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Stephen Sondheim’s Life and Works

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Born in 1930, Stephen Sondheim is one of the most well-known names in the musical theatre household, authoring many famous contemporary theatre standards such as Into the Woods (1986), Sweeney Todd (1979), and Company (1970). He learned much of his skill as a songwriter from Oscar Hammerstein II before he felt it was time to begin writing his own musicals, becoming something of an auteur in the process. Sondheim is still alive and working today, with recent projects including writing new music for the film adaptation of his musical Into the Woods (2014).

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1962) is Sondheim’s first big musical to be written almost entirely by himself (lyrics and music); the book was written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. As this is his first, though he begins to find the voice for which we would come to know him later, much of the music in the show feels heavily influenced by some of his mentors. For instance, the song “Lovely” feels especially Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-esque. The song has sweeping, lyrical melodies throughout, even if the lyrics themselves are far funnier. Given the comedic context of the musical, it would make sense if Sondheim were directly parodying his mentor’s style, since songs like “Free,” “Love I Hear,” and “Pretty Little Picture” all reflect his later work.

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Forum is about the central trio of Pseudelous, Philia, and Hero. Hero, the son of Senex and Domina, owns the slave Pseudelous, but promises him freedom in exchange for his help wooing Philia, the courtesan belonging to his next-door neighbor, who has sold her to another buyer. Pseudelous (the show’s main character) jumps through hoops to unite the two lovebirds, and by the end of the show and with a little help, he is successful in both wedding Hero and Philia and winning his own freedom.

Hero has been interpreted multiple ways by multiple performers; some treat him as a rather domineering character not unlike Pseudelous, while others have treated him more as a nervous virgin boy trying to find his first love. I see him more as a nervous virgin boy who’s trying to be domineering. Hero struggles with the very concept of love, showing us in his solo number, “Love I Hear,” both that he doesn’t know what love is and that he doesn’t know how to act on it, insisting soon afterwards, “Pseudelous, get me that girl!” And yet during “Lovely,” he chooses to sing with the confidence of someone who has had some experience, yet betraying some of the foolishness he displayed earlier with silly requests like, “Philia, say my name.” At his heart, I believe Hero is boyish but determined, intending on capturing his goal through the means at his disposal, namely Pseudelous. His plot relationship with Pseudelous is like a conflict enabler to the latter: Hero supplies the main character’s motivation and, in the end, controls his fate. This is a powerful role in the show, though Hero’s part is largely subdued compared to Pseudelous.

“Love I Hear” provides a lot of the evidence for Hero’s naiveté when it comes to love, so it follows that there isn’t much room for variation in the song, and the emotional spectrum seems to move from wistful to nervous, to somewhere in between. One performer in an Australian production (the YouTube video, http://youtu.be/9GKoyrbFdbg, provides no information about the performance), playing Hero, plays up the wistful side of the song, keeping the dynamics relatively level throughout the song (despite the line “forgive me if I shout”), speaking few lines without singing. The man performs with a smile on his face, gesturing in the opening verse as though imparting some kind of wisdom he’d just learned. Meanwhile, the 1996 Broadway Revival performance features Jim Stanek (http://youtu.be/r6fF8x6OdPQ), who speeds the song up and introduces a slightly more distraught voice as he is first analyzing the idea that he could be in love. He sings the song with more of a pop vibe, and sets the emotional point somewhere between wistful and nervous. He’s happy about being in love, but he still struggles with the idea, playing up the fear that he isn’t entirely sure what this means for him. Finally, Sam Brooks in his Masters recital (http://youtu.be/V7pvGB-H2Uw) embraces the character’s nervousness and portrays a character who is outright scared of the fact that he has no idea what’s going on. Speaking many of the lines, emphasizing the “squeak” at the end of the second verse (some performers do this, but not to Brooks’ extreme), tensing his gestures, shortening notes, speeding up certain sections, and treating his “sigh” of love more like a scream of terror, he speaks to the audience as though he is standing on a soapbox, warning passersby of the horrors of love.

And “Love I Hear” does confront those horrors, with its lyrics pertaining in places to the simultaneous sickness and wellness of the feeling, saying that love is, in essence, a bipolar feeling. These lyrics are open to interpretation, of course, but the song still feels rather wistful in general. The melodies are cheerful and lilting and the rhythm carries the notes through the wind before building to a climax that has Hero shouting, praying that he must be in love. For this song, one can picture a leaf falling from a tree, spinning in the air, swinging from side to side, and just before hitting the ground the leaf slows down and lands gently.

Hero’s other pieces are largely sideline roles next to the other characters featured in them—“Free” is much more Pseudelous’ piece than Hero’s, for instance. As Pseudelous muses on the very idea that he could be free, Hero provides the punchlines by repeatedly singing and speaking the words “free” and “I can see it/you.” The song is powerfully slow and marchlike, though rhythmic, with bizarre chords backing Pseudelous’ gradual realization as to the possibilities afforded by his freedom. “Lovely,” as stated before, is likely a subtle parody of Rodgers and Hammerstein, choosing lyrical but basic melodies for Hero and Philia to sing. The low chord progression and repetitive rhythm are clearly knocks on the compositional duo’s style, but thankfully, the song is over quickly. Here, Hero gets to try on his domineering hat, choosing to comfort Philia by saying she doesn’t need to be anything but lovely. Some performers will shift their vocal styles in an obvious homage to Rodgers and Hammerstein bass/baritone characters, opening the back of their mouths to create a deeper, fuller, more operatic sound. “Pretty Little Picture” is a more hopeful tune, jumping from note to melodic note like a stone skipping across a lake. Hero here sings along with Philia for the most part, their characters merged in the piece as the object symbolizing the imminent freedom of Pseudelous, the primary performer in the song. Here, the song is happy, though it ends on a rising arpeggio as though to invoke the question Pseudelous has been asking throughout the song: “Pretty little picture?”

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