Side by Side with Sondheim – Swoon and the Great American Musical

swoonpaddyI seem to be drifting into writing essays about the albums. I started with “Steve McQueen”, then “Andromeda Heights” and I’ve been musing about “Swoon” more recently.

And my view on that subject is that to fully understand “Swoon”, you really first have to understand “West Side Story”, and a bit about Sondheim, Bernstein and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

I love musicals. In my parents’ record collection, which I explored during summer holidays, was a selection of Rodgers and Hammerstein film soundtracks, bright technicolor sleeves with peeling cellophane, and I loved everything about them. They even smelled great, a sort of sweet electric vinyl smell with an impatient static crackle about them. And one of my favourites was “South Pacific”.

If you’ve never seen a production of “South Pacific”, give it a go – the film only hints at how great it is. It front loads so many incredible songs into the first section – you’ve got possibly one of the greatest songs about falling in love ever written, “Some Enchanted Evening”, THE archetypal show stopper, in the first ten minutes or so, and that follows “Twin Soliloquies” which is almost as good but sits unnoticed like that amazing Leonardo da Vinci painting that is right next to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and on and on through the first half, beautiful melodies, lovely words, wit, good humour and charm. The summit, for me, of Rodgers and Hammerstein, which was in itself building on the equally brilliant Rodgers and Hart partnership.

“South Pacific” was written in 1949, filmed in 1958.

So in 1957 “West Side Story” happened. Hold the idea of “Some Enchanted Evening” in your head, and watch this, the opening sequence of the film from 1961.

Imagine the revolutionary impact of that on the audience. Dissonant music. Stylised choreography. You’re used to beautiful songs and a conventional narrative, and here you are in a theatre on a night out, confronted with what’s happening on the streets outside, trying to figure out what’s happening and where this will lead.

As an opening sequence, it’s fully the equal of “South Pacific”. But it builds tension and a sense of feverish summer heat, menace, vast spaces of hot evening to fill with something, anything. It’s astonishing. And Stephen Sondheim hasn’t even joined the party yet.

Sondheim was a protégé of Hammerstein for a period, so he understood the form. He wanted to subvert it, to do things lyrically and musically that hadn’t been done. And he was working with Bernstein who wanted to change the impact of the music such that instead of being incidental it was wound through the warp and weft of everything. You come away from “South Pacific” with the idea you’ve seen a story with great songs. You come out of “West Side Story” with the music central in your thoughts.

And the combination was magical. Sondheim – not unlike Paddy when he talks about Swoon – professes embarrassment at what he had written, his awkward and self-conscious rhyming, but that is the perspective of someone who went on to write the most memorable musical theatre of the century. He even challenged “Some Enchanted Evening” with “Losing My Mind”. But honestly, you can safely ignore his opinion on his early work, anyone who progresses hates where they came from. There is so much I could bring out to show just how wrong he is, but I’ll just pick on two examples.

The first is “Something’s Coming”. It expresses perfectly that adolescent feeling of being just on the cusp of life starting, hopeful but impatient. And exuberant, with the best line in the entire musical for me, “Catch the moon, one handed catch” – all of the joy and frustration of being young in one brilliant and throw-away lyric. Stephen Sondheim. No-one better. And the music follows the form of the lyric throughout, it manages melody and dissonance deftly. If anything characterises “West Side Story” it’s that. The challenging form never obscures the beauty, you get jewel-like glimpses of the sublime through the existential clutter.

And then “A Boy Like That”, which is lyrically led and almost has no recognisable form, the rhythm goes all over the place, expressing anger, passion and then love and bitter acceptance.

Now if you haven’t drawn the parallel between “West Side Story” and “Swoon” yet, you need your ears waxed and an extended session in front of your parents’ radiogram.

I’d come into Prefab Sprout via “Langley Park”, and had picked up “Swoon” on the back of that. I remember being immediately challenged by it. It didn’t have the surface gloss of “Langley”. That in itself was interesting.

At the time, my hobby was electronics – modifying TV sets to pick up French TV broadcasts – and I had speakers in the kitchen where I worked connected to a record player in the living room. Because the electronics was very time consuming and I couldn’t be bothered walking backwards and forwards to switch records, I’d put one side or other of the record on repeat.

Which is of course fatal with Prefab Sprout. Because something will catch you and work its way into your soul. But I do remember at first being completely confused by this music, rather like I suppose the “South Pacific” audience was unsettled by “West Side Story”. It had no form, no choruses. The music and rhythm extended and morphed to accommodate the lyrics. Sometimes it was achingly melodic. Often it was dissonant and strange. Always it was intriguing. I fell in love with “Elegance”, I remember that, and I remember also looking at the sleeve notes and wondering just how the hell anyone could write this sort of music, how a band could learn it.

“Green Isaac”. Makes sense if you don’t think about it. It connects on some subconscious level, the idea of a sense of external insufficiency softened by the intimacy and responsibility of naming a child I suppose, but the words carry very little meaning in themselves. “Here on the Eerie” which makes a lot more sense literally as a complaint against the right on, but is wrapped in a strange mixture of rhythmic music and then sweeping melody. “Cruel” which is in many senses quite conventional, but uses a strange slang all of its own, “root”. And the “words are trains” line in “Couldn’t Bear” which hits you like a thunderclap and is the one you go back to over and over again. Paddy catching his own moon with a leaping one handed catch.

So you have that landing in a post punk world where the year zero brick had been thrown into the pond, the old guard swept away in the resulting splash, and where we were looking around to find interesting things to reconnect with. In that world, the influences of soul, reggae and disco were ever present and there was a conventional sound and sensibility emerging. So “Swoon” was very different, idiosyncratic. It had an impact if not of the magnitude of the “West Side Story” prologue at least in the same sort of direction.

Paddy is on record of course in saying that “West Side Story” is one of his favourite albums, and he must have known it since he was quite a small boy so it’s not difficult to see how it worked into his influences. The doomed love affair of “Romeo and Juliet” does seem to be deeply a part of his psyche too, it comes up a lot. Then there’s the wonderful story about when he turned up on the bus in front of his mother, filthy and dishevelled, and just before parental wrath earned him a slap he grinned and sang “You’re so pretty” to his mother and charmed her presumably into a tear, muddy hug, and reluctant smile.

That song, incidentally, is one of the more conventional in the piece, it’s very similar to “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy” from “South Pacific”, could fit into “My Fair Lady” without a great deal of difficulty, and Sondheim professes great embarrassment at the “It’s alarming how charming I feel” line. He’d probably love to go over and do it again.

Just like Paddy would like to do with “Swoon”. If there’s one constant over thirty odd years, it’s Paddy’s desire to re-do “Swoon”. He talks about it in just about every other interview.

And just like Sondheim’s view on “West Side Story”, the correct reaction to that is to nod sagely to avoid an unnecessary argument, and to point him in a different direction for the next part of the discussion. Because both works are incandescently brilliant. Flawed, yes, but masterpieces, and in some respects unequalled in later work.

The strength of youth. Something was indeed coming, and it was gonna be great.

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