The Road Not Taken

images-4The past and the present collide in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. The 1971 Broadway musical centers around the final reunion of former chorus dancers of “Weismann’s Follies,” a fictitious revue suggesting the real-life Ziegfeld’s Follies. The two aging couples, Buddy and Sally and Benjamin and Phyllis, have returned to reminisce before the crumbling, old theater in which the Follies once played is demolished. Amid disappointment and unhappy marriages, a sense of lament pervades the story. The ghosts of their younger selves, played by separate actors, occupy the stage around them. Follies is a show about memory, the passage of time, regret, and the fleeting optimism of youth.

The Road You Didn’t Take examines the philosophy expressed in Robert Frost’s famous poemThe Road Not Taken, from a different angle. In Sondheim’s song, Ben brushes aside thoughts of what might have been (“You take one road, You try one door. There isn’t time for anymore. One’s life consists of either/or”):

But listen carefully and you might sense irony lurking under the surface. As Sondheim explains,

It is a man saying, “oh, I never look back on the past, it just wouldn’t be worth it.” And he’s doing it to con himself as well as the lady he’s with [Sally, whom he has not seen in years]. In point of fact, he’s ripped to shreds by the past.

The stabbing “wrong” notes and the restless Steve Reich-like vamp, which leaves little time for true reflection, offer clues to Ben’s unsuccessful self delusion. The Road You Didn’t Take is full of sudden, unexpected key changes and wide melodic leaps. Rather than contemplating a new direction, we suddenly find ourselves thrust onto a new road. Harmonically, the song occasionally hints at the hazy, impressionist language of Ravel (0:15).

Another Follies song which is filled with irony and self-delusion is In Buddy’s Eyes. Sally describes the love she and Buddy feel for one another. Meanwhile, their marriage is disintegrating.

The previous example was sung by George Hearn. This one features Barbara Cook:

A Question of Timing

images-3Timing is an important element in music as well as comedy. A great comedian knows how to build up to the punch line of a joke . Similarly, great composers have an intuitive understanding of proportion in music. They know how long to repeat an idea before moving on. They allow the music to unfold organically in a way that seems “right”, as if the piece is composing itself.

As musicians, we also have to consider timing. How are the notes working together to create a phrase, or musical sentence? How long should a note be stretched? Should the music sit back on the beat or have a sense of being right on top of the beat? How do we group notes to create a sense of flow? James Morgan Thurmond wrote an interesting book on this subject called Note Grouping: A Method for Achieving Expression and Style in Musical Performance.

Top instrumentalists and pop artists alike have mastered the art of timing. Listen to the way the young Michael Jackson shapes each syllable in a flowing and expressive way in the The Jackson 5’s 1970 hit, “I’ll Be There.” His performance coveys a natural and powerful sense of timing, right down to the release of each “there” in the repetitions of the chorus at the end of the song. Or listen to Broadway legend Barbara Cook shape the lyrics in Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.” 

Violinist Isaac Stern summed up the importance of timing the following way in an interview: [quote] “Music in essence is what is happening between the printed notes, not on the notes themselves. How in that milli-milli-millisecond of time in going from one note to another note do you do what you do? Instinctively, thoughtfully, with head, heart, taste, and talent.”[/quote]

Watch Abbot and Costello’s famous “Who’s On First?” routine. Think about how it may be similar to the flow, development and timing of a musical performance. The routine centers around the confusion which ensues when players on a baseball team happen to have unusual last names such as “Who”, “What”, and so on…