Reflections on Stephen Sondheim’s New York

Reflections on Stephen Sondheim’s New York

For one, jutting vertical strains throughout a color-morphing panorama is sufficient. For the opposite, it’s the sound of a busy sign on a phone line, intoning like a relentless coronary heart that does it. These are the straightforward, placing signifiers of a metropolis whose chaotic contradictions and dizzying anthropological complexities would change into fertile floor for composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, an artist whose work towers the best way many skyscrapers dream to.

In works like West Aspect Story—a Romeo and Juliet remix, the place he collaborated with composer Leonard Bernstein, guide author Arthur Laurents, and director and choreographer Jerome Robbins—and Firm—an idea musical a couple of bachelor confronting his private and existential loneliness on his birthday, with guide author George Furth and director Hal Prince—Sondheim’s music and lyrics bounce off the recent concrete (“Vehicle in America/Chromium metal in America”), or twirl in the summertime’s breeze (“Say it delicate, and it’s nearly like praying”), or cram themselves claustrophobically, thrillingly elbowing for room (“Can discover one another within the crowded streets and the guarded parks”). Fairly than hackneyed cynicism or banal affectation, Sondheim, who died on November 26 on the age of 91, leaves behind him a imaginative and prescient of New York that’s each of the time by which he created it and likewise, like the town itself, respiratory, dwelling, and restlessly begging to be reinvented.

The blemished and wounded pavement turns into a theatrical proscenium and gang warfare area in West Aspect Story, which initially premiered on Broadway in 1957 and was tailored to movie by Robbins and Robert Sensible in 1961. Because the Jets’ wingspan permits them to luxuriate of their city territory and the Sharks dart in and round alleyways to search out area in a brand new dwelling, Sondheim’s lyrics perform as a lot as weapon and defend as flailing legs and glistening switchblades. The Jets are self assured as they dimension themselves up (“Obtained a rocket, in your pocket”), and the Sharks entertain no fools in regards to the systemic boundaries they face (“One take a look at us and so they cost twice”). However the simplicity of lyrics like “And all of a sudden I’ve discovered / How great a sound / Will be!” feels expansive and world-shattering, as they echo in opposition to the brick facades and tumble out into the basketball courtroom.

Firm was written practically a decade and a half later, premiering in 1970, with a seemingly deliberate shift in social milieu: from working class folks to the identical bourgeois set that will be seated within the viewers that night. The present’s imaginative and prescient of New York gave its (higher) center class characters the phantasm of being sequestered, a delusion of being within the metropolis and never of it, with few exceptions, regardless of the paradoxical methods the manufacturing’s protagonist, Bobby, and his buddies conceptualized their identities in relation to the town. It’s within the planning (“Bobby, there’s a live performance on Tuesday / Hank and Mary get into city tomorrow”), the exhaustive courting rituals (“It is tougher than a matador coercin’ a bull / To attempt to get you off of your rump”), and the web-like bricolage of buddies with various levels of intimacy (“Open the doorways / And see all of the loopy married folks”) that make New York for them.

Each Oliver Smith’s scenic designs for West Aspect Story and Boris Aronson’s for Firm atomized New York to its purest parts: plastic, metal, ruthless strains, austere backdrops. Leering over the characters, New York was Sondheim’s untamed gargoyle.

However, as two musicals which have resided loftily within the canon for practically half a century, they’re not essentially so totally different from each other, regardless of their disparate class contexts. Fairly than remoted from each other, related solely by their artist, their legacy has confirmed that they, nearly as if by design, change as the town adjustments, each of their capacity to stay in amber as artifacts of their time in addition to of their capacity to be reinterpreted and revived. 2020 was to see two West Aspect Story iterations: one, a recent strategy by Belgian theater director Ivo van Hove and choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, with the added bells and whistles of the Euro provocateur’s trademark dwell video work and button-pushing consideration of the textual content’s racial politics, a manufacturing which shut down through the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic and didn’t return to Broadway; and one other, a interval take by filmmaker Steven Spielberg and tailored by Angels in America scribe Tony Kushner, the primary musical for the Raiders of the Misplaced Ark director, which is to be launched December 10. A brand new manufacturing of Firm directed by Marianne Elliott, which was to open the day of the shutdown, touted a gender swap of its lead character whereas updating the setting and a number of the textual content and lyrics to replicate a extra fashionable context. The present is at the moment again in previews and premieres December 9 on Broadway.

Van Hove’s West Aspect Story revamped the present to prod at a surveillance state, with its dwell video feed monitoring the clandestine lovers’s each motion, their solely non-public second protected from the eyes of others being “Someplace.” And Elliott’s Firm expands on Sondheim’s argument that the present offers with “the growing issue of creating one-to-one relationships in an more and more dehumanized society” by casting it as a reminiscence play, with staged Instagram photographs in every vignette as the one remnant of happiness and intimacy that Bobbie can grasp onto, whereas she swipes by way of dates.

As these exhibits change and don’t change, the exterior elements that formed the New York by which they happen intrude the textual content: although a few of its racial dynamics are tainted by the myopia of its white creatives, West Aspect Story’s perspective on the carceral state and systemic inequality being flattened to private vendetta by folks in energy nonetheless stays chilling. (Notably, West Aspect Story’s historical past is essentially tarnished by its lineage of gentrification; the movie was shot in the identical lot as the previous housing complexes that have been demolished to construct Lincoln Heart on the Higher West Aspect.) And Firm’s shrewd anthropology of individuals whose relationships to relationships is fragmented by the best way the town they inhabit is emblematic of an accelerated late capitalist fever dream that has appeared to perform as blueprint quite than solely antiquated response to the sexual revolution.

A born New Yorker, the artist’s passing was felt by way of the town, the identical one he helped convey alive in a few of his exhibits. Individuals gathered in Central Park and Times Square to carry out “Sunday” from Sunday within the Park with George two days after Sondheim’s loss of life. Different work of his could be shaded by or happen within the metropolis, like Follies and Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim’s New York is etched with the scars of damaged hearts and dashed desires, severed connections and anesthetized marriages, its blistering solar and lacerating winter winds pervading his character’s interior lives. His fondness for the town’s cruelty, and that unkindness to unearth the complexities of the human situation, allowed New York as a dramaturgical setting to eschew cliché, to thrash on stage as beast earlier than Sondheim’s poetry turned it to magnificence once more. He thrived in that contradiction, even writing in regards to the weird thrill and pleasure one experiences dwelling in crushing situations. In “What More Do I Need?” from Saturday Night time (1955), Sondheim’s first skilled musical, he wrote,

A wall of rain because it turns to sleet

The shortage of solar on a one-way road

I really like the grime on a regular basis

And what extra do I want?


My window pane might not give a lot gentle

However I see you, so the view is brilliant

If I can love you, I will pay the grime no heed!

Together with your love, what extra do I want?

Although the Leviathan-like buildings can isolate or gnarl themselves into trenches, Sondheim additionally let the romantic, electrical coronary heart of the town beat till it burst. It’s crammed with marvel and amazement {that a} metropolis of strangers could possibly be this fashion whereas the hum of human craving floods the grid, louder than the visitors. Draped over the hearth escape, West Aspect Story’s Maria and Tony sing, “Tonight, tonight / The world is filled with gentle / With suns and moons in every single place.” For a second, New York stops for them in a hush, alive in a lonely, insomniac jungle. Firm’s Bobby, too, will get a second, bellowing past the confines of a front room or residence or bar, “Anyone crowd me with love, anyone power me to care.” A seismic shock ripples on every curb. Sondheim’s New York exhibits are diamond-like of their magnificence, sharp and impossibly immortal, an embodiment of the town’s endless longing, ceaseless looking out, and determined need to need somephysique, not just a few physique.

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