Friday, 26 March 2010

Happy 80th birthday, Stephen Sondheim!

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Last week I listened to Radio 3's Composer of the Week series on Stephen Sondheim. I have strayed from the true path in recent years, but this series has reminded me how much I love some of his writing.

Stephen Sondheim and I have a long history. I first became aware of him when I was a teenager. I listened to "Songs from the Shows" on Sunday evenings on Radio 2, and had a huge crush on the - I think - sexy voice of the presenter (David Kernan). The first cast recordings I bought - because I knew he was in them - were "Side by Side by Sondheim" (which I still love) and the Original London Cast (OLC) of "A Little Night Music." The first song of Sondheim's that I remember falling in love with was the beautiful "Take me to the World" from the little known "Evening Primrose."

From there, I became completely obsessed. If you look at the contents of my ipod now, you would find quite a variety of classical, pop, audiobooks and musicals. But when I was at university I was a Sondheim purist and hardly ever listened to anything else (my husband would have hated it - he is highly musical adverse, and I've never managed to get him past the opening song of "Sunday in the Park with George").

I am not a musically technical person, so I came to Sondheim through loving his lyrics. I normally find it hard to cope with the saccharin sweetness and cloying sentiment of many musicals - but Sondheim's musicals tend to have a healthy cynicism, intelligence, and a strong vein of (sometimes black) humour.

Sometimes with Sondheim a love song is not a love song - or is not just a love song. Things are more complicated when in context. "Not While I'm Around" is a beautiful song ("Nothing's gonna harm you / Not while I'm around"), and yet in "Sweeney Todd" it is subverted when Mrs Lovett reprises the song to try to convince Tobias that he is safe (he really isn't). While walking to work today I listened to "Assassins," which has a love duet called "Unworthy of Your Love." The man and woman in this song are not in love with each other, however - one is John Hinkley, who is singing about his obsession with Jodie Foster (which contributed to his attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan), and the other is Lynette Fromme who tried to assassinate Gerald Ford (and she is singing of her love for mass-murderer Charles Manson). Even if you aren't aware of the context, the song itself is uncomfortably fervent - in context it is downright creepy and disturbing. I love that things are not always as straightforward as they seem.

I've seen a few of his shows on stage, but I'm very excited that we are going to New York next week and we are going to see "A Little Night Music" on Broadway. It's starring Angela Lansbury - which I am excited about as a Sondheim fan, and as someone who loved "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" as a child.

I'm now a bit torn between thinking if you get to 80, maybe you should have the right to retire - but I'm also thinking that it would be great to see a new Sondheim show. He seems to have spent an unconscionable amount of time flogging an idea about the Mizner Brothers, which I have never really taken to in any of its incarnations. I'd love to see him work on something new....

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Book review: "It's Only a Movie," by Mark Kermode

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I can sometimes be seen walking around town with an enigmatic expression on my face. This is the face of someone who is listening to a podcast on her ipod and trying not to randomly laugh aloud like a crazy person.

This is largely due to my discovery of two podcasts. The first is an American podcast called "Stuff You Should Know." It is courtesy of an episode of this podcast that I listened to recently on the subject of aphrodisiacs that I now know that men have a 5% increase in blood flow in response to the smell of pizzas. And incidentally both sexes have a strong sexual response to the smell of pumpkin pie. Apparently.

The second podcast was discovered by my husband (and this is where I start to get to the point). This is my current favourite - the BBC Radio 5 Live film review podcast of Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode. This podcast normally comes out on Fridays, and I am always impatient to hear it. I have rapidly become obsessed with Mark Kermode. He is fascinating to listen to because he is so obviously knowledgeable and passionate about cinema - and this enthusisiasm comes through on the radio in the articulacy (and excitable speed) of his speech. This is akin to the reasons why I love Germaine Greer - it is completely absorbing to listen to someone intelligent who speaks with such enthusiasm about their subject.

So I was very happy when my husband gave me Mark Kermode's new book for Valentine's Day. I have shelves of books that I intend to read and haven't yet - but this one skipped to the top of my pile immediately.

Mark Kermode uses the framing conceit that he is writer, director, editor, cinematographer, consultant, composer and executive composer of a version of his own life. The word "version" is particularly pertinent - this is by his own admission an unreliable account because events in his head are skewed to become more cinematic. His is maybe an extreme case of this, but it is probably familiar to anyone who watches lots of films or is an avid reader - or even just someone who tinkers with relating something that has happened to them to produce a better anecdote. And, if we are honest, I think probably everyone does that to some degree - but few of us get the chance to have our edited lives broadcast on the radio or published.

This is a book that I would recommend to someone who is enthusiastic about films, but it also has a strong vein of humour that might appeal even to people who aren't big film fans. There were a couple of instances which made me laugh aloud, and it is not often that a book does that (when it comes to reading, I am more of a silent appreciator of humour). My highlights were his experience of watching "Mamma Mia" - with an impressive attempt to render Pierce Brosnan's singing style in print - and a less than positive encounter with Dame Helen Mirren.

Mark Kermode's views on film are outspoken and opinionated, and he writes that"..if you're not annoying half your audience at least half of the time, then frankly you're just not trying." I don't mean this as a criticism - his passion and outspoken beliefs are something that I like about him. This book didn't annoy me any of the time - it is entertaining, funny and made me want to watch more films.

I'd also recommend a female equivalent to this book - Antonia Quirke's "Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers." Hers is also a life seen through the prism of films - and in her case an obsession with male film stars. It was like spending an evening with a female friend and a glass of wine, gossiping about life, films and men.

P.S. I already have a book lined up to replace this on my multiple reading list. It is about a bibliophile and it is called "Outside of a Dog." I am already predisposed to like this book because:
A) It's about books (duh!)
B) Its title comes from one of my favourite Groucho Marx quotes, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."
C) Part of the cover design shows a drawing of a dog, wearing glasses, with an open book in front of him. It is impossible not to like a book that has a bespectacled dog on the cover.