Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Favorite Musical Moments, Inevitable Surprises

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Favorite Musical Moments, Inevitable Surprises

Article excerpt

Possibly my favorite musical theatre moment in purely musical terms is at the end of the verse of "Maria" from, of course, West Side Story, when the music is solidly in the key of B-natural, and Tony has sung, "Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria ..." and on that second syllable of the fifth iteration of the name Maria, "Ma - RI - a," Tony modulates into the surprising but altogether satisfying new key of E-flat. Breathtaking, every single time.

As I see it, writing about music is a tricky business. In a way, it's taking the ineffable and trying to make it ... effable, I suppose. Grounding the airborne, trying to quantify the unquantifiable. Trying to put into words, alas, what music can, and should, do. Usually, one ends up sounding too florid or pompous, or some combination of both (as I believe I just have).

That said, when asked to write a piece for Sondheim Review, I decided to talk about a few of my favorite musical moments in the Sondheim canon which are effective not only because of what's going on lyrically and dramatically, but also in purely musical terms - specifically moments where the harmony pricks the ear surprise and delight. Of course, with a writer as resourceful as Stephen Sondheim, form equals function, lyrics equal music and all the work together to create a dramatic whole. I thought I'd speak about why these particular moments never fail to thrill, in great part because of what's happening chordally.

In no particular order, let's start with from A Little Night Music, which introduces us musically to the young, beautiful and (sadly) virginal Anne. We start solidly in the key of B-flat ("Soon, I promise,/Soon, I won't shy away") and on the second syllable of "away," we veer into the key of D. I say "veer" advisedly, because Anne's entire modus operandi is not to be caught, if you will - to remain elusive, attractive and tonally ungrounded.

In fact, a few bars later, as she sings, "Even now,/When we're close and we touch," she begins to take us on a journey of constantly shifting tonal centers. For the next 32 bars, we cycle through B-natural, then go to F7, the dominant of B-flat, but where she shifts the ground under us into the key of D-flat - but only for two bars; D-flat slides to F-sharp 7, which leads us to B-natural - then back to F7, to D-flat, to F-sharp 7 and to B again. In fact, she fully repeats that particularly groundless sequence four times before we get to "think of how I adore you ..." in the key, solidly, at last, of B. (Sort of - where we go from there is another story.) Those 32 bars are beautiful, surprising and tonally like quicksand: the perfect evocation of a young woman intent on keeping herself unattainable.

There's an equally resourceful musical surprise in "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" from Sweeney Todd. The first time the theme is stated ("Green finch and linnet bird/Nightingale, blackbird,/How is it you sing?") we are squarely in the key of F, and, indeed, the melody is totally diatonic. Beautifully crafted, but squarely in F. Wonderful tonal shifts ensue, during which we hear the theme again in the key of F, but the third time we hear that opening theme, Sondheim does something very clever with the same material. When Johanna sings, "Ringdove and robinet,/Is it for wages,/Singing to be sold?," we're still in the key of F, but by starting the melody a whole step higher than as it was originally stated, we're sitting on a G-minor chord (with an F in the bass). …

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