Where Have You Gone, Oscar Hammerstein?

Dec. 5 1997 3:30 AM

Where Have You Gone, Oscar Hammerstein?

From Show Boat to Sondheim is a long way down.

Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical From Show Boat to Sondheim
By Geoffrey Block
Oxford University Press; 410 pages; $35

(Continued from Page 1)

[I]n "You're the Top" Porter does not capitalize on the text's potential for realism. Although the "I" always appears in the bottom throughout most of the song, the "you" blithely moves back and forth from top to bottom. The upward leaping orchestral figure anticipates the word, "top," but the sung line does not, and at the punchline, "But if Baby I'm the bottom, / You're the top," both Billy and Reno ("I'm" and "You're") share a melodic line at the top of their respective ranges.

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P hew! That entire paragraph deserves a rousing chorus of "You're the Pits!"With his fixation on tops and bottoms, Block's beginning to sound like the gay personal ads in the Village Voice. Unlike Kern with his top paradoxically on his bottom, poor old Porter gets no credit for having his bottom paradoxically on his top. Block's so busy following the vocal score that he's not hearing the song. For nonmusicologists, that "upward leaping orchestral figure" he mentions is the bit that goes:

[Plink-plink!] You're the top!

[Plink-plinketty-plink-plink!] You're the Coliseum ...

Not only is "You're the Top" one of the few songs where the little orchestral fill-ins are an intrinsic part of the song but, more than that, the fill-ins actually are the song: The sung bits "paradoxically" are the fill-ins--little conversational lyric phrases that fall in the gaps between the plinketty-plinks. If you know that, good for you; if you don't, it doesn't matter. But how could you sit down and analyze the thing and fail to notice it? As to the bottoms winding up on top, as a self-contained composer/lyricist Porter knew enough to let a good strong lyric-thrust set itself. How could Block be so Block-headed as to think that "But if Baby I'm the bottom,/ You're the top" could possibly be improved by putting "I'm" and "bottom" on low notes? It's the (relative) musical monotony of the phrase that makes it so insistent, so driving, and such a brilliantly effective cap to the song. It's the punch line; it's the exclamation point. How sad that Block, for all his technical ability, can't hear that.

S o maybe we're better off with ol' man Emmons and the White House misattributing Hammerstein's work to dirt-poor cotton pickers and lonely goatherds than with Block's misguided praise. In great popular art, after all, you notice the art, not the artist. Which brings us to Block's final chapter: Stephen Sondheim. One reason "Ol' Man River" is a powerful, memorable lyric is that there's no rhyme until the eighth and 10th lines. Hammerstein rhymes when the song requires it--a lesson his pupil, Sondheim, has forgotten. In Into the Woods, the mother of Jack (as in the beanstalk) tells her son to sell the family cow because:

We've no time to sit and dither

While her withers wither with her.

We're back to the pre-Hammerstein era: you're distanced from the character because all you can hear is the voice of the author. Sondheim has given us plotless musicals (Company) and characterless musicals (Pacific Overtures) and pointillist musicals (Sunday in the Park With George) and musicals that go backward (Merrily We Roll Along), but for all the supposed range and depth and variety, what you mainly notice about these musicals is Sondheim. It's the triumph of the artist over the art: the man who knows more than anyone else about musicals except how to write one where you don't notice how much he knows; the one subject who repays Block's analytical approach if only because that seems his natural home. I think of "Good Thing Going," his wonderfully brooding ballad from Merrily, with its expert title resolution:

"We had a good thing going ...

Going ...

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