Top 10 Moments of Sondheim Genius

In honor of the eightieth birthday of the greatest musical theater writer/composer to ever live, I’ve gone ahead and curated the 10 most brilliant moments in a body of work that is chock full of genius.  For purposes of this list, I’ve tried to identify specific moments, as opposed to stretches of time or entire songs.  I’m not ranking the best Sondheim shows, or the best Sondheim songs, I’m identifying short bursts of time, rarely more than a few seconds, sometimes a single measure, when something remarkable happens. These are the moments to eagerly await each time a production shows up, the moments that reveal if the director and music director “get it”. And I’ve also tried to find moments that are not merely theatrical or musical, but moments when both the musicand theater combine to make something amazing happen.  Any one of his shows contains dozens of inspired musical gestures that bear close analysis, but these are the instants where the musical and theatrical ideas converge to a razor point of revelation, providing multidimensional insights into characters or situations.

Today I’ll count down 10-6.  Stay tuned for the top 5…

10 – A Musical Cross-fade (A Little Night Music)

The first act of the comedy of manners climaxes in this multilayered ensemble number as complex as the plots and schemes the characters are all concocting while trying to get into each other’s pants.  Or petticoats.  The first half of the number rapidly switches focus between several mini scenes as the players all consider their invitation to a Weekend in the Country.  It’s a rare example of a musical number advancing the plot in less time than it would have taken to speak it.

The pious Henrick interrupts the proceedings with a broad majestic waltz where he justifies his participation in the ensuing hijinks by claiming “it might be instructive to observe”. (Not sure how that one would hold up in court.)

And here’s where the magic happens.  Sondheim layers two competing time signatures to create the musical equivalent of a cinematic cross fade.  Following a few spoken lines from our leading lady,  the rest of the ensemble starts to enter with their own layers of themes and motifs. Their underlying meter is in four (subdivided into triplets), but Henrick’s grand waltz is still very present, and still in three, so the downbeats don’t line up, he’s very much out of sync with the rest of this lascivious bunch.  It’s an exciting, bustling section, each character’s mini scenes intertwining, overlapping, in an uncertain meter, and building towards a unison statement of the chorus to end the act.

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This is a tricky section to pull off and requires a musically accomplished ensemble.  The polyrhythmic transition was abridged in the New York production and is marked as optional in the score.  This recording of the National Theater Company production in London is the one of the few that has the transition section in its entirety. I only wish Henrik’s high G was a bit stronger.  For a much more satisfying tenor G (although they use the abridged transition, visit the six minute mark here of the youtube clip of the Lincoln Center production)

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