Friday, May 11, 2018

It's Not Even Past #20 - The Crisis of What is Art - Part 4 - West Side Story - The Delights and Dangers of Collaboration - Heavily Revised

What a miraculously charmed life your faithful podcaster seems to lately lead. Just in the past few weeks, West Side Story in Houston and Candide in Washington, and in between, four performances of Mahler symphonies in New York by two of Europe's greatest orchestras and a live Hamlet from the Royal Shakespeare Company - and only one dud performance among them all. To say nothing of trips to galleries he's never experienced before and the first ever experience of Rothko Chapel, and an upcoming conference of new music in Boston, doubtlessly with lots of highly skilled performers. While at Lincoln Center for the Mahler, he very briefly, for one sentence each, met Tony Kushner, Salman Rushdie, and Wallace Shawn. Your faithful podcaster also saw Bjork, but in the face of a star that big, his confidence completely left him and he found himself unable to approach the Icelander in the raggedy pink dress.

His wallet will be spending the summer convalescing in a hospital bed from this surfeit of worthy performances of great works of art; one after the other coming at him seemingly as commonly as street signs from a car. So many great nights in various theaters and halls that he begins to wonder if the brain begins to shut down in the face of all this enlightenment. How can anyone possibly keep their perceptions sharp when it's one performance of cosmic insight in a theater after another after another - in the face of all this genius, spectacularly rendered, the problem is no longer the performance, the problem is you, no human brain can properly take in this much quality without the context of mediocrity to remind you how extraordinary is what you're experiencing. Every one of these performances was a miracle, probably each of them is the result of more than a million of hours of practice logged between all of its various collaborators, and while you objectively know that what you're experiencing is aesthetically cosmic, you find yourself distracted and no longer able to appreciate so much quality properly. 

It's precisely because the human mind is built for for ordinary that make extraordinary experiences extraordinary. You not only find yourself distracted, you also find yourself noticing all the various weaknesses of these works standing in bold relief, works of a creativity which your brain could never come close to achieving in a thousand years. 

And so, when you're watching West Side Story and especially Candide, what can you do when you're faced with works that are both on a level of genius that might define the theatrical achievement of an entire country, and yet are so clearly so flawed. Candide is so amazing, yet so flawed, that I wonder if it can even be covered in a single podcast. What you just heard was the incredible finale to Candide, one of the greatest songs written in America or the twentieth century, and which could be a national anthem to a much better country than any yet conceived. It is amazing that Candide, a work of such amazing parts, can be such a boring dud as a whole. But yes, even West Side Story is incredibly flawed. Everybody who knows Candide knows how flawed it is, but just think about West Side Story for a moment or a half-hour. 

When you begin thinking about it, you have to come to terms with the fact, and yes it is a fact, that West Side Story is the Great American Show. The Citizen Kane of American theater – the summit to which every piece of theater before was leading, and every piece since was a reaction.  The remote and deathly posterity of something like Rothko Chapel which we covered last week is a kind of posterity that almost doesn't seem worth pursuing. Shouldn't any artist worth his or her salt crave the lively, almost universally beloved posterity of West Side Story, which gives back to the audience just as much as it demands from us, because it shows us ourselves and the plights of our lives so well, so specifically, so movingly.

In Bernstein's private diary, he wrote that he hoped the show to be the beginning of a new moment in American theater in which shows would transcend to a new rung of aspiration and complexity. But except in the musicals of Sondheim, there was to be no such beginning in West Side Story, and we'll get to why that perhaps was in a few minutes. In the meantime, we just have to appreciate that there are a few moments in the American arts when everything goes so right that there is a one-off achievement that could have been repeated if America were a different kind of country than it is - in which great artists were considered the kinds of Emperors that a Beethoven or a Tolstoy or a Picasso was in Europe. But this is not the kind of country America is, and whenever a Citizen Kane, a West Side Story, a Kind of Blue, a Pet Sounds, an Invisible Man, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Love Supreme, a Catcher in the Rye or a Great Gatsby, a Moby Dick, and so many others, makes itself known, the subterranean forces, or the systemic ones, of our country seem to conspire to make it as hard as possible for these achievements to be continued. Romantic poets and composers always seemed to die before they could burn out, but so many great American artists lived on for decades in the shadow of their best work. Maybe if Mozart had lived to 70, he'd have done as little composition with the second half of his life as Rossini or Leonard Bernstein did.

In the case of West Side Story, what made it possible was the one-off moment when America’s three greatest young theatrical talents put their titanic egos aside to make a musical together. The result was a sublime achievement on a level that in so many ways has never been equaled in the history of America – a seamless fusion of dance and song, a perfect melding of grand opera with popular idiom, and most importantly, a piece that speaks to the entirety of the American experience; both native and immigrant, on a level that no other piece of theater ever equaled, and perhaps never could. It gives the poorest and crassest of America’s residents a high dignity that humanizes them to people who’d cross the street to avoid these characters. And yet, it’s also totally ridiculous… with gang members speaking in a mixture of slang that probably dated already in 1957 and bad love poetry. Such is the unfortunate, confused, ridiculous plight of American theater, which, thanks to movies, the ultimate American artform, still hasn’t found secure footing 236 years after the founding of the country. 

West Side Story is both incredible and incredibly flawed. It is one of those works that is greater than it can ever be performed. I was going to talk about all the various recordings of it, but that's an exercise in futility in which you get into inadequacy after inadequacy, because West Side Story forgives no flaw from any of its performers. It doesn't even the flaws of its small character actors, here's no true such thing as a chorus in West Side Story, every cast member is a real character who has a name. Like The Marriage of Figaro, there is no real main character, just an ensemble in which every member is important. And as Arthur Laurents said of it, every cast member has to sing excellently, act excellently, dance excellently, and be fifteen years old. It's too tall an order for any production, and the one I saw in Houston was no exception. The only really transcendent performance was Maria's, and everybody else just wasn't on the same level - yet it doesn't really matter because the work is so good that even an adequate performance can lift you to bliss you never thought possible. 

The score is amazing, but it's schizophrenic - two musicals in one. Leonard Bernstein was fully able to create the jazz-and-merengue-like atmosphere of fifties streets music, and when the play demanded Verdi-like operatic love, Bernstein provided the required over-the-top passion in spades. The problem is that this over-the-top passion has no place in a show like West Side Story. It is a pre-modern sentiment within an entirely modern story. In an era of arranged and shotgun marriages, when marriages of convenience were the norm, love as it’s experienced in Verdi was probably the norm. Most people experienced (or expected to experience) a few days of true love in their lifetimes. So the immediate declarations and the extravagant sentiments of those scenes were probably much truer to their experience than it is to ours. But if West Side Story wanted to be true to life, it would have demanded something much less sentimental than Bernstein provided it. Perhaps his score to Candide is ultimately better because it finds the exact right tone for its subject matter, and I suppose for that reason, we have to call it his best score, even if it's tied to a show that sinks like a stone on the stage. But when you watch the balcony scene when Tony and Maria sing Tonight, or hear One Hand One Heart, it never sinks, it soars. You might know how stupid those scenes are, and yet, who in their right mind would ever care? I don't know how anybody can listen to the music of those scenes without becoming an absolute blubbering wreck.

Much has been made of the fact that Arthur Laurents's book (script) is not up to the standard of the rest of the show. The truth is, Laurents's book is great - except when it isn't. He has the full measure of these violence-crazed, oversexed street thugs who secretly harbor true intelligence, but when fancies turn to thoughts of love, he has no idea what to do. Tony has got to be one of the stupidest characters ever written by a playwright, and the script gives no indication that he was ever anything but a love-crazed wimp who fell for Maria because of some kind of supernatural sign. Maria is a much, much more well-developed character - always the more pragmatic-minded of the lovebirds. Laurents was the only member of the creative team who wasn't a certifiable genius. But what American playwright of the era could possibly have equalled the other three. Arthur Miller? Tennessee Williams? Neither would have been right for it - Miller would never have understood how to write about love, Tennessee Williams would never have understood how to write about street smarts. Maybe some of the golden-age Hollywood screenwriters could have done it. What about the Epstein Brothers who wrote Casablanca? There's a team who understood both love and the streets!

Stephen Sondheim is, just maybe, still the most certifiable living genius of the American arts, but he was in his mid-20's when he worked on this, and still had very little idea what he was doing. Sondheim later admitted that Bernstein, who was of course one of the world's most eloquent orators, was co-writing the lyrics but generously gave Sondheim exclusive credit to help advance Sondheim's career. But there might have also been a selfish angle to that, because many of the lyrics are frankly terrible. The jazz-skat lyrics in Cool have such an absolutely tin ear for what it should sound like that if the song weren't followed by an ingenious jazz fugue by Bernstein based on the fugal subject of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, it would be a worthless song. And even by the standards of the worst Rodgers and Hammerstein at their worst, I Feel Pretty is incredibly inane. It could just as easily be sung by Julie Andrews to cartoon penguins in a Disney movie.

The truth is that a number of later musicals by Sondheim are objectively much much better - especially Company and Into the Woods and A Little Night Music, each which are just about perfect, virtuoso works of art in which not a single detail should ever be changed - and yet even if other works are better, they are not greater than West Side Story. None of those three have either the extraordinarily inventive dancing or the music that make West Side Story so complete and total a work of art, and neither taps into the baseline of the American experience the way West Side Story does in just about every moment of the show.

What is so truly extraordinary about West Side Story is that a work so absurdly dated can seem so current. The racial hatred, the gun violence, the dysfunctional justice system, the corrupt prejudiced cops, immigrant aspirations and nativist grievances. The fact that West Side Story could be written in 1957, a decade before all American cities would become battlegrounds like the neighborhood of West Side Story, except less white of course, is almost uncanny. West Side Story, with all its problems and creakingly antique stylistic flourishes, is more a projection of the American future than of the American past. It is a perfect example of one of those works which constitute American Sublime, in which our country's condition seems projected back at us. West Side Story is severely flawed, and perhaps because it's severely flawed, it's much greater than it ever could be if it were perfect.

The one part of West Side Story that will never objectively age at all is its dancing, and the dancing has to be seen live to really feel its full impact. Think of all the indelible images that come from Jerome Robbins: the tension in West Side Story's Mambo between the swing dancing and hustle, bumps, and chickens of the Jets vs the Salsa and Rumba and Merengue and Tango of the Sharks, think of that incredible moment in Fiddler on the Roof when the Russian peasants weave a Cossatzky between Jews dancing the Hora in 'To Life', think of The Pajama Game with its rising hats in (stomp stomp) PsssssssSteam Heat, think of The King and I with the 'fan dance' in 'Getting to Know You', think of fifty sailors dancing ballet all around the stage in On the Town, the flapper's spin on the Charleston in Billion Dollar Baby, the three burlesque strippers from Gypsy in 'Ya Gotta Have a Gimmick', the door-slamming Feydeau farce in High Button Shoes, simply think of Peter Pan flying all around the stage. That is all Jerome Robbins. And then, after Fiddler on the Roof in 1964, nothing more. The famously despotic Jerome Robbins retreated to classical ballet - doing for Stravinsky and Ravel ballets what Nijinsky and George Balanchine had already done when Stravinsky was new and revolutionary, choreographing Bach and Chopin who never conceived their music for the stage, and retreating from the world of popular art where he was one collaborator among many to the world of ballet, the small empire in which the composer was dead and as choreographer, he was the uncontested regent. 

While Robbins was an artistic tyrant who probably left Broadway because he was tired of backtalk from actors and hearing 'no' from producers, but Bernstein didn't have an authoritarian bone in his body. Bernstein thrived on collaboration. Lenny was an extravert who loved everything about working with people, and the reasons for his retreat from popular music are more elusive, and also more heartbreaking. At least Robbins has a good half-dozen shows to his name that penetrated the highest levels of American consciousness, Leonard Bernstein has only one, and once entered America's consciousness forever, the New York Philharmonic came calling. 

For his entire youth, Bernstein's most important mentors were yelling their disappointment in his ear that he wrote for Broadway. They thought that by writing for something so 'low', he was being unfaithful to the purity of the highest music. Aaron Copland and Serge Koussevitsky - the long-time director of the Boston Symphony, both hated that Bernstein dared to abandon what they saw as his true vocation as a classical conductor - to a surprising extent they didn't even really believe in his abilities as a composer. Though as a conductor, it can never be denied that Bernstein's magnetism even dwarfed such an august podium personage as Koussevitsky's, but West Side Story is an achievement to dwarf even Appalachian Spring, and by following the diktats of Copland and Koussevitsky that demanded Bernstein return to classical music full time, Bernstein's compositional gift dried up. 

As a conductor, like any good conductor, Bernstein both lived among the remote masters of yesteryear and gave early performances of many works by contemporary composers who were not touched with Bernstein's genius, and perhaps by spending 99% of his time with classical music without new connections to the popular idioms, the few returns he made to composing were never the same. Of course, if Bernstein had never conducted full-time, we'd have never gotten all that amazing Mahler, and who knows, in spite of what so many Europeans with bad consciences think, perhaps Mahler would still languish underplayed today instead of the colossus whose work is the most reliable transcendence of every orchestral season. But was Gustav Mahler really worth the price of Leonard Bernstein? 

After the death of Gershwin, it was Lenny who had the singular chance to pick up Gershwin's torch and unite the worlds of popular and classical music. But the approval of his mentors depended on him doing anything but that. Bernstein was coerced by the musicians who trained him into believing that classical music was the only path to the highest artistic achievement. He abandoned his greatest gift, and even after he did, many classical music lovers withheld their approval from Bernstein anyway because they thought he was a Broadway upstart. Had Bernstein kept writing for the stage, we might have another West Side Story to match against every Mahler symphony.

Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein both epitomized the tensions of their era, not realizing that through their collaborations they were creating something that was greater, more influential, and more important, than any classical art of their era. They created a classicism for a new age, and of the great mid-century creators who brought millions of Americans to a level of aesthetic bliss unseen on American soil until then, they particularly brought the European sensibility of skill and sophistication. There is no musical in the American canon as challenging as West Side Story, thematically, aesthetically, or to perform. It's singular proof that the extraordinary can still take wing in America, and that our contributions to world culture are not just because we re-grounded the world in the pleasures of simplicity. 

But such achievements never come without a price. The price is the knowledge that the arts today are different than they ever were before. Perhaps it just isn't possible for individual achievements in the arts to be as great as in centuries past, even if the best works themselves may be as great, or maybe be even greater, than ever before. Great art may be an authoritarian dictatorship, but there is wall-to-wall evidence that there can, and perhaps must, be more than one despot at the top.  

The world has grown so sophisticated that perhaps no one person can control the artistic materials to create great art, and the more collaboration there is, the more great artists seem able to spur themselves to greater achievements. 

Just think of that singular period in American arts roughly between the end of World War II and the Kennedy assassination. First, think of the air at that moment in New York. Think of how New York lends itself to theater: as great as the cinema New York has produced, it can’t hold a candle to the amazingly cinematic vistas and open spaces of the Western United States. New York is ultimately not a place for movies, it's a theatrical one. I don’t need to tell you that everything about New York is over-the-top, you’ve all been there and seen the buildings, the people, the music, the clothes, the dirt and shit, the ever-appealing presence of sex and the ever-haunting specter of death.
Every street is a closed set. Everyone in New York is there to play a part, eager to say their peace and then some to whoever is around to listen, and perhaps they’re so eager to speak because nobody else wants to listen.

And now think of the period itself. America was just beginning to stretch its legs to their full cultural reach. The 1950’s was (relatively speaking) the most economically successful, peaceful, hopeful time in America’s history. The hope no doubt came at a terrible price, but the hope was very real. And this hopeful, happy kingdom of peace, admittedly white peace, required entertainment. But the entertainment got so good that it became art of its own - pushing every conceivable boundary in content and form to which mere entertainment is never supposed to push. The other arts were learning the lesson of movies, which is that when brilliant individuals pool their talent, they can make something still more brilliant than any of them could do alone.

But these writer’s rooms were so boiling over with talent that all those brilliant individuals could not possibly work together for long. Right at the same time that Robbins, Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents, Jule Styne, and Larry Gelbart were collaborating on musicals; Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Gil & Bill Evans were teaming up to make Kind of Blue; Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Michael Stewart, and Woody Allen collaborated to make the original TV sketch comedy - Your Show of Shows; Rod Serling, John Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, and Arthur Hiller joined forces to create Playhouse 90, a television show with the ambition of competing with the very best of Broadway Theater; Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, and Phil Spector teamed up at Atlantic Records with a who’s who of Postwar musicians to literally create the music of the age; a group of famous actors and singers began hanging out at Humphrey Bogart’s New York house and would eventually become known as ‘The Rat Pack’; a group of gifted students who met at the City College of New York formed the basis of the ‘New York Intellectuals’ and shaped the intellectual discourse of the world by forming journals like The Partisan Review, Commentary, and Dissent; the Futurians, a group of science fiction afficianados who corresponded since their youths, practically took the science-fiction world by storm and included Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Doc Lowndes, Frederik Pohl, and Donald Wollheim.

When talented people go into a room together, it's inevitable that they'll find something about which to disagree strongly. When a collaboration truly ignites, there is no way to keep it on the rails for long, eventually, the ignition explodes. But for those few years when collaborators of genius get together, the results are even better, but it is impossible for a tornado of resentment not to build, and the resentment usually kills the collaboration. Think of Lennon and McCartney, think of Monty Python, think of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Just about all of these artists I mentioned went on to brilliant achievements of their own, but it’s arguable that none of them ever achieved such universal appeal alone as they did together, and it’s arguable that never had cultural fare of such intelligence had such universal appeal. But right around the corner lay the 1960’s, the assassinations of Jack and Martin and Bobby, the Civil Rights Marches, the Great Society, the end of the Production Code, Bob Dylan, Lady Chatterly’s obscenity trial, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Beatlemania, and the triumph of individual expression.

The classical age of American culture was drawing to a rather glorious end, and in its place would come the American Romantic era with its individual expression and cultural scenes and niches. Emphasis in American life on importance of community was replaced with emphasis on the rights of the individual. What was once mass entertainment became Art with a Capital A. The energy which popular entertainment built up by the 1950’s was released in the 1960’s with an explosion of creativity and individuality.

From the sixties we got art that was a cult of an individual's personality. Tens of thousands would fill arenas to move in synchronicity with each other as a rock or R&B god commands their electricity, we got the New Hollywood of Kubrick and Coppola and Scorsese, when it was considered not a question at all that the true artist at the helm of a movie was not a collaboration at all, but the singular director. From the late sixties to the mid-seventies, we got so many artistic gifts, but look around, the energy released by it subsided considerably. Eventually all that individuality got subsumed by true mass entertainment, more corporate, more generic, and always fulfilling a common denominator that sinks ever lower. And now all sorts of political progressives and socialists throw their beliefs away every time they dance to Beyonce and Taylor Swift, believing that the synthetic, thoroughly produced, music-by-corporation of pop superstars is a worthwhile product and not a new cultural low.

It’s possible that more interesting art is being made than perhaps ever before in human history, but who can find the great stuff when there is so much shit around it? And even among the stuff that’s great, how much of it is truly cosmic? How much of it would court lastingness and universality of appeal if it were ever seen and publicized on a large scale? How much of it would still have meaning in 100 years? The difference in quality between West Side Story and even a show as good as The Book of Mormon is the difference between The Marriage of Figaro and Zampa. What... you’ve never heard of Zampa? There’s a reason for that... (nice overture though...)

On the other hand, while Bernstein and Robbins retreated from the popular theater, Stephen Sondheim stayed just as the popular theater created a bifurcation within the bifurcation of classical and popular. Indeed, perhaps the only word that works for Sondheim's songs are classically popular - recapturing the skill and structure and atmosphere of cocktail pop music from the 20's and 30's, and done with a skill perhaps no lyricist of the 20s and 30s ever equalled. Sondheim's music is clearly more popular than classical, but in his music, at least the two intermingle freely.

In the era when all three of these collaborators began their career, the price of a balcony ticket at a Broadway Show was barely two dollars! Two dollars! Today, two dollars is not even close to half the surcharge you usually pay for ordering Broadway tickets online. Even as late as the mid-1970’s, fifteen dollars was considered an extremely expensive ticket. 

What this meant for artistic quality is that at the beginning of their careers, composers like Bernstein and Sondheim could gauge the tastes of the average theatergoer far more reliably than any Broadway songwriter of our day. To be sure, even then, the average theatergoer was far more educated than the average American, but the average American theatergoer was simply middle class couples, with the husbands receiving an unremarkable college education provided by the GI bill. Their tastes were too plain for the grandeur of classical music, too white for challenging jazz, and too unrebellious for rock. They grew up on ‘white jazz.’ One might think that such an audience would limit what theater composers could do, and perhaps it did. So many musicals of the Rodgers and Hammerstein ilk, considered so revolutionary in their day, now seem more than a bit penny plain and generic. 

But what this meant for Stephen Sondheim was that he could learn his craft in the Golden Age of the Musical and the twilight of the Great American Songbook, and then as a mature artist could operate in a milleu of an affluent, educated public who would follow him into his most baroque experiments. The difference in age between Sondheim and Bob Dylan is only eleven years, but the gap in approach between the two is as long and wide as an ocean. Sondheim is all craft, Dylan is all intuition. By the time Dylan was thirty-five, most of his greatest songs were already written. At the same age, Sondheim was only getting started. By 1970, Sondheim was clearly the greater songwriter, and yet those were the years when Broadway clearly lost its audience to Rock.

But the bigger audiences and idolworship were a chamber of horrors for the rock gods, all of whom felt terrible pressure to top what they'd already done, and none of them could do it - not Dylan, not Brian Wilson, not Lennon and McCarthy, not Jagger and Richards. But as they all struggled to live up to their initial promise, Sondheim thrived ever more. General Broadway audiences demanded greater production values for the extra expense of their tickets, so they went to Andrew Lloyd Webber and

'came home singing the scenery.' A genius like Sondheim was free to pitch himself to a much more elite, educated audience. As the ticket prices went up, Sondheim became ever more experimental, ever more searing, ever more profound. By the age of 30, Sondheim already did the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy - the two of which many people still regard as the zenith of the entire artform - and there's certainly a point to viewing it that way. And in his early 30’s, he added a third masterpiece at the generally accepted zenith of American Musical Theater for which he wrote both the lyrics and music: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And yet it was only in the 1970’s, in his 40’s, that Sondheim transcended a position more than simply a composer of musicals into the creator of an entirely new and still undeveloped kind of theater. In the early 70’s, he’d done the music and lyrics for a second trilogy, a more abstract, remote trilogy, whose both perfection and depth in many ways leaves the first trilogy in the shade. 

In 1970 was Company, the American Mid-City Night’s Dream, a realistic and dramatic work about marriage in upper-middle class Manhattan that is as absolutely perfect as West Side Story is flawed - everything about it is just right. Just the next year came Follies, a musical about retired showgirls which parodies the empty cliches of the old style songs and the heartlessness of show business without mercy. Two years later followed A Little Night Music, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night - another perfect musical in which not a single note or word is out of place. Taking place in 1900, it uses the artificialities of opera to capture all of opera’s soaring longings without any of opera’s bombast.

Three years thereafter is Pacific Overtures, a Japanese-style work about American imperialism, and a work so experimental in comparison to the two trilogies before it you wonder if it could possibly be by the same composer. Three years after that, Sweeney Todd. According to some the ‘Great American Opera’, to others (clearly including Tim Burton) it doesn't need to be anything more than a fun melodrama. To me, it's Sondheim’s answer to Greek Drama - for all its macabre humor, it has a pessimism about fate that is positively Sophoclean. Two years later comes Merrily We Roll Along, which I’ve actually neither seen nor heard at all yet.

'But then comes the 1980’s, and the full splendor of a Shakespearean genius. After the failure of Merrily, Sondheim was ready to give up completely. Instead, he ascends to a still higher level of genius - one that at times seems positively Shakespearean. In 1984: Sunday in the Park with George about the French artist, Georges Seurat. Let's just hear the song that everybody remembers, in which a painting comes to life and literally sings.

When I was twenty, I used whatever money I had to see this show at the Kennedy Center, and at this moment, as I knew I would, I broke down in tears, only to turn and realize that everybody else in my row had as well.

Then, still three years later, comes Into the Woods, what can I possibly say about it? A musical about Fairy Tales in which the diabetes of Disney fairy tales is crushed, wrecked, never to be seen again as anything but a lie. For me at least, this is perhaps the greatest, most perfect and virtuosic, most profound work of theater since King Lear. I’m very serious when I say that there are moments when this endlessly inventive work strikes me as even beyond places Shakespeare goes. 

In 1990, we come to Assassins, an American Macb-th or Gotterdammerung, a theatrical black hole about American Presidential assassins, apocalyptic enough to haunt you with fears about what humanity is capable. Finally, to Passion, the American Tristan, a work about love and obsession that is almost like a final consummation. After Assassins and Passion, what greater intensity was there to capture?

The diversity of what these works require from a creator is impossible for the rest of us to conceive. Like in Shakespeare and Mozart, you can’t really find Sondheim in the characters. Perhaps Sondheim’s persona is present in Bobby from Company, but there still remains the problem that Sondheim is gay while Bobby seems quite contented to ‘remain’ straight. The only real exception in which you truly feel the character speaks for Sondheim is in Georges Seurat, whose main quality as an individual is that he seems autistically obsessed by his work to the exclusion of everything else in his life. I doubt anybody would ever accuse Sondheim of autism - he comes across in interviews as superbly empathetic, but you could never get a sense of his personality from his characters - all you can tell is that they appear to him from places of infinite empathy and craft. 

Like Shakespeare and Mozart, no matter what intensity lies in store, except in Assassins, there is almost always a return home to balance. You're supposed to be cleansed and purged by catharsis, not driven mad with stimulation. Sondheim gives us an entire universe with no perceivable dogma or agenda, just an infinite-sided creative self that has no desire to do anything but bring the audience to a place of infinity. I don’t know if he will be remembered as our Shakespeare, our Tolstoy, our Michelangelo, but I can't imagine we’ll ever produce anyone better.

And yet, let's not forget, Sondheim only wrote the music and the lyrics to his shows. He clearly had an impact on his book writers like Hal Prince and James Lapine and Hugh Wheeler that raised the level of their work to altitudes they'd never surmount if not working with a genius, but still, Sondheim could never have written those books himself. And then, add to that, Sondheim's music is clearly nowhere near as impressive as his lyrics. He's a perfectly competent composer who like every great theater composer, knows exactly what every moment in the show needs, but to call it great music in the manner that Bernstein or Gershwin wrote great music is a disservice to the genius of all three.

If the second half of the twentieth century has a great creator at all in any art form in the world, it very well may be Stephen Sondheim, but his achievement is a collaborative one. You can't call him a Mahler or Michelangelo, a genius who works from sheer force of inspiration and iron will, he's a collaborative artist, a social animal who seems a reasonably pleasant person to work with - certainly at least pleasant when compared to Jerome Robbins, and he knows how to get the best out of whomever he works for, but the achievement as such is not entirely his. He's clearly fine with that, and so long as the result is as great as it is, I'm more than fine with that too. But clearly, men raised to the heights by the classical world - Leonard Bernstein or Jerome Robbins, were not fine with that at all.
What Bernstein and Robbins came to realize is that such collaborations are of greater quality than anything either of them could produce alone, and they clearly couldn't stand that thought. When their talents were pooled together, their collaborative efforts resulted in some of the greatest works Americans ever produced. But they both decided that they would rather be artists in the second rank of influence who went at it alone, because only alone could they challenge the greatest artists of former ages, and neither came even close. 

America doesn't do much to reward those introverted, asocial artists who create by themselves, so if you're trying to make art the way that Goya or Beethoven or Dostoevsky would, it's a real handicap. If you're an extraverted enough person to collaborate, you're probably extraverted enough to do well by self-publicity too. When you compare the classical compositions Leonard Bernstein did by himself - even the best of them, The Age of Anxiety or the Symposium, great as they are, have nothing like the earth-shaking impact of West Side Story or Candide at its best. Bernstein trained in a classical milleu that viewed Broadway with contempt for its concessions to popular taste, not realizing that popular music is the grist from which the greatest high art is made - some of which, even if nowhere near the majority, can most assuredly be made not by classical artists but by popular ones. 

Because the greatest art is not high art, it is high and low and middle and often all of them simultaneously. What do you think the reason is that Beethoven and Shakespeare still speak so directly to those who encounter them? Were it just lofty thought without simpler gardens on which they can grow their trees, the complexity of their work would never speak so directly. Classical and popular genres need each other, and neither will create nearly enough of value until they view each other with so much less suspicion than they currently do. If classical arts abandons the grounds of the people, it will be subsumed by demotic art which learns nothing from the lessons of older masters and retreats to the most basic stuff. But at certain cultural heights, whether in Elizabethan England, or Medici Italy, or Metternich's Vienna, or Eisenhower's America, there are moments when art is whole - the classical and the popular fuse together, and the result is that stuff which lasts for millennia after styles change so much that what is considered great in one era is unrecognizable to the next. 

Here's what would happen we really wanted to create better art, it would be a graduation requirement for classical musicians play in bands and clubs, and popular musicians would have to apply for a performance license in which they demonstrate classical-level instrumental competence before they're allowed to perform anywhere. Poets would be similarly required to write songs with music, and songwriters would have to learn how to write stand-alone poetry on the page and the rudiments of musical harmony before they graduate to song writing. Musical theater majors and method actors would be forced to act in Shakespearean verse, classically trained Shakespeareans would learn how to deliver one-liners in sitcoms. Hip-hop and ballet dancers and their choreographers would learn each other's trades. Novelists would learn to write graphic novels, and graphic novelists would have to take exhaustive creative writing courses and be required to learn how to paint with oils. This kind of interplay is what it means to have a dynamic artistic scene in which everybody interlinks. And this of course could bring us to a discussion of cultural appropriation, but I have a feeling we'll have to include that for a day with much more space for it. 

But this is the most important part of what made that great artistic moment in the 50's possible with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins and Orson Welles and Miles Davis and Ralph Ellison and JD Salinger and Tennessee Williams, classical and popular artists alike who clearly knew the other side of the ledger nearly as well as they knew their own - and yes, I know I mention Orson Welles too often, but no one glided between the two sides of art with anything like greater alacrity. 

When you think of that artistic golden age, if you really examine it, you realize that Hollywood, relatively speaking, was on the retreat. TV had eaten into a large share of the audience that was exclusively for Movies until after World War II. If movies wanted to make money, they needed to offer the kind of spectacle you couldn't get form a television with a six inch radius. 

Yes, a lot of great movies were being made in Hollywood during the 50's and early 60's, but they were fundamentally the B-listers. Hollywood was growing ever more decadent, more enamored of big productions and less enamored of aesthetic truth. Hitchcock could get no critical respect, Welles got no respect either from movie executives or from the box office. Some great movies were mild box office successes: Forbidden Planet, Ace in the Hole, American in Paris, Strangers on a Train, High Noon, Streetcar Named Desire, Singin' in the Rain, On the Waterfront, North by Northwest... But meanwhile, the real box office and prestige kings were epics: Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, Quo Vadis, War and Peace, The Robe, Around The World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Dimitrius and the Gladiators, Moulin Rouge, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Moby Dick, The Sound of Music, Cleopatra, Tom Jones, Hawaii, Spartacus, Exodus, The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings, Mutiny on the Bounty. At least the David Lean epics were as good as their reputation even if so many of the others were clearly not. Westerns like Giant and Shane were huge box office draws, but when John Ford, the king of Westerns, finally made his absolute bona fide masterpiece, The Searchers, it was considered so dark and disturbing that most everybody stayed away. Similarly was the fate of Billy Wilder's masterpiece of darkness, Sunset Boulevard. The fifties and early sixties were just not a time when Hollywood movies were reliably good. The box office receipts of Disney were strong as ever, but the quality was obviously declining. The only truly great movies that were also smash hits were Rear Window, and believe it or not, the great movies that had Marilyn Monroe in them: Some Like it Hot, The Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, because... well, come on, look at Marilyn Monroe...

If a middle class person of the fifties, averagely informed, wanted to experience something they knew might be transcendently good rather than mediocre, they had to buy the original cast album of a Broadway musical. And what musicals there were in that era! Starting with Carousel and South Pacific, and soon thereafter Kismet, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Candide, Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, The King and I, Damn Yankees, and of course, West Side Story; just over the hump in the early 60's - Fiddler on the Roof, The Fantasticks, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Hello Dolly, Camelot, Bye Bye Birdie, Sweet Charity in '66. You get the point. I know these lists are tiresome and can stop momentum in its tracks, but it's important to have these frames of reference, even if it's only so you can look them up as recommendations for what both lacks quality and more importantly, what has quality. 

So now, since I can't think of a better ending, let's just listen to the best song in West Side Story, when these two completely different sides of the work fuse together seamlessly in five-part counterpoint. It's a Mozart-worthy achievement, and when people talk about the American Sublime, here it is. 

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