For the past 3 weeks, I’ve had “Stephen Sondheim on the brain, in the ears, and in the hands.”¹ No, it’s not because I’ve grown sick of all that jazz² in my music library. I’m currently music directing a summer stock production of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” in Princeton, New Jersey. For these 3 weeks, just about every waking hour has been filled with triple-time tunes about missed connections, gender stereotypes, and a whole lot of sexual repression. As I am someone who has never been able to sit through an episode of “Glee,” you might expect that music directing a piece of musical theater would drive me mad. But that has fortunately not been the case.
In fact, as a real Sondheim n00b³, the experience has been eye-opening from a musical standpoint. Though Sondheim is best known for his endlessly witty and psychologically probing lyrics, I was struck at how gorgeous and well-crafted the music in “A Little Night Music” is. It’s a pastiche musical – a romp through popular styles of late Victorian Europe – but hardly feels like a cheap imitation of the great European Romantics (no pints of Brahms-Lite here). In fact, the more I played the music in rehearsal, the jazzier it sounded. I mean there’s no swing or anything, but the way that Sondheim constructs each tune in terms of harmony, melody, and form bears striking similarities to some of the best jazz tunesmiths of the modern era. Although Sondheim’s work has gone largely unexplored by jazz musicians (except for “Send in the Clowns” of course), there’s quite a bit for jazz people to eat up, if they listen carefully.