It’s fitting that the month of March has had so much Sondheim love on broadwaybabyto.com – given that his birthday is March 22nd! To celebrate, there’s a very special event happening on March at Hugh’s Room which combines the art of jazz with Sondheim’s exquisite composition.
Entitled ‘The Sondheim Jazz Project’, the evening will feature Bobby Hsu along with Alex Samsaras and special guest vocalist Sophia Perlman. Together they tackle Sondheim’s music through beautifully re-arranged orchestrations that accentuate the unique jazz style while still telling the story behind his crafty lyrics.
This isn’t the first time Sondheim has been paired with jazz – recently the Lincoln Center in NYC combined the two mediums to create ‘A Bed and a Chair’ with Bernadette Peters and it was well received by critics. Hsu says he’s given himself a ‘longer leash’ for The Sondheim Jazz Project than what was allowed in ‘Bed and a Chair’ and has aimed to ‘remain true to the emotional through-line of each song in its dramatic context’.
He took a few minutes to speak with me about the project, about jazz and of course, about Sondheim:
For you personally, what was it about Sondheim’s music that made you want to combine it with jazz?
I describe myself these days as “a theatre queen trapped in a jazz musician’s skill set”. If I could sing and play piano, I’d be happy to do all these songs “straight”, but the only way I can participate in making this music is to adapt it to jazz. One of the things both Alex (Samaras, the singer) and I are fervent about is being advocates for Sondheim in the jazz idiom, rather than simply appropriating the tunes as source material.
On a musical level, Sondheim offers the chance to play surprising harmonies and challenging structures, all the things jazz players love, but with really strong, traditionally singable melodies and of course those lyrics!
Do you think most musical theatre lends itself well to the jazz genre or is there something specific about Sondheim?
Well, “most musical theatre” is a bit of a loaded phrase. There’s a big difference between show music before and after—to make an arbitrarily sharp boundary—the early seventies. The last show tune I can think of that has become a commonly played jazz standard is “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”.
I think there are (at least) three distinct periods for jazz adaptability: mid 20s to mid 40s, songs were written to sell as popular tunes, and popular music was closely related to jazz music of the time, so adaptability is nearly automatic. After the Oscar Hammerstein revolution, things get more difficult; “Mr Snow” from Carousel, for example, is a beautiful song with the sort of melody and harmony that jazz players like, but has such a long, through-written structure that it’s not practical to play as a jazz tune with improvised variations.
On the other hand, there are still plenty of songs from that era, like “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from My Fair Lady, that all jazz musicians know. Then, with Hair and Godspell and their aftermath Broadway songs had the structural complications that made them difficult to adapt, but without the common melodic DNA with jazz that made the difficulties rewarding.
I think what makes Sondheim interesting is that he’s anachronistic; retaining the melodic linearity and rhythmic variety of more traditional Broadway composers, but freed from the obligation to be popular, so that he can really explore non-traditional elements like dissonance, changes in meter, non-returning key movement, and of course more daring subject matter in his lyrics.
One of the rewarding things about this project is actually the ways in which Sondheim doesn’t lend himself easily to jazz adaptation. If you play a song by Jule Styne (my favourite pure tunesmith in Broadway history) people will just think they’ve heard a really beautiful song. But Sondheim songs aren’t so easily uprooted from their narrative contexts, and so they offer both the challenge and the payoff of having to tell a story using a musical idiom that didn’t evolve with that purpose. In our shows and on our album notes, we make a point of setting up the character and situation so that the audience is prepared to understand the song.
In the musical theatre canon we often hear that Sondheim is one of the most difficult composers to tackle – is it the same when re-interpreting him for the jazz world?
Yes and no; We’re not taking on the really hard ones—no “It’s Hot Up Here” from SITPWG!
Do you have a favourite Sondheim show and song?
How do you choose? My standard answer for favourite show is Company. Maybe that’s because I basically AM Bobby (sadly, minus the three girlfriends). Who knows what I’ll think as I enter my Frederick Egerman years, or my Buddy Plummer years? As for favourite song, that wanders from obsession to obsession, but at the moment “The Miller’s Son” from ALNM has held my obsession for a good long while!
Finally, can non-Sondheim fans and/or non-jazz fans (or both!) appreciate this show? What would be a good reason for a novice to come check you out?
Reason number one is the singer, Alex Samaras. He’s that rare combination of beautiful voice, great jazz phrasing and great dramatic expression of the lyrics. His singing is appealing in both very obvious and very subtle ways, and it projects the one quality I value most in song: open-hearted sincerity. It’s something of a miracle that I happened to meet Alex just as the concept of the band was stirring. As a bonus, Sophia Perlman will be joining us for several songs. Ask any jazz player in town what singer they admire most as a musician, and Sophia’s name comes up first.
For more information on The Sondheim Jazz Project or to purchase tickets please visit their official website: http://www.sondheimjazzproject.com