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But Don't Tell Sondheim!

Readers debate the necessity of "Momma, Look Sharp," "The Miller's Son," and other beloved (but tangential) show songs. logo

Rosalind Russel sings "Mr. Goldstone" to Ben Lessy
as Karl Malden looks on in the 1962 film of Gypsy
(Photo: Mel Traxel)
Some weeks ago, I posted Sally Parry's question to readers, "What songs would you drop from a show if you had the chance?" Or, to put it another way, "Which songs do you routinely skip when you're playing the cast album?"

Ms. Parry said that, for her, "The Miller's Son" from A Little Night Music and "Momma, Look Sharp" from 1776 were the first she'd trim. I was a bit surprised that she didn't say "Little Lamb," for there are so many musical theater enthusiasts who would part company with that tune (incorrectly, I insist).

The response was pretty brisk from readers, who suggested everything from "Autumn" from Titanic (Lauren and Susan Cassidy) to "A Little Bit of Good" from Chicago (Ronni Krasnow) to "Shipoopi" from The Music Man (Alan Kull). I'll report on what many others had to say on Friday, but today, I'm interested in sharing with you the pro and con opinions of those who were more interested in commenting on Sally Parry's assessments.

Frank Soldo: "Though I wouldn't want to offend the reader who strangely but bravely suggested cutting out 'Mamma, Look Sharp' and 'The Miller's Son,' I must say, 'Whooooooahhhhh'! I would especially question the loss of a song for Petra. The servants need more, not less in the show. And don't get me started with 'Momma, Look Sharp'! Oh well, too late! This is very important to 1776 as it gives the audience a real sense that a war is going on; that while men are writing history in Philadelphia, battles are being fought. By giving a young boy such a beautiful and emotional song, it really spotlights that this country's first true patriots are not just great men in wigs but young men who gave their lives for this country. My only quibble is that I sometimes wish the counterpoint were sung by Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson rather than the men, for they would represent all mothers with, 'And never again will you whisper to me, Momma, Look Sharp,' and their sense of loss would be that much more real and the emotional impact that much greater."

Frank Darmstadt: "'Momma, Look Sharp' never fails to move the audience. Even during the recent bargain-basement revival, you could hear a pin drop during it. Imagine how it must have been received during the original run at the height of the Vietnam War. As for 'The Miller's Son,' I love the song but have always felt it was performed too much as a show-stopper and not enough as a lament. The lyrics might be too sophisticated for Petra (although you can make that claim about all Dot's lyrics in Sunday). 'The Miller's Son' should come across as a bittersweet admission of what she dreams, though she knows darn well that all she will wind up with is a miller's son or a butler. As for 'Little Lamb,' this is an important song because it's the first time we get to see Louise by herself. The problem is not with the song but that there is not enough dialogue that separates it from 'Mr. Goldstone.' I would add more lines to the scene so that the audience can come down from 'Goldstone.' There should not be a dry eye in the house by the time 'Little Lamb' ends, for this is the first time the audience pulls for Louise and starts to fear/hate Rose."

Donald Butchko agreed: "'The Miller's Son' is extremely important, not only in illustrating many of the play's themes, but also showing that these themes were relevant to both the upper and lower class. 'Momma, Look Sharp' is essential in illustrating that the colonies were actually FIGHTING for independence, and that this fighting did come at a cost (which is one reason for those who oppose independence). And I don't understand why people deem 'Little Lamb' less relevant than the inferior 'Mr. Goldstone,' which gives far less insight into the characters than does 'Little Lamb.' It also wastes the actor playing Goldstone, for he simply sits there as everyone around him is singing. The moment when Rose is trying to confuse the hotel owner seems more worthy of musicalization."

Stephen Nathan as the Courier singing
"Momma, Look Sharp" in the 1776 film
Stuart Soloway: "I've always understood, but never agreed with, the discussion about 'Momma Look Sharp,' which is actually one of my favorite numbers in a show that I have always adored. 'Momma' gets across the same point that 'Maman' would have done had Mata Hari run. Maybe we all would have been behind the war for American independence, but there were just as many innocent teenagers killed in that war as there were in Vietnam."

Michael Ladenson: "I disagree about both 'Momma Look Sharp' and 'The Miller's Son.' It seems a tradition in musicals that a supporting character from a world other than that of the principals sings a big solo that puts the principals' concerns in a contrasting light, usually showing how silly they are compared to more urgent issues elsewhere. 'Sit Down, You're Rockin' The Boat' is another example of a number that comes out of left field from a character who is not a main mover of the plot, but would we ever want to be without it?"

Joe Meagor: "I too used to think "Momma, Look Sharp" was irrelevant to 1776. I don't anymore. The courier reminds us in song that war is actually going on and people are getting killed while the Congress merely piddles, twiddles and resolves. But I thoroughly agree about "The Miller's Son." Why should the maid get a song, especially at this point in the show?"

Jack Ryan agreed ("'The Miller's Son'" is always a good time to catch a nap") and so did Richard Joplin ("In an absolutely perfect evening, 'The Miller's Son' is the only false note. Three cheers for Sally Parry. I second the motion. Someone call Sondheim before the next revival!")

Agree with them or not, at least they took a stand and signed their names. But that wasn't true of literally 77% of the readers who wrote with opinions that questioned Sondheim's choices in Night Music and his other musicals; they asked that their names not be divulged, because -- I presume -- they dare not let people (or Sondheim himself) know that they could possibly disagree with Broadway's reigning genius. From one person who begged to be anonymous: "I love 'The Miller's Son,' but I've always wondered about it, too. It's legend that Sondheim is annoyed at his own lyric to 'I Feel Pretty' because it's too literate and clever for a young woman of Maria's class, so how does he allow Petra, a lower-class maid, to sing all these hyper-intricate rhymes and carry off that witty wordplay? And why, in Into the Woods, does he use 'rampion' in the Witch's rap? Am I the only one who had never heard of rampion until Sondheim used it in this lyric? Have you EVER seen rampion at your grocer's produce section? I'm assuming he only used it because it rhymes with 'champion' and it completed his 'R' alliteration with rutabaga, arugula, etc." (To which I say, indeed, I never heard of rampion until Sondheim used it, but I've since learned that it's mentioned in Rumplestiltskin. And I'll put my name to that.)

Seventeen readers said they didn't like "The Day Off" (a/k/a 'The Dog Song') from Sunday in the Park with George, but only three would own up to it: Dallas Street ("I've played George and I still don't know what to make of this song"), Steve Rosenthal ("This actually works all right in the theater, but I could easily live the rest of my life without listening to Mandy Patinkin bark"), and Louis Rosenthal ("It's the 'Dog' song both literally and figuratively.")

Mandy Patinkin and company enjoy "The Day Off" in the
Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George
Nine readers didn't approve of "Being Alive," but only Allen Neuner staunchly wrote, "And, to shock the Sondheim purists, 'Being Alive' puzzles the audience, and if the audience is puzzled about what the hero means when he's singing it, something's wrong. Saying you have to hear it multiple times to get the meaning is artistic snobbery. Sondheim should have been told to write a song that got the point across better. Isn't that why there are previews -- so that the audience can tell you what's working and what's not? Hal Prince was a Broadway vet, and Sondheim was Hammerstein's protegé -- didn't they learn?"

Six readers didn't like "Love, I Hear" and five disapproved of "Bring Me My Bride" (both from Forum), but only Kevin Daly (who panned both) would admit to the opinion. On another issue entirely, Mike Rhone said, "The people behind the current Into the Woods apparently think that 'Giants In The Sky' can be dropped, for it was at the performance I saw. I certainly don't agree, and wonder if Sondheim or Lapine will send me a check for $4.13 -- which is how much I figure the song is worth, based on a $95 ticket price and 23 songs listed in the Playbill." (To which I say, Pony up, Steve and Jim!)

But the final word goes to Robert McLaughlin, who says, "Sally Parry and I have been married for over 20 years, and we've been arguing about 'The Miller's Son' since we first met. I haven't given up changing her mind about it." (To which I say, well, Mr. McL, as we all know, it's the little things you do together.)


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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