Criticism doesn't equal hate.
By Gregory Jacobs-Roseman
It’s the ides of March today, and while you’re not totally just stabbing Caesar a different kind of widely perceived assassination – albeit a character assassination and not a literal one – occurred this past Friday when Playbill dropped an article highlighting quotes from a new interview with Stephen Sondheim (blessed be he) where he called Lady Gaga’s performance of a Sound of Music medley at this year’s Oscars a “travesty.” Fridays being my day to post to Crazytown, I had already filed my week’s article before this little morsel dropped, so I am taking this rare Sunday opportunity to address the story head-on (and no, I will not be talking about the sex dungeon quote. I don’t care if Sondheim does or does not have a sex dungeon – which according to him, he doesn’t, and I take him at his word. Either way, it’s none of my business). I feel I must do so after getting into a Facebook comment war yesterday with people I’ve never met over this issue. It is my belief that anyone who reads the entire quote in context can see that Stephen Sondheim was not hating on Lady Gaga, but rather addressing a serious point about how music written for the purpose of storytelling should be addressed from a performance perspective.
I want to start by pointing out that the Playbill.com article (which can be viewed here) was merely a selection of quotes from an article published in The Times of London. That article is not available online for free so most of what people on social media had to go on were these lifted quotes and not the full text. Being the intrepid Sondheim super-fan that I am, I paid for a monthly subscription to The Times so I could read the article in full, and when you have the complete picture of what Sondheim was talking about, the quote is a lot less mean-spirited than many have perceived it to be. More on that in a minute.
Lady Gaga at the 2015 Oscars.
When I heard Lady Gaga perform that Sound of Music medley at the Oscars I thought she sounded thrilling. I tweeted enthusiastically in all caps: IS THERE ANYTHING LADY GAGA CAN’T DO?!?!? I’ve heard her sing pop, folk, jazz standards (I adore her work with Tony Bennett), and now she entered using legit head-voice. “Wow.” I thought, “listen to her! She has such range!” Vibrato and pure vowels! Perhaps she’s mimicking Julie Andrews a little, but I was still impressed. It was a five-minute segment in a three-hour-plus awards show, but all I took away from the performance was how astonishing it was to hear her sing Rodgers and Hammerstein.
IS THERE ANYTHING LADY GAGA CAN'T DO?!?!? #ctownoscars— Greg Jacobs-Roseman (@GJRoseman) February 23, 2015
Side note: I've never liked how Rodgers set the word "eyelashes" musically in "My Favorite Things." Eye-LASH-es? No one says that word like that. It's EYE-lash-es.
The following day there was the anticipated backlash on Facebook from some of my musical theatre-inclined friends. You get used to knowing and loving hyper-critical and opinionated friends when you work in the theatre. She was too ‘this’ or she was too ‘that’ or – whatever. I tuned it out. We got a musical theatre medley in an environment usually hostile to the form that was watched by millions, and that was enough for me.
Then the interview with Sondheim dropped, and the debate heated up again. Internet articles about the article appeared on my newsfeed with headlines along the lines of: “SONDHEIM SAYS LADY GAGA A TRAVESTY.” But then I read the quote and realized that such headlines couldn’t be more misleading. Sondheim was acknowledging that she displayed vocal “versatility” and that's what the audience – myself included – enjoyed. But her lack of emotional connection to the material is what he was bemoaning. Sondheim has often said that he prefers “actors who sing” over “singers who act” and there’s a reason for that, because in musical theatre the songs are there to serve the story, not the other way around like arias in an opera. This critique made total sense to me. You can’t just sound good, you have to connect to the text and music as well.
Apparently speaking ill of Gaga is treasonous to many gays of my generation.
“Arrogant!” more than one person commented on one Facebook thread I mistakenly got involved with yesterday, “cranky,” remarked another, “conceited,” or my favorite: “he’s just pissed Into The Woods went home empty-handed” – anyone who knows anything about Stephen Sondheim knows that he has no fucks left to give about any of your stupid bowling trophy awards. From the full Times of London article (which the Facebook commenter I just mentioned might have seen if Playbill was able to do more than pull quotes from the article for their post):
Into the Woods didn’t victoriously sweep awards season, but Sondheim thinks “very little” of that. “Awards matter when you’re young. They give you confidence. Most come when you’re older when it’s too late. The ones that have real meaning come with money.”
So, as you can see I went to the Times of London’s website and purchased a subscription so I could see the whole original article for myself. I’ve seen a lot of interviews with Mr. Sondheim, I’ve listened to him give many lectures, and on one glorious afternoon in graduate school he gave a master class at the Dramatists Guild just for my NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program class (it was, in a word: amazeballs). But in all the times I’ve heard him speak, I’ve never heard the man raise his voice or say anything in a cantankerous, angry, or caustic manner while on the record – so the idea that he might do so now seemed incredibly out of character and rather suspicious to me. I had to read the original source where the quote came from to know exactly what was going on with these secondary internet posts.