Show Me the Meter

Having enjoyed studying Stephen Sondheim’s two volumes of collected lyrics, I recently picked up Sondheim on Music by Mark Eden Horowitz, a book that seemed like it would address his music – the notes and rhythms – in a way that the lyric collections do not. It does indeed address the “musical” side of the music, and I have found the book fascinating, but frustrating as well. It is a transcript of video interviews made in connection with Sondheim’s donation of his manuscripts to the Library of Congress, the point being to try to give some clues that will help future scholars interpret the manuscripts. There is lots of interesting information here because Horowitz asks intelligent questions, but I longed for a more systematic exploration of his music. Furthermore, a big chunk of the book is given over to a listing/discography of Sondheim’s songs, something useful more for reference than musical insights. I must quickly add that the copy I have been reading is the first edition – there is a later revision that sounds more extensive in several ways, and I need to get a look at that second edition.

Not far from Sondheim on Music on the library shelves was On the Street Where I Live by Alan Jay Lerner. It is a memoir of the creation of My Fair Lady, Gigi, and Camelot. This is an enjoyable book, with plenty of fine anecdotes, but it’s relatively superficial, and you won’t learn from it the way you can from Sondheim’s books. I was struck by an assertion made by Lerner  that the agitated mood of “Show Me” from My Fair Lady is supported by the five-eight meter. What? Did I learn the song wrong, listening to my family’s LP of the cast album as a kid? I thought it was in a straight triple meter. Actually, the A sections of the song could work well in five, divided 3 + 2 — the bridge has to be in triple meter so the big hemiola across the barline can work. But a quick check of YouTube confirmed my recollection of the meter. Here are two unusual versions: Audrey Hepburn *not* dubbed by Marni Mixon:

then – a very unfair comparison – Julie Andrews doing the song on what I believe to be a special Ed Sullivan show devoted to Lerner and Lowe. In the book, Lerner speaks of this telecast as being the turning point for Camelot which only became a box office hit immediately thereafter. It’s interesting that Andrews plays rather free with the pitches in this version – listen to the semi-spoken effects (Rex Harrison’s influence?) and the glissandi at the ends of the lines of the A sections. It’s not sloppiness — I’m certain she could hit all the notes, just listen to the bridge, especially the first one.  I suppose it is more a function of having done the piece a million times between 1956 and 1962, the year of this clip — her interpretation had evolved into something that valued passionate gesture over pinpoint clarity of pitch. It’s a cliché to say it, but it remains a pity that Andrews is not in the movie version.

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