like not all of Sondheim’s are, I hope all of them will contain some of the incandescent brilliance that suffuses Hamilton.

Mrs. Lovett, Practical as Always

By Jay Greenspan

What are we to make of the Demon Barber’s best gal, Mrs. Lovett? We can certainly respect her entrepreneurial spirit and her unflinching self-assessment of her culinary skills. But beyond that, it’s hard to know how exactly we should feel about this enabler of a serial murderer.

I think a credible argument could be made that she’s simply despicable, lacking any sense of morality whatsoever. After all, she is the one who  has the “bright idea” to make unwitting cannibals of her customers.  But there are also moments when she seems pitiable in ways that evoke sympathy. When she speaks of her simple hopes — for a companion, for some leisure time on the beach — your heart goes out to someone whose life is lonely and joyless.

This range of appropriate emotional reactions to Mrs. Lovett is harnessed by the actresses who bring this character to life. Happily, the two most famous Mrs. Lovetts — Angela Lansbery and Patti Lupone — offer very different takes.

Establishing the Character

Sweeney Todd needs levity, a relief from the gloom, and from her first moments on stage, Mrs. Lovett supplies great comedy by singing The Worst Pies in London.  Angela Lansbery’s comedic chops are fantastic. As you watch her rendition of the song,  focus on her Kramer-esque physical comedy as she chases an imaginary bug down the counter. Also, listen to how she bends the sustained note when singing “Did you come her for a pie, sir? ” We know immediately that Mrs. Lovett might elicit a smile or provoke a laugh when she’s on stage.


Contrast this with Patti Lupone’s interpretation. Lupone sells the punch lines with aplomb, but this Mrs. Lovett isn’t goofy or comically demonstrative. Look at how she treats the dough when singing, “With the price of meat what it is….” There’s a rage within her. And she seems positively angry and jealous of Mrs. Moody’s feline-based success.

Before moving further into the play, I’ll take a moment to admire Sondheim’s brilliance in this song. He manages to cram a number of laughs while still offering plenty of exposition. Then at the end he plainly raises the questions I’m focusing on in this post: Just how much should we “Pity a woman alone/With limited wind” when “Times is hard/Times is hard?”

Thank you, Mr. Sondheim. Thank you very much.

Extolling Patience

If you told me I could listen to only one song from Sweeney for the rest of my life, I think I’d pick Wait. I adore how, with the altering of just a few words and the changing of a few chords, the song would appropriate for a Mary Poppins sequel:

Slow, love, slow.
Time’s so fast.
Now goes quickly–
See, now it’s past!
Soon will come.
Soon will last.

Don’t you know,
Silly man,
Half the fun is to
Plan the plan?
All good things come to
Those who can

Lansbery’s Wait is maternal and sincere. You feel in her performance that Lovett is desperate for someone to care for and nurture. Her desire to find the flower that will make his killing chamber less austere may be little crazy, but her concern is genuine.

Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be video of Lupone’s reprisal of Mrs. Lovett from the 2004 Broadway staging, so we can’t see her acting. But we can hear plenty in the original cast recording of the song.

In this version, particularly in the second half, you’re hearing a more manipulative Mrs. Lovett. When Todd asks about the judge, her concern turns to her deceptions. She replies:

“Can’t you think of nothing else? Always broodin’ away
on yer wrongs what happened heaven knows how many
years ago!”

At this point she turns angry and a little desperate. If Todd is entirely obsessed with the past he’ll be of essentially no help to her at all. Eventually he’ll discover that the mad woman of Fleet Street is actually his wife.

Finishing The Character
In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim call Lovett the “true villain” of Sweeney Todd. And that may be the case. She gleefully sends many innocent men to the meat grinder. But great characters can and should be interpreted by directors, actresses, and audiences. There’s no reason you couldn’t find a little love for this former resident of Fleet Street.

Love Songs in Sweeney Todd

By Marisa Suescun

Sweeney Todd, being as it is a tale of mass murder, is not an obvious vehicle for love songs. The relationships in Sweeney have a symbiotic quality that comes from the lovers’ mutual need and overlapping lust for things other than each other.

And yet Sweeney is studded with some of Sondheim’s finest love songs. Soaring, poignant melodies find their place unexpectedly in the midst of the gothic gloom, blooming briefly before darkness prevails. I distinctly remember being in the theater during the 2006 Broadway revival of the show, hearing for the first time the wondrous opening line of “Johanna,” and holding onto it like a lifeline, only to have it shift into something else entirely by the end of the song.

As such, the love songs in Sweeney come off less as declarations of devotion to a person than as plaintive pleas for justice in an unjust world. With Sweeney himself the most vengeful seeker of justice.

“My Friends:” Mr. Todd, Mrs. Lovett, and the Razors

It’s always a rich treat to watch Sondheim in action, teaching. Among other things, it validates the very enterprise of writing a blog about his works; they really are worth the close listen. To start, Sondheim teaches his student actor (and by extension his studio audience, and by further extension his 21st-century digital audience) that “My Friends” is in fact a love song. A crazed man to his razors.

This is the first of the love songs in Sweeney Todd, coming early in the first act, and it sets the tone for the kind of love that pervades this story. Sondheim tells his actor to sustain the song’s ritualistic quality, to use its rhythmic squareness to portray Sweeney’s state of “almost self-hypnosis.” Indeed, in this and other love songs throughout this show, there’s an element of determined fantasy, of willful wishing on the part of one lover for the other to take on a transportive greatness. Here, Sweeney bids his razor to “drip precious rubies” (gorgeous consonance in that phrase, the whispered s’s and the violent pop of the p’s) – to be his instrument of murder, and ultimately transport him to a place of vengeful justice.

This being Sondheim, “My Friends” has multiple layers of willful wishing, a love triangle masquerading as a duet, with a silver razor at its fulcrum. The third side is Mrs. Lovett, singing with comic banality, “I’m your friend, too, Mr. Todd.”

Mrs. Lovett’s opening solo, “Worst Pies in London,” introduces her as a pragmatist working to make ends meet in a dirty, unforgiving city. The hyperbole in the title is notable; it conveys Mrs. Lovett’s unflinching self-appraisal, her sense of humor, and, perhaps most notably though most subtly, her desire for the superlative. What she remembers of Sweeney from years back is his uncommon talent with a razor. If Mrs. Lovett makes the worst pies in London, Mr. Todd is the best barber in London, and it is for this reason that she’s kept his razors all these years, a detail that in a different context is the stuff of romance.

One might argue that what Mrs. Lovett wants through a relationship with Sweeney is simple companionship, escape from the struggle of the city, and a comfortable life, as she sings of in “By the Sea.”

I think she is too smart for that. Yes, she longs for an ocean breeze to brush away the depravities of the past. She wants the security of marriage (sneaking in a proposal to Sweeney between lines about kippered herring and seagulls squawking), and, more to the point, to get out of London before they both get caught. But she wants also to be in touch with greatness, even murderous greatness, and in doing so to reinvent herself. I think that Mrs. Lovett in these scenes with Sweeney is knowingly prosaic, and that she seeks not just a comfortable life, but a remarkable one.

Back to “My Friends” for a moment. Here’s a terrific George Ahearn, with Angela Lansbury in a role she seems born to play, from the 1982 Broadway production:

This staging and performance highlight the ebb and flow of Sweeney’s lunacy, with Mrs. Lovett’s patter (“silver’s good enough for me, Mr. Todd”) as the undercurrent. Sweeney tells his razors, “rest now, my friends” and starts to put them in their case. But a moment later, unable to stop himself, he seizes a razor and for the first time explicitly tells it – and Mrs. Lovett, and, perhaps, himself – that it will help him carry out murder. It’s the exultant sharing of secrets between two lovers. “At last, my arm is complete,” Sweeney roars. Mrs. Lovett looks on, the unplanned-for third wheel, shaken but already plotting ways to be useful.

Anthony and “Johanna”

The young, idealistic sailor and the golden-voiced woman locked in captivity. On this relationship, Sondheim lavishes the show’s most soaring melody paired with plainspoken, earnest lyric: “I feel you, Johanna. I feel you.”

It’s a gorgeous, shimmering phrase. The one that gave me lovely respite midway through the first act, a vision of a pure and good-hearted love.

Yet this love song, too, sings of fantasy – here a fallible and hubristic fantasy of rescue – and Sondheim tells us this musically. Note the unexpected interval in the phrase “satisfied enough to dream you,” the “dream” a step flatter and a beat longer than the ear wants to hear. Then the lyrics take a harder edge, once Anthony realizes what he’s up against and what he’ll need to resort to to consummate his love: “I’ll steal you, Johanna.” In that one line, delivered defiantly, Sondheim tells us that no one in this story, not the young idealist we were told to root for (and by extension, not even the complicit audience), will get by without resorting to vice.

Notably, “Johanna” is a one-voiced duet. Anthony sings of Johanna’s yellow hair, in part because he longs to bury himself in something soft and light and lovely, and in part because he knows nothing yet of the content of her soul. Johanna, like the razors in “My Friends,” is the silent projection of one man’s fantasy.

We don’t hear Johanna speak to Anthony until the astonishing, masterful “Kiss Me” later in the act.

“Sir, I did
Love you even as I
Saw you, even as it
Did not matter that I
Did not know your name…”

Like with “I feel you, Johanna,” Sondheim bestows Johanna’s declaration of love to Anthony with a sweet melody that soars above the nervous frenzy of their first rendezvous. But again, like in the earlier love song, Sondheim doesn’t resolve the phrase, leaves it lingering in a lower register on “did not know your name.” Upending the expectation of a happy ending to love-at-first-sight.

“Kiss Me” is not only about Johanna and Anthony’s love; it is about the judge’s lust for Johanna, and, as it reconnects the judge for the first time with Sweeney, it sets up the love song of Sweeney to Johanna that comes in “Johanna (Reprise)” in act two.

It’s worth noting that there’s yet another overture of ardor in “Kiss Me” – ever-so-tentative, laced with private fantasy – which is that of the judge’s assistant Beadle to his lord. A pleasing and halting melody as Beadle gently advises the judge on how to freshen his appearance before entering the lady’s bedroom. The difference is this one musically resolves: “You’ll dazzle the girl until / She bows to your every will.”

Sondheim plays with us in these moments of resolution. The stories we want to believe in (consummation of consensual love) never resolve musically, while those that we want to repel (an elder judge raping his young ward) get the most satisfying resolution. Which makes us as audience members unconsciously pulling for the wrong love stories, and Sondheim a genius of musical theater.

“Not While I’m Around:” Toby and Mrs. Lovett

Another love song of fantasy, and of upended tropes (the boy protecting the would-be mother, instead of the other way around). Here, I wonder if Toby’s fantasy is less about who he imagines Mrs. Lovett to be, and more about who he wishes himself to be. Somebody’s proper son. Deserving of maternal love, worthy of being protected and nurtured by someone who will let nothing harm him.

The melody here is a lilting lullaby. When Mrs. Lovett tries to take over to placate Toby, the orchestral strings turn discordant, and Toby interrupts her, once again leaving the story we’d like to believe in without resolution. It’s almost as if Toby himself can’t believe fully in the notion he casts of Mrs. Lovett, but lacks the option to believe in anything else.

“My Friends” ends with Sweeney’s declaration of murder. “Not While I’m Around” ends with something arguably more sinister and indisputably more base – Mrs. Lovett locking Toby in the basement, to lose his mind. At least Toby gets to resolve his final phrase, “not while I’m around,” before he truly isn’t.

The Terrible, Wonderful Liminal in Into the Woods

By Marisa Suescun

In February, we put Colby, our dog of seven years, to sleep. The five days that preceded his death – the time after we decided to put him down and before the appointed day – were at once deeply melancholic and celebratory. We were mourning in advance the passing of our sweet and loyal (and unwell) friend, and also savoring him in the evanescent present – indulging him, attending to him, giving him a grand send off. Colby had chicken at every meal, extra tummy rubs, an extended romp chasing squirrels up trees in the backyard of my mother’s house. It was, to borrow a phrase, our quite literal moment in the woods.

“Who can live in the woods?” Sondheim’s cautionary line, delivered via the Baker’s Wife – a lesson she learns right before dying. Indeed. Among other things, it’s exhausting to constantly hold dual realities. But Sondheim knows also that there’s richness to plumb for those willing to go there, even for a moment, and this is the conviction of Into the Woods that most moves me.

One could argue that Into the Woods is about many things – the complicated nature of getting what you wish for, the evocative act of wishing itself, the subjective and self-appointed line between self-preserving and opportunist.

For me, it is most of all about the liminal. It is about the transitory in-between moments in life that undo us, that upend our beliefs or penetrate our core, and leave us on the other end a changed person in the same clothes. It is about the rare passage of time that we are prescient enough, not just after the fact but in the moment, to know to experience as a passage.

The liminal is at once a terrible and wonderful place in Into the Woods. This is perhaps most true for Jack, who contends not just with woods but a world at the top of a beanstalk that only he has witnessed.

Giants in the Sky (Jack)

If the woods give rise to a sexual awakening for Little Red Riding Hood (more on that later), for Jack the fantasies are of an outsized nurturer.

“And she gives you food and she gives you rest,
And she draws you close to her giant breast,
And you know things now that you never knew before.
Not ‘til the sky.”

The image of the lady giant drawing Jack to her breast contrasts with that of Jack’s own mother, a familiar figure seen from an unfamiliar height – “the roof, the house, and your mother at the door.” These are the two notions of motherhood that Jack must grapple with as he occupies the liminal space of the beanstalk – the ample, luminous, volatile sky mother and the economical, pragmatic, predictable earth mother. In the sky, the man giant comes to eat Jack for lunch, and Jack resorts to stealing and scrambling down the beanstalk. Down below, when starvation looms, Jack’s mother has him sell his scrawny, beloved cow for both more and much less than she’s worth – a theft of its own kind.

“And you think of all of the things you’ve seen
And you wish that you could live in between.
And you’re back again, only different than before.
After the sky.”

Jack, like so many characters in this play, wishes for the best of both worlds. He wants the exhilaration without the danger, a maternal tenderness that is also fiercely protective. The thrill of discovery before the inevitability of greed. (The dog, before the illness.) The earth and the sky.

I Know Things Now (Little Red Riding Hood)

I enjoy the clarity and earnestness of Eleanor Grant’s lovely rendition here. I wanted to find a good version of a child singing this song, as, like with Jack, the story of Little Red Riding Hood is a coming-of-age one.

Sondheim, in all his brilliance, draws wonderful musical and lyrical parallels between the two songs. Note that Little Red’s bridge, like Jack’s, has a crescendoing, stream-of-consciousness quality as she describes the frightening part of her transformative journey – in this case, being swallowed by the wolf. “But he drew me close, and he swallowed me down, down a dark slimy path…”

Little Red’s depiction of “when everything familiar seemed to disappear forever” echoes Jack’s recollection of the moment he fears being eaten by the giant – “and it’s then that you long for the things you’ve known, and the world you’ve left, and the little you own.”

Jack goes down to solid ground, and Little Red goes up “into the light, and we’re back to the start” (again, echoing Jack’s “and you’re back again, only different than before”) – at which point the music shifts to the original melody, in its tidy 4/ 4 time, and the lyrics shift back to the material world:

“And I know things now, many valuable things, that I hadn’t known before.
Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood; they will not protect you the way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers,
And though scary is exciting, nice is different than good.”

Like Jack, Little Red is contending with the complication of discovery, the way it casts contradictory shadows on previously clear paths. Three times in this song she speaks of the coupled emotions of “scary” and “exciting,” in the same way that Jack calls the giants “terrible” and “wonderful.” It’s a Sondheim trademark to expose the paradoxes inherent in growth, one reason his coming-of-age songs rarely descend into the hackneyed.

Still, young Little Red keeps striving, as we all do, to frame her experience neatly, to come at it from a place of understanding. While she starts off singing that she should have followed her mother’s advice to not stray from the path, she ends by celebrating the power, extolled by her Granny, to be brave and prepared for the unexpected.

“Now I know, don’t be scared.
Granny is right, just be prepared.
Isn’t it nice to know a lot?
And a little bit, not.”

I love how Sondehim gives her this little moment of youthful bravado in the penultimate line, followed by youthful vulnerability to close it out. Classic Sondheim – generous, unsentimental, and unmistakably apt.

On the Steps of the Palace (Cinderella)

Cinderella has perhaps the most overt – and overtly funny – defense of the liminal here, in this case the pitch-slathered steps of the palace. She is a character constantly seeking; she opens and closes the show with, “I wish.” In the first act, Cinderella spends much energy running to a ball to dance with a prince, and then equal energy running away when he pursues her.

“It’s your first big decision,
The choice isn’t easy to make.
To arrive at a ball is exciting and all;
Once you’re there, though, it’s scary.
And it’s fun to deceive
When you know you can leave,
But you have to be wary.”

Cinderella neither believes in herself as a princess, nor does she trust that to be the life that she really wants. The seeking of the fantasy – the enactment of “I wish” – is “exciting,” but the threat of actually living that fantasy is “scary.” The exact dichotomy Little Red grasps, though for different reasons, after her encounter with the wolf.

Cinderella is in the midst of one of those rare moments that you know to be pivotal in the moment. She tells herself to “stop and take stock while you’re standing here stuck on the steps of the palace” (the alliteration of the “st” blend here is delicious and witty and, to use a Sondheim term, apposite – it’s a restless, fitful sound). Yet she also knows her time to contemplate is fleeting; indeed, that inaction would actually signal startlingly decisive action, that of staying with the prince: “And whichever you pick, do it quick, ’cause you’re starting to stick to the steps of the palace.”

This is the thing about the liminal that Sondheim captures so aptly (and wittily) with Cinderella’s song. The window of time to linger in the in-between is by definition brief and ever waning, yet the possibilities are, for that enclosed moment, unusually expansive.

Cinderella is about to go home and “avoid the collision” when she realizes she could do something better:

“You know what your decision is,
Which is not to decide.
You’ll just leave him a clue.
For example, a shoe.
And then see what he’ll do.”

While Jack may wish that he could live in between, Cinderella, in a moment of clever inspiration, actually pulls it off. The prince has tried to checkmate her into a decision, and she coyly finds the unprotected escape route. Preserving “I wish” and “I have.” For the moment.

Moments in the Woods (Baker’s Wife)

Ah, the Baker’s Wife. (And ah, Joanna Gleason.) This is in my mind the most sophisticated of the liminal songs in Into the Woods. It is not an adolescent’s coming-of-age song, but a mature woman’s song of middle aging. With wit and spunk and grace.

One of the notable things about this song that often gets overlooked or understated (I think because the Baker’s Wife promptly dies after the song, a tragedy that does eschew a certain messiness of the mundane) is the fact that the Baker’s Wife gives a defense here of adultery. It is a nuanced, smart, and compassionate defense, and very decidedly a defense of a moment’s indulgence held contained in its place. The Baker’s Wife comes to a place at the end of the song where she feels that a little tumble in the woods with a prince won’t hurt her marriage – that, in fact, it would deepen it.

“Why not both instead?
There’s the answer, if you’re clever…
Must it always be either less or more, either plain or grand?
Is it always ‘or?’ Is it never ‘and?’
That’s what woods are for. For those moments in the woods.”

For the Baker’s Wife, the woods represent a departure from (though not a rejection of) her everyday world – a world she values and tenderly protects, even as she longs for the romance of the unfamiliar, of a mystery still to unfurl. In the first act, the Baker’s Wife relishes the changes she sees in her husband through their venture in the woods. She tells him, “You’ve changed, you’re daring, you’re different in the woods.” The couple indulges in their moment in the woods, a sweet, almost-shy courtship of sorts:

“We’ve changed. We’re strangers.
I’m meeting you in the woods.
Who minds? What dangers?
I know we’ll get past the woods.
And once we’re past,
Let’s hope the changes last.”

In Act One, the Baker’s Wife and her husband wish for the changes wrought by the liminal to carry forth into their shared everyday world. And it could be, if the curtain closes for good after Act One, “and happily ever after.”

Act Two is for the darker themes to emerge. In “Moments in the Woods,” the Baker’s Wife returns to this notion of a life marked by the momentous and unexpected – but comes to a different conclusion than her slightly younger self.

“Oh, if life were made of moments,
Even now and then a bad one.
But if life were only moments,
Then you’d never know you’d had one.”

There’s a likable pragmatism to the Baker’s Wife here. She indulges in a romantic, cinematic notion of life, and in the next breath waves her idea off as not only foolish but counterproductive. Like Cinderella, the Baker’s Wife notes both the thrill and danger in “get(ting) what you wish,” but unlike Cinderella, she doesn’t ultimately try to prolong her stay in the woods. If the young woman possesses the drive and spark to go after her wish, the mature woman possesses the wisdom to celebrate the act of wishing. More than a clever conceit that buys some time (leaving the one shoe), the Baker’s Wife has come upon an approach to living her life that allows her to cherish the “and” while sustaining (nourishing, deepening) the “or.” And so she takes decisive action, knowing precisely what to take with her and what to leave behind.

The sophistication, economy, and beauty of her final stanza brought tears to my eyes when I first heard it – mostly out of appreciation to share this earth with the brilliant and attentive soul that composed it. With a furry blond dog sleeping on the couch beside me, in his final few weeks of life.

“Let the moment go.
Don’t forget it for a moment, though.
Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’
When you’re back to ‘or’
Makes the ‘or’ mean more
Than it did before.
Now I understand. And it’s time to leave the woods.”

Into the Woods Movie Cast — Meryl Streep

By Jay Greenspan

The reappraisal of Merrill Streep that’s occurred over the last month or so has been fascinating. It seems to have started with A.O. Scott, who wrote the following in his review of August: Osage County.

“Another way to think of “August: Osage County,” which was directed by John Wells and adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play, is as a thespian cage match. Within a circumscribed space, a bunch of unquestionably talented performers is assembled with no instructions other than to top one another… It goes without saying that nobody can beat Ms. Streep at this game. Remember Amy Adams in “Julie and Julia”? Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada”? Anyone at all in “The Iron Lady”? Of course not. Here Ms. Streep smokes, rants, bites her fingers, slurs her speech and spews obscenities with the gusto of a tornado laying waste to a small town.”

Suddenly, Meryl Streep was, above all, a ruthless scene stealer, someone more interested in capturing attention than in embodying a character or exploring the subtleties of a scene. I’ve heard this sentiment echoed everywhere — at my in-laws, on Grantland. It’s the new generally accepted take on Streep. It’s as if Scott managed to say something we all recognized but never quite understood.

But before we just accept this indictment, let’s look at the examples Scott lays out. In “Julie and Julia” Streep never shared the screen with Adams. And her scenes with Stanley Tucci were tender and heartfelt. She can’t be faulted for the anemic writing put in Adam’s mouth. In “The Devil Wears Prada” her character was enormous — her job was so be larger than life — bigger, more dominant in every way than Hathaway’s character. It’s worth remembering here that Emily Blunt came across as the far more charismatic than Hathaway in that movie. Do we really want to fault her for being outsized in a move with the title “The Iron Lady?”

Finally there’s “August: Osage County.” This is Tracy Letts we’re talking about. His performances don’t exactly call for subtlety.

Streep takes big roles and plays them big. There’s nothing wrong with that. In some of the recent romantic comedies she played well with Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, without any detectable desire to treat performance as a bloodsport. So let’s get off the Streep-as-upstager tract and move on. She’s a great actress — always has been.

That said, this is a Sondheim blog, and I’m chiefly concerned with examining her fitness for the role of the Witch in the upcoming movie of Into the Woods. Let’s start with this hopeful thought: she can sing a bit.

Obviously, these clips don’t showcase a musical theater voice, and there don’t appear to be any examples of Streep attempting that style, which is a little worrisome.

But for most of the first act, the Witch’s songs are half-sung, half-spoken. I have no doubt that Streep can sell a song such as Witch’s Rap, performed with great theatricality by Bethany Moore in the video below.

I can easily image a landscape in which Streep kills this song and gives an overall performance that delivers menace and comedy in interesting proportions.

The real concern comes in the second act. Take a moment to re-listen to “Lament,” as sung by Bernadette Peters.

When done well — when in the hands of a performer of Peter’s ability — the song captures a truth that all parents face: you do what you can, but often it’s for naught. You’re children are gorgeous and wondrous, but can be confounding and saddening. There’s a lot unpack in those lyrics, and it can’t be done fully if the voice isn’t transcendently beautiful. I don’t believe this is within Streep’s ability.

Will she play nicely with others and put in a good performance? Absolutely. Will she fully express all that’s expressible with this character? I seriously doubt it.

Reevaluating Anna Kendrick

By Jay Greenspan

In a previous post I suggested that Anna Kendrick’s singing talents were a little weak for the part of Cinderella. In light of more recent evidence, I think I need to reconsider.

Sure, she’s not the world’s greatest singer, but whatever. She’s amazing. She’ll make it work.

(Note: I married the hottest girl in my improv class, so this video may bias my normally sound judgement.)

Different Takes on “Being Alive”

By Marisa Suescun

I first encountered “Being Alive” on Broadway, during the 2006 revival of Company. Raul Esparza played Bobby, and his full-throated rendition of this song, which closes the musical, was one of its bright spots.

Raul Esparza

I enjoy Esparza’s growling treatment of “mock me with praise,” a standout line in a song Sondheim peppers with tropes. Bobby here could be speaking to the future lover he may finally let in, or to the Greek chorus of married friends who offer admiration and nettling in equal measure throughout the show. When Bobby blows out his birthday candles at the end of the show, it may be with a sigh of relief to have the chorus finally quiet down.

This show didn’t work for me (or many critics) entirely; the book and themes felt dated, and the actors-playing-instruments staging, done to such brilliant effect just a year earlier in the revival of Sweeny Todd, was clunky here. But Sondheim’s closing number is timeless, rousing, and well-served by someone who can belt.

Patti Lupone

This is the version on my iTunes. Lupone goes on a journey from vulnerable to triumphant, and the performance is enervating at every turn. “Vary my days,” she pleads, liltingly, before launching into her steady and powerful crescendo to the end.

Unlike most of Sondheim’s songs, “Being Alive” works better for me out of context, without the particulars of the show or character to color it. In James Lapine’s documentary Six by Sondheim, Sondheim describes his process of research for Company, a show about marriage – he talked with married people, as he himself was single at the time and content to be so. “Being Alive” does sound somewhat like an anthem to a theoretical idea, rather than a meditation on lived experience, which Sondheim does so exquisitely. “But alone/is alone,/ not alive.” It’s a surprisingly dichotomous statement from this composer, and one that doesn’t quite ring true for me.

Still, Lupone sells this line, and when I don’t know that it’s is coming from a man deciding in a sort of pop-psychology breakthrough that he wants in on marriage, then it takes me soaring along with it.

Neil Patrick Harris

This performance departs from most treatments of “Being A live,” and I like it a lot. Harris’ interpretation is wonderful and affecting. “Someone who, like it or not, / Will want you to share / A little, a lot.” Rather than give this line a hopeful, expectant tone, Harris imbues it with Bobby’s skepticism and pathos. Even in the transition when Bobby starts entreating, “Somebody, hold me too close,” it is with yearning, uncertainty, close-eyed vulnerability laid bare at last. And he treats the closing verse as a moment of reckoning – Harris’ Bobby at the end of “Being Alive” is at a place of departure, not the conventional triumphant arrival. It’s a lovely and wise piece of acting, and one that seems in tune with Sondheim’s sensibilities. Harris’ voice is nimble and expressive for the dramatic interpretation of this song, but at a certain point he can’t escape that it calls for someone who can belt, Broadway style, and the closing lines feel thin.

Dean Jones

This footage of the recording of the original Broadway cast was shown on Six by Sondheim. I enjoy the bit of Sondheim in this clip, talking about the “flower bursting” at the bridge (“Make me confused…”), and the “rhythmic liberties” he wants his singer to take there. Then we see Dean Jones with his sideburns and red turtleneck sweater, singing richly and melodically, flowering at the bridge, and building to an exultant conclusion. There’s a lack of nuance to Jones’ interpretation, but his singing is unimpeachable.

Into the Woods Movie Cast — Anna Kendrick

By Jay Greenspan

The second half of Into the Woods is, in some ways, a messy affair. As the curtain rises we’re given expository dialogue that feels a little clunky. The rollicking pace of the first act becomes a bit of a grind as new plot elements are introduced and the characters confront the questions Sondheim and Lapine want us to consider: Do we really want what we wish for? And what if we get it?

But I’m not complaining. Whatever momentary clunkiness we endure is well, well worth. The payoff: songs so beautiful that their sentiments alone can make me a little weepy…

Mother cannot guide you
Now you’re on your own
Only me beside you
Still, you’re not alone
No one is alone, truly
No one is alone

And when sung by a Cinderella with a soaring voice, the result is deeply moving.

Earlier in the play, Cinderella is alternately comic and sad. But here, at the end, her songs — her voice — bring us to the play’s touching, hopeful conclusion. Note the gorgeous violin at 3:16 over the lyrics…

Hard to see the light now
Just don’t let it go
Things will come out right now
We can make it so
Someone is on your side
You are note alone

Only a great singer can make Cinderella the role it was intended to be. A mediocre actress with a great voice could make it work, but the converse would be a real problem.

This brings us to the subject of this post: Anna Kendrick. She’s a terrific actress who brings charm and presence and intelligence to every role she takes. She was fantastic in Up in the Air and 50/50. I look forward to seeing her in movies for years. But to consider her fitness for the role of Cinderella, we need to examine what we know of her vocal abilities.

Her cover of a folky faux-traditional was good. And her turn as an a singer in an a capella group was fine. But when sharing the stage with a true musical theater talent, the results were not good.

Kendrick’s voice lacks depth, and her ability to nail notes that complete a harmony is fleeting. She tries hard, she clearly loves to sing, but she lacks the training and background that would make the most of the role.

But Kendrick is not lacking in talent, and her voice is a long, long way from terrible. There are moments in her Kennedy Center performance that were quite good.

So there’s reason for hope. From what I’ve seen, she’d have a tough time pulling off the Cinderella role in a Broadway setting, where tonal accuracy and depth are required for hours at time, eight shows a week. But for a movie, she and the producers/directors may be able to pull it off. If they spend enough time in the recording studio, they should be able to cull together versions of the key songs that do justice to the part and the play.

If they manage this, the rest of Kendrick’s talents — her onscreen likability, her beauty, her comic timing — could make this a signature performance for Kendrick. Given her massive popularity ( she has more than 4 Million Twitter followers), a good performance here could bring Sondheim’s work to an entirely new and very young audience. And that would be a great thing.

Take Five: “Send in the Clowns”

By Marisa Suescun

Let’s start with Sondheim himself, teaching.

Sondheim Master Class

Before we get into “Send in the Clowns,” which is the point of this post, can we for a moment revel in the wonderfulness that is Sondheim the teacher? His gentle exactitude in coaching the lovely-voiced young woman taking this master class, who is singing about things beyond her experience, and keeps forgetting to enunciate the separate “t’s” in “there ought to be clowns.”

That’s my favorite line of the song. I imagine the aging actress Desiree, her wiles waning, summoning one last time the fools to amuse her. At once self-loathing and imperious.

Sondheim’s precision is astonishing. His music is laced with an exquisite and melancholy longing, and the instrumentation is legato and expressive. And then the lyrics are sharp, ironic, short bursts of inquisition. Which is why he won’t let slide the soft eliding tendencies of the young singer.

Love the moment when Sondheim acknowledges his failure to make music and lyric “apposite” (had to look that up) in the phrase “maybe next year.” Quite possibly the only syllable in his composition that isn’t apposite. He tells his student, “That’s my fault, but you as the singer have to overcome that.” As if. The singer seems to sense Sondheim is being kind as much as particular. Her last take is her best, and she enunciates all the “t’s.”

Let’s turn to the pros:

Bernadette Peters (Accompanied by Sondheim)

Bernadette’s rendition is more brooding than angry, an interpretation that allows her to extend the notes and let her voice luxuriate a bit in lines like “No one is there.” By contrast, when she comes to “don’t bother, they’re here” – the moment it dawns on Desiree that she herself is playing the role of the fool – Bernadette sings “don’t bother” with an unvarnished, plaintive quality. The irony is stripped away, and it’s a raw moment of reckoning.

Barbara Streisand

Love the arms-extending, diva exhale before she launches in. Classic Streisand, by turns lyrical and emotive. She conveys a hint of the charm of the young Desiree, with her winking delivery of bitter lines. “What a cliché,” Streisand sings, giving a wonderful little wry smile to the Hollywood audience. It isn’t until the coda when Streisand lets the true heartbreak creep into her voice.

Judi Dench

This clip isn’t the best quality, but I wanted to include a rendition of “Send in the Clowns” in the context of the actual musical – which, indeed, is how Sondheim conceived it. Dame Judi Dench, in the 1995 Royal Theater of London staging of A Little Night Music, gives a dramatic interpretation of Desiree coming to terms with her choices. This isn’t a pretty ballad at its core. Dench is raw and affecting; she lets her voice crack and break off. “I thought that you’d want what I want / Sorry, my dear.” This song was written as Desiree’s conversation with her former lover, and ultimately with herself. Dench does full justice to this story, and gives the most satisfying reading to my favorite line, “There ought to be clowns.” I’m compelled to summon them for her.

Finally, a complete departure from Sondheim’s original intent:

Yuna Kim (Figure Skater)

This instrumental version of “Send in the Clowns,” without the intelligence and sharpness of Sondhiem’s lyrics, could tend towards the mawkish in the hands of more pedestrian talents or more indulgent sensibilities. Yuna, like Sondheim, is a distinctly unsentimental artist, and habitually skates to expressive music with a sense of simultaneous flight and restraint.

Note the lovely timing of the triple lutz-triple toe at 1:35 – a technically difficult trick, unfurled almost matter-of-factly in the breath before the denouement of the first verse. (“You in mid-air.”)

Yuna, returning to the Olympic fray at the top of her game, has arguably never lost the timing in her career, and interprets Sondheim’s music with that sensibility – the exquisite longing without the regret. This is a performance that breathes the conviction and attack of youth come of age; Yuna’s speed, amplitude, and cool grace evoke the spirit of Desiree at the height of her prowess and self-reliance.

Indeed, maybe the instruments sing of one Desiree and the lyrics of another? Oh, Sondheim. Now that’s apposite.

Into the Woods Movie Cast — Emily Blunt

By Jay Greenspan

I was surprised when I heard that Rob Marshall was making a film of Into the Woods. I listen to the cast recording of the original broadway cast as frequently as anything, and I’ve become very attached to these renditions of some of Sondheim’s best songs. I’m a little nervous. Marshall, I think, did a great job on Chicago, but that material was far more straight-forward and better made for the movie-star cast that seems to be required in filmed musicals. Chicago is sexy, and Catherine Zeta Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifa, and even Renee Zellweger can do sexy.

But can the A-list cast that Marshall has assembled give credible interpretations of the characters while delivering worthy renditions of these funny and moving songs? We’ll see. In this post and a few that will follow, I’ll dive into a few of the characters and discuss how likely we are to get a good performance from the actress playing the role. I’ll start with Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife.

Emily Bunt is great. She’s clearly smart and has a beauty and emotive capacity that few others possess. I have little doubt that she’ll have a compelling take on the most complex character in the play/movie. My concern is her sining. The below clip has what appears to be the only on-screen singing she’s done (her singing starts at 0:46).

Not bad. In fact, pretty good. But then there’s…

I can listen to Joanna Gleason sing “… Don’t forget it for a moment, though” on continuous loop pretty much forever.

So we can’t really expect Emily Blunt to bring the same vocal chops to the role, and that might be particularly noticeable when the character has her turn at Children Will Listen.

But while I have concerns, I think this is going to go really well. I expect Blunt to take the assignment seriously and make the role her own. These songs have enormous depth, and a really good actress with a decent voice should do just fine. I love this role, and I’m looking forward to seeing her in it.