This weekend I finally got the chance to listen through the new album of Sondheim’s (and Weidman’s) ‘Road Show.’ (This was the long-awaited, much altered musical about a pair of con men brothers, the Mizners, that was given a production at the Public last year, for those of you who aren’t my musical peeps. And actually, if you’re not a musical peep, you should probably stop reading this now. Just close your eyes and think of studly Eric from True Blood in chains some more. Mmm. Eric.) And, much as I had been when I actually saw the show, I was a little disappointed. Well, at first. I’ll explain.
First, let me make something clear. I love Stephen Sondheim. His work is not only brilliant, but has held such a place of importance in my life that I cannot quite imagine what I would have been without it, and I say that with no hyperbole (and that is the only artist for whom I can say that). I am consistently amazed that as I go through my life, there are perpetually songs that I gain a greater understanding of, or stages of that I can get a greater insight to through his work. I am big old Sondheim nerdy nerd, and when I met him in life my knees actually shook. Really. I didn’t know that was possible outside of those 1950s Betsey books.
However, ‘Road Show’ in production struck me as a bit of a mess. It seemed like it had been overworked, that the narrative lines and themes had become muddled and lost, or strangely tacked on (it’s tremendously hard to see a show objectively once you’ve been working on it for a while). The score had some beautiful melodies, but so often they sounded like other Sondheim songs that it seemed like it was a sort of Sondheim tribute fantasia.
And, on listening to the album (which is beautifully produced, and incredibly beautifully designed), I found myself thinking the same thing. I love ‘The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened’, and ‘That Was a Year’ and ‘Addison’s Trip’ are both fun and quirky tunes. But the rest struck me as it did before.
I was listening to the father’s song, ‘It’s in Your Hands Now’, and remarking again how it’s melody is almost identical to a musical theme in my most favorite show, ‘Assassins.’ And then I had the thought that Sondheim is too smart to repeat himself so obviously without a reason. And then it hit me.
‘It’s in Your Hands Now’ is sung by the father of the two brother protagonists, telling them that they do, or be, whatever they want – the world is their oyster, they just have to go out there and claim it (I’m paraphrasing – I don’t have the lyrics in front of me, although I wish I did). The line in ‘Assassins’ with the same melody is sung during the song ‘Another National Anthem’ by the Balladeer (the opposing voice to the Assassins), and represents the clear tone of the American dream (those lyrics, off the top of my head, are “you can be what you choose, from a mailman to a president, there are prizes all around you, if you’re wise enough to see, the delivery boy’s on Wall Street, and the Usherette’s a Rock Star’). Both songs are about the American Dream – the promise that anything is possible, that you can succeed if only you try. And though the contexts are different (in ‘Road Show’ it sets off the rest of the plot, while in ‘Assassins’ it appears late, and in contrast to the sour, hunched, abrupt minor lines of the Assassins saying that their dreams were lies), what he is saying by using the same melody (or a very similar one) is that the promise, and the function of the American Dream is the same in both shows. So, what Sondheim has done is, in essense, written an American Dream Leitmotif that he uses across his shows, a theme that is so large and powerful that it transcends the context of the shows themselves. The standard audience member might not notice anything beyond the beautiful clarity of the melody line, but an audience member that knows Sondheim’s work will hear the failed promise of the Assassins as well, and be able to experience both shows in greater depth because of it.
Sondheim, you make me cry with your genius.