Stephen Sondheim watching a performance of "Sweeney Todd" in San Francisco, July 19, 2001.
(Karl Mondon/East Bay Times/Getty Images)
Stephen Sondheim watching a performance of "Sweeney Todd" in San Francisco, July 19, 2001.
(Karl Mondon/East Bay Times/Getty Images)
Get Back Sweeney Todd, Grammy Switch-Up, BTS, The Wrens, Adele, Summer Walker...
Matty Karas, curator November 30, 2021
quote of the day
Art is work and not inspiration... Invention comes with craft.
Stephen Sondheim, 1930 – 2021
rant n' rave

The Worst Pies in Liverpool

Say what you will about GET BACK. Greatest music doc ever. Six hours too long. Sixty hours too short. An object lesson in how not to listen to the friend who's trying to tell you how not to break up your band. An object lesson in bad lunch orders. The one and only BILLY PRESTON. The most perfect farewell performance ever filmed. Insert your own take, or your entire Twitter timeline, here. I'll stake my reputation on this: The joy and drudgery and repetition and simple musical mechanics of how traditional rock bands actually create music has never been shown as clearly and as intimately as it's shown here. More docs, please, about songwriters in bands playing little bits over and over while searching for a melody to sing on top of them, and then wondering aloud what the song should be about, and then shouting out the names of the chords to their befuddled bandmates as they play through them, while random conversation and cigarette smoking and unrelated instrumental noodling happens around them. And then some other overlong docs about how hip-hop and jazz and modern pop acts do it, please.

In his rather well-documented (on film, in books and within his actual work) career, STEPHEN SONDHEIM spent a good deal of his life doing just that for the art of writing for the musical theater, an art in which, for most of his life, he had no equals. He wanted us to understand the labor and the precision with which he wrote—perfect rhymes 100 percent of the time, no extraneous notes or words, every song and every line within every song advancing the story or the character, every melodic rise and fall written with intent—while at the same time not wanting us to really notice, since his job was to tell stories and ours was to hear them, and to hear them the first time. Lyric writing in particular, he once said, "has to exist in time. The listener can not do what the reader of poetry does. He can not go at his own speed. He can not go back over the sentence. Therefore it must be crystal clear as it goes on."

It takes a lot of work, and genius, to make some of the deepest, darkest texts in American theater sound so simple. And catchy. The first lyrics of his I heard, without knowing they were his, were those from WEST SIDE STORY, written to the music of LEONARD BERNSTEIN, which were part of your DNA if you grew up in a certain place or time, as I did. I could, and would, recite "I'm depraved on account I'm deprived" and "Krup you!" long before I knew the writer's name. I went from admirer to devotee relatively late, after seeing the back-to-back Broadway revivals of SWEENEY TODD and COMPANY, two of his signature works, as directed by JOHN DOYLE, in the mid-2000s. By reputation, Sondheim's music is supposed to be less instantly hummable than that of some of his contemporaries. I was unaware of that reputation when I found myself obsessively singing the gothic black humor of the former and the skeptical but never cynical takes on love and marriage from the latter.

I've never stopped and I've never looked back. I'm part of a very large cult, and we know we're not everybody. "Of the shows for which Mr. Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics," the New York Times' BRUCE WEBER wrote in his obit, his first, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, "had the longest Broadway run at 964 performances; his second, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, lasted nine... Even his successes were barely successful." His classic FOLLIES, he told the New Yorker's ADAM GOPNIK, "has never made a penny back to any of its investors."

And yet... Revivals of COMPANY and ASSASSINS, his not particularly well reviewed musical about presidential killers that lasted all of two months in its initial off-Broadway run, are currently playing in New York, and his fractured fairy tale INTO THE WOODS is scheduled for another New York run in the spring. Great work tends to outlive its own failure, and sometimes even turns into success. Ironically, in this particular case, if you didn't catch the lyrics the first time around, if they weren't crystal clear to you, you're going to get another chance.

He wasn't only a great lyricist; he was a great composer, too. Was he one the quintessential confessional American songwriter? Documentaries. Songs. Double acrostics.


Nominees (Academy's Version)

Facing a loud, sustained demand to make its membership and its award winners more diverse and more representative of the music universe, the RECORDING ACADEMY has had eight months, since this year's much-criticized GRAMMY AWARDS, to expand its fields of nominees, if that's one of the things it thought might help. But it waited until last week—exactly one day before next year's nominees were unveiled, and after the voting for nominees had already been tallied—to do it. Just before Thanksgiving, the New York Times reported that the Academy decided last Monday to nominate 10 artists, instead of eight, in each of the show's four marquee categories—after the Academy knew who the original eight nominees in each category were. The last-minute change, hurriedly announced at the beginning of Tuesday's official nomination reveal, added longtime Grammy faves TAYLOR SWIFT and KANYE WEST to the Album of the Year field and LIL NAS X (already one of this year's leading nominees) and ABBA (the reunited, never-before-nominated pop act) in Record of the Year. The Song of the Year and Best New Artist categories also got added nominees. Whether the Academy knew who the beneficiaries of the expansion would be (it claims it didn't) and whether the new names are good for TV ratings or musical credibility or anything at all is beside the point. The timing is suspicious at best, indefensible at worst. And that's before you consider that we're less than two years out from the Academy firing the CEO who said the Grammys were rife with corruption and conflicts of interest. I'm not sure how anyone can *not* have the perception that the Academy, preparing for its Grammys for the first time since getting rid of the problematic secretive committees that had final say over nominees, simply didn't like its own membership's original choices. Or how anyone wouldn't think the 2022 Grammys have already been stained. Not for the eventual winners—some of the bonus nominees made great music this year, and Best New Artist addition AROOJ AFTAB is a particularly inspired choice—but for the Grammys and the Recording Academy themselves. This time there's no need to wait until after the awards, on Jan. 31, to figure out what went wrong and why. They can start on that project now.

Etc Etc Etc

Today is Giving Tuesday. Wherever you work and wherever you live, there are artists and venues and arts organizations desperately in need of assistance after these past couple of dark, devastating years. This is a great time to give back, if you can... The best modern Hanukkah songs... The best Christmas songs... ANGELA MERKEL's eyebrow-raising punk pick... The South Korean National Assembly's difficult choice: What to do about BTS?

Rest in Peace

Groundbreaking designer (and DJ) VIRGIL ABLOH, whose influence and interests ran deep in the music industry... ROSALIE TROMBLEY, longtime music director/tastemaker at Canadian radio powerhouse CKLW-AM; she was instrumental in the careers of Bob Seger (and subject of his song "Rosalie"), Funkadelic, Elton John, Gordon Lightfoot and countless others... Native American singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist JOANNE SHENANDOAH... Planes Mistaken for Stars singer/guitarist GARED O'DONNELL... '70s and '80s Motown songwriter MARILYN MCLEOD.

Matty Karas, curator

November 30, 2021