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HomeHealthcareWhat Gen Z Is aware of About Stephen Sondheim

What Gen Z Is aware of About Stephen Sondheim


“I really like Firm!” was not a sentence I anticipated to listen to this semester. Effectively, not a sentence I anticipated to listen to from an undergraduate throughout a seminar on the American musical. Within the class I used to be educating at Portland State College, I’d anticipated #Hamilfans, lovers for Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, youngsters who beloved Expensive Evan Hansen—appreciation for something that had debuted to acclaim throughout my college students’ lifetimes. Classic Stephen Sondheim stans, nonetheless, I had not predicted.

Not that individuals don’t love Firm, Sondheim’s 1970 stinger that turned marriage, the standard ending of musical comedy, into an open query. There was a gender-swapped revival of the play on Broadway this yr, a documentary spoof of the well-known unique solid’s recording session, and a pattern of masking its numbers in current movies. Firm resonates far past the slender slice of Manhattan that seems within the present, so maybe I shouldn’t have been shocked {that a} 20-year-old Oregonian, particularly one who’d elected a category on musicals, could be a fan.

It wasn’t simply Firm, although. Sondheim’s identify appeared a miracle elixir to college students for whom Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Stephen Schwartz, and Alan Menken held little forex. “I noticed within the opening credit that the music was written by Stephen Sondheim, so I used to be excited,” a classmate wrote in a put up to our dialogue board about Sweeney Todd, which one other pupil ranked as considered one of her “all-time favourite musicals.” The category relished debating the legendary composer’s lyrics to West Aspect Story and Gypsy, they usually beamed after I talked about Into the Woods. Whereas A Little Evening Music and Pacific Overtures have been favorites of senior residents auditing the course, Sunday within the Park With George was acquainted to youthful college students who’d seen the current movie Tick, Tick … Increase, through which the playwright Jonathan Larson imagines a weekend diner brunch as an homage to “Sunday,” Sondheim’s hymn to creative composition.

What I discovered after we started discussing these reveals was an consideration to a side of Sondheim’s work I hadn’t seen within the many tributes that got here after his dying final yr at 91. My college students may recognize his ability as a musical dramatist, his improvements as a craftsman, his ingenious wit and longing harmonic strains. However what actually drew them in—or, maybe, what they drew out—was his preoccupation with individuals excluded from the dominant society, his important eye towards these in positions of energy, and his exploration of musical types that give voice to outsider views.

Sondheim, alongside along with his scriptwriting collaborators, relentlessly challenged the establishments that had given stability to musical theater’s type: the satisfaction of marriage (undermined in Firm), the radiance of stardom (tarnished in Follies), the advantages of American imperialism (inverted in Pacific Overtures), the equity of the social order (cannibalized in Sweeney Todd), the idealism of youth (reversed in Merrily We Roll Alongside), the achievement of creating artwork (needled in Sunday within the Park With George), the reassurance of fairy tales with glad endings (uprooted in Into the Woods), the founding myths of American self-making (curdled in Assassins). And he did so with music that’s at all times looking, at all times swerving out and in of concord, resisting unison, aching and craving, almost incapable of reaching closure. For a style whose fashionable model was based (in Oklahoma) on the equivalence between marriage and nation constructing (“Startin’ as a farmer with a brand-new spouse— / Quickly be livin’ in a brand-new state!” the title track cheers), the musical in Sondheim’s creativeness opens up an area that may embody, in its dissonances, everybody the American promise leaves out.

For faculty college students at this time, lots of whom should work all through their training whereas nonetheless amassing large debt and recovering from the pandemic’s results on psychological and bodily well being, that area is crucial. Take Sweeney Todd, which my college students voted their high present on the semester’s finish. They rapidly picked up on Sondheim’s mastery of leitmotifs and unsettling reprises, his disturbing mix of comedy and horror, his wickedly intelligent rhymes as Mrs. Lovett tempts the murderous barber into making his purchasers’ corpses provide her meat pies. (“Tailor?” “Paler.” “Butler?” “Subtler.”) What those that wrote in regards to the musical cherished, nonetheless, was listening to the romantic waltz type in that cannibalistic duet, “A Little Priest,” chopped away from a wedding plot right into a declaration of sophistication retribution, the place, ultimately, “these above will serve these down under.”

College students acknowledged Sweeney’s madness, mirrored within the quickly shifting rating—“the songs felt such as you have been going mad simply by listening to them,” one wrote—whereas additionally seeing his violence because the comprehensible, if not excusable, impact of extreme trauma: being banished to Australia by a choose who then assaulted his spouse and kidnapped his daughter. No marvel Sweeney serenades his gleaming razors (“These are my pals!”) as an alternative of his would-be new accomplice, Mrs. Lovett. (“I’m your good friend, too, Mr. Todd,” she considerably plaintively proposes.) “Mrs. Lovett is form of ‘Senpai, discover me,’” one pupil remarked. Not figuring out the anime meme for an aspirational crush, I believed she was quipping “Ship pie, discover me,” which appeared equally apt.

Camp horror was my college students’ most popular style. When it was time for them to appoint their decisions for the ultimate open slots left on the syllabus, essentially the most votes went to The Rocky Horror Image Present. They readily defined their desire: Horror was a mode to have a good time outsiders, to construct group with the individuals mainstream society shunned. College students may additionally select to jot down their very own musical for his or her closing mission, and a number of other created narratives of queer inclusion: homosexual Arab Muslim boys who discover acceptance in New York’s ballroom tradition; small-town trans teenagers who harmonize with different queer folks of their rural area. What these characters sought, my college students mentioned, was “discovered household,” relationships of solidarity past the bounds of the world into which they occurred to be born. That’s additionally what Sondheim affords on the finish of Into the Woods: Little Purple and Jack have misplaced their mother and father; the Baker and Cinderella have misplaced their companions. Collectively, although, they make a household of selection. As Cinderella sings to consolation Little Purple, “Nobody is alone.”

To make certain, my college students didn’t all share tastes or identities. One other contingent nominated Mamma Mia (although additionally they made a case for it as a feminist present that rejected marriage plots, form of). One expert composer within the class lamented the pattern towards rock musicals and pined for the times of George Gershwin. What was noticeable, nonetheless, and what I believe Gen Z doesn’t get sufficient credit score for, was a mixture of deep concern for social justice with equally deep curiosity and openness. When a pupil famous that Gypsy, the title of Sondheim’s second hit, is an ethnic slur for Roma individuals, and is appropriated by a white striptease artist within the present, that wasn’t the tip of the dialogue. The scholars weren’t desirous about canceling Gypsy, no matter which may imply in a classroom. As a substitute, the others picked up the purpose, asking how exoticism and eroticism have been typically paired in musical-theater historical past, how race and sexuality operated within the musical’s narrative of social mobility, how Mama Rose and Gypsy Rose Lee embodied completely different fashions of gender efficiency. Is Gypsy thrilling, problematic, exploitative, sex-positive, a celebration of individualism, a critique of manifest future, a love letter to indicate enterprise, and an excoriation of the pursuit of stardom? Why not? Complexity is Sondheim’s hallmark, and my college students embraced it.

Quiescence within the face of complexity, nonetheless, they don’t. Evaluating performances of Sweeney Todd’s “A Little Priest” in a 2014 live performance staging that includes Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel with the 2007 Tim Burton movie starring Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, one pupil argued in his essay that “the campy nature of the orchestral efficiency, along with the over-the-top supply of Mrs. Lovett, suggests an opportunistic worldview, through which reparations for justice and social mobility are a sequence of glad accidents. Conversely, the brooding and sinister tone of Burton’s movie adaptation implies a fatalistic worldview that asserts that radical change within the face of social and financial injustice is inevitable.”

I considered my college students’ different favourite track of the semester: “Cell Block Tango,” from Chicago (with music by the still-active John Kander, born three years earlier than Sondheim). The “six merry murderesses of the Cook dinner County Jail” every sing their causes for offing their abusive companions. “He had it coming” is the quantity’s chorus. When these college students look into the historical past of the American musical, they see not solely a report of entertaining artifice, however a prognosis of the social ills they’re attempting, so creatively, to resolve.

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