Farewell, Stephen

Yesterday, Stephen Sondheim died at the age of 91. He was almost certainly the most important musical theatre composer in American history. In fact, I’d argue that he was the central figure in American theatre in the last fifty years.

I’ve written before about how I grew up loving musical theatre (this piece on romance tropes in musicals is the most popular blog post I’ve ever written), and Sondheim’s lyrics and scores were a massive part of my devotion. In middle school, I went through a period where I listened to the soundtrack for West Side Story every day. My then best friend and I wanted to mount a revival on Broadway: we designed sets for every scene and envisioned a Spanish translation of the lyrics (which of course did happen in 2009). I then went through periods where I obsessively listened to the revival cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the OBC of A Little Night Music, and especially the OBC of Into the Woods.

My tastes changed, of course, and there were Sondheim shows for me as I grew. I never got into Sweeney Todd (it’s a little dark for me) or Sunday in the Park with George (Dot is underwritten). But I came to adore Company and Assassins and more obscure gems.

Sondheim’s ability to quickly sketch a character–lyrically and musically–is just unparalleled. I’m going to drop a list of favorites below, but listen to “Now/Later/Soon“: ten minutes, three characters, three distinction voices and goals/motivations/conflicts. It’s just PERFECT.

The knocks on Sondheim, that there was no feeling in his shows and that his tunes weren’t hummable, strike me as bizarre. He didn’t write rousing chorus numbers a la “June Is Busting Out All Over,” but have you heard “Giants in the Sky,” “Losing My Mind,” or “The Ballad of Booth“? Heck, even “Someone in a Tree“–which is cerebral AF–slaps, as the kids say.

Everyone is publishing their ten favorite Sondheim songs list, and here’s mine. I wouldn’t argue that these are his best, but that they are the ones that have meant the most to me–and if that sounds like an invitation for you to share your favorites, that’s because it is. I offer these in no particular order.

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Trope-tastic Musicals

Elisabeth Lane (who has started a fantastic YouTube romance channel!) initiated a conversation on Twitter recently about the books that converted you to genre romance. Not necessarily the first romances you read, but the ones that convinced you that romance was awesome. I hazarded some guesses when she asked it, but as I pondered her question more, I wondered whether my Ur-romances were books at all.

I was in my late 20s when I started reading romance. Romance novels were so precisely what I needed at that moment, I inhaled them by the bushel. It felt as if I’d been reading around romance my entire life, and now I had finally discovered the good stuff, a genre that could deliver the purest version of what I’d been seeking. But maybe the sense of familiarity, of ah, at last, that I felt when I started reading romance came from the overlap between the tropes in romance and those in movie musicals.

As a child, I’d been as devoted to musicals as I am to genre romance today. Musicals taught me about introspection, harmony, and female friends with whom you can dance in your bloomers if you’re ever carried off by a family of mountain men (see below). They’re unabashedly sentimental, almost always have happy endings, and frequently contain a (or sometimes several) central romance(s).

This list isn’t a best of or even a set of recommendations. It’s skewed by what I watched and listened to as a kid in the early to mid 90s. It’s very white, almost entirely heteronormative, and more than a few of these films are seriously problematic. But putting it together convinced me that my origins as a reader and writer of romance are in Hollywood movie musicals.

Spoilers ahead.

Continue reading “Trope-tastic Musicals”

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