Musical white elephants brought out of the trunk

[18 August 2009]

By David Patrick Stearns

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

PHILADELPHIA — Every great composer has a white elephant — a piece as grand as it is unsuccessful, a flop that only genius can create, and all the more embarrassing for that.

Adventurers like Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, whose output is marked by an almost compulsive search for new ground, were fated to have at least one. Bernstein’s was the gargantuan 1971 “Mass” written to open the Kennedy Center. Sondheim’s case stretched over 15 years with a musical whose titles ranged from “Wise Guys” to “Bounce to Gold!” until finally becoming “Road Show” late last year at New York’s Public Theater.

In simultaneous miracles of rehabilitation, both pieces are out on new compact discs, neither seeming the worse for wear, and with such a strong sense of what they are that past agonies are nearly forgotten. Though Sondheim’s musical invention has flagged in recent years, “Road Show” — heard with its superb Public Theater cast featuring Michael Cerveris on the Nonesuch label — has a distilled simplicity thanks to speech-specific patter-song vocal lines accompanied by ostinatos with unerringly appropriate dramatic temperature. The lyrics, as always, are brilliant.

Bernstein’s “Mass,” now recorded on Naxos by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop, will forever be an early-1970s time capsule, but a piece in which the composer was stating his case on spiritual matters so feverishly that he often kept his own melodic effervescence on the sidelines, resulting in music that’s understandably shrill but musically second-rate. But is that less a problem than 30 years ago?

Both were cases of complicated creative personalities searching for renewal with something simple and basic. “Road Show” is about the roguish Mizner Brothers — Wilson (1876-1933) and Addison (1872-1933, architect of La Ronda, the currently imperiled Philadelphia mansion) — who cut a wide swath through turn-of-the-century America, most notably in a spectacular land swindle in 1920s Florida. Sondheim and librettist John Weidman envisioned a new-ish look at their showbiz roots in vaudeville and seemed right on track in 1999 with a high-profile workshop starring Nathan Lane and Victor Garber. Hearing bootleg recordings of it, you wonder why Sondheim seemed to, creatively speaking, run in the opposite direction. One theory: He and director Sam Mendes didn’t do well together.

As directed by Harold Prince at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 2003, “Bounce” (as “Wise Guys” was retitled) seemed framed in ways that complicated matters. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great. “It’s just a modest little musical comedy, and they’re expecting Sweeney Todd ...,” Sondheim reportedly said at the time.

I agree, though in the hindsight allowed by “Road Show,” “Bounce” didn’t wear its lightness convincingly. The authors were never unbuttoned enough; they, too, longed to create something more important. Future possibilities weren’t clear — particularly with ex-MGM movie queen Jane Powell (playing mother Mizner) bravely taking the stage on days when her voice was in ruins.

Now, there’s no mistaking “Road Show” for lighter-weight Sondheim. Orchestrations are lean and simple. Harmonies are spartan. Structure is straightforward. Set pieces from previous versions are still there, such as “Isn’t He Something?” and “Boca Raton.” But there’s a key difference early on in the form of a song, “Brotherly Love,” that was drawn from a passing kernel in the discarded opening number of “Wise Guys” and added during previews at the Public Theater. It creates lasting sympathy for the characters and gives you a reason to be interested in their long-term corruption.

It’s an extremely enjoyable listen (sample line: “One man’s mess is another man’s something-or-other”), even if the nattering manner of the patter songs becomes a bit tiresome. I miss the bitchiness of “Wise Guys” and wonder what else Sondheim might have written had this show not kept him preoccupied. Now that he has closed the book on the Mizners, he’s free to take on subjects only he can pull off.

Bernstein’s “Mass,” in contrast, wasn’t endlessly revised. Though the piece always had its champions, detractors parted company with it on such a basic level that revisions wouldn’t have helped. At least it can now be viewed as the product of an era when sacred cows were casually slaughtered as America rebelled against any kind of authority and Pope John XXIII allowed populist innovations such as “guitar masses.”

Bernstein joined the protesters, though since his generation was being rebelled against, he was considered a poser. I don’t believe that. But as a composer, he wanted to matter, even though his musical idiom — applicable both to Broadway and symphonies in ways that made each side suspicious of him — was out of fashion. So if he couldn’t be a musical radical, he would be an ideological one — and he had the conviction to back it up. Maybe too much. “Mass” probes the nature of belief with all the grace of a battering ram and with such sprawling musical means that even the sympathetic album notes by the late Robert Hilferty describe “Mass’” details as “zany” and “goofy.”

That deflates the kind of expectations that have worked against “Mass” (as well as Sondheim’s “Road Show”), but it doesn’t get me very far; there’s still much to overlook. Some lyrics (by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz) feel like adolescent ranting, while Paul Simon’s contributions reek of political smugness. The tunes tend to be self-consciously simple. The voice of social protest in 1971 was still what was loosely called folk music (Joan Baez, etc.), which Bernstein emulates — that is, when he isn’t recycling better, more sophisticated creations such as the ironically titled “Simple Song,” written originally for a film about St. Francis of Assisi.

How could such a thing be rehabilitated? By performers, namely conductor Alsop and baritone Jubilant Sykes. Neither artist is always brilliant but they are here, thanks to a deep belief that, however recklessly Bernstein expressed himself, the underlying issues are important. Alsop is the voice of solidity and integration. Sykes turns his role into a monologue that’s too personal and vital to seem dated. Paradoxically, the more Sykes achieves dramatic specificity, the more I hear Bernstein himself talking in lines like “I feel like ev’ry psalm that I’ve ever sung turns to wormwood. . . . And I wonder . . . was I ever really young?”

“Mass” will always be a problem piece, but because Bernstein wasn’t prolific and because his influence has burgeoned since his death in 1990, everything he wrote is ripe for positive reexamination.

Just you wait: Even his dissonant ballet “Dybbuk” and rage-aholic opera “A Quiet Place” will have their day.

Luckily, Sondheim has achieved this status in his lifetime. The thirst for his work is such that the recent Sondheim boxed set, “The Story So Far,” includes demo recordings of the composer singing a sweet little unpublished song he wrote in 1952 for the Kukla, Fran and Ollie TV show. No complaints. We’ll take whatever we can get.

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