Fingerstyle Folk Sondheim: A Sound We Didn't Know We Needed – American Theatre

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On a new record, singer Eleri Ward reclaims Sondheim’s melodies from his thorny harmonies, creating something new that’s also true to the original.
“Which generally comes first, the words or the music?” the songwriter Charley Kringas is asked in the musical Merrily We Roll Along. And though Charley answers the question snarkily, in a dig at his money-minded partner, Franklin Shepard, “Generally, the contract,” that musical’s composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, has made crystal clear what comes first when he’s crafting a song: the accompaniment figure. Think of the blaring suspended guitar chords that kick off “Company,” or the churning baroque ostinato that opens “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” or the typewriter clatter of the song referenced above, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” To an extent unique among his musical theatre peers, Sondheim’s music is driven by these underlying patterns and the cross-stitched harmonic counterpoint they create.
As Sondheim told Stephen Schiff in a possibly overly influential New Yorker piece in 1993, “If I had to pick the single most important element that can allow me to go forward in a song, it would be neither the melody nor the refrain line nor any lyric. It’s the accompaniment. It’s what’s going on inside the music. Any melodic line can be harmonized in twenty-seven different ways, and harmony is, in fact, the fingerprint of musical style. That’s how you tell a Gershwin song from a Kern song, or how you tell Beethoven from Schubert.”
True enough as far as it goes. But might Sondheim be selling his melodies short—implicitly agreeing with those, Schiff included, who find his songs thorny and untuneful? I’ve long thought he’s been criminally underrated as a composer, if not a melodist, particularly compared to forebears like Richard Rodgers or even peers like Jerry Bock. But an incandescent new record by the singer and guitarist Eleri Ward, A Perfect Little Death (now out on Ghostlight Records), has made me reconsider this question. Because what she’s done is not just reharmonize many of Sondheim’s songs, as pop and jazz and even gospel artists often do when they cover them outside the walls of a theatre; Ward has come up with her own accompaniment figures, in a free-flowing finger-picking style familiar to any coffeehouse habitue (and many beginning guitarists, frankly). And while some of her arrangements hew close to Sondheim’s harmonies—on the album’s counterintuitive but ideal opener, “Johanna (Reprise),” or her exquisite rendition of “In Buddy’s Eyes”—many of them diverge, from a brooding minor-key take on “Finishing the Hat” to a strophic, layered version of “Children Will Listen.”
What comes through in nearly all of Ward’s renditions, though, is an emotional effect eerily close to the originals, as well as something genuinely new. Somehow the swirling counterpoint of her acoustic guitar figures and her finely etched vocals manage to create an alternative-universe Sondheim, where all the melancholy and equivocation, all the vulnerability and yearning, of his music is channeled convincingly through a different genre. Indeed it is not really all that difficult to try the thought experiment of imagining A Perfect Little Death as marking the emergence of a brilliant new singer/songwriter, albeit one prone to modal scales and preoccupied with death and regret.
Someone like indie folk star Sufjan Stevens, perhaps? Ward has claimed him as her touchstone for both the guitar and vocal arrangements on A Perfect Little Death, even for a time using the bandonym Suf/Sond, but honestly the Stevens connection sounds a bit tenuous to anyone who’s followed either acoustic guitarists of the last 50 years, or Sufjan Stevens for more than a single album. Indeed, I mean it as a compliment when I say, as I did when I spoke with Ward about the origins and process of her album, that I hear Joan Baez or Joan Shelley as much as I do Sufjan in A Perfect Little Death.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I just can’t believe no one’s really done this before, except with a stray cover here or there. (Note: There’s a kid on YouTube, Micah Nicol, who has some lovely guitar arrangements of Sondheim.) Not even Judy Collins, who did a famous cover of “Send in the Clowns”—she could have done it in her signature folk guitar style, but instead she did it fully orchestrated. I have to admit I’m not hearing the Sufjan association super-strongly; I just hear what you’re doing as fingerstyle folk. I remember Liaisons, an album and project where the pianist Anthony de Mare commissioned composers to do pieces inspired by Sondheim, and Steve Reich’s “Finishing the Hat” is honestly closer to what I’d imagine a Sufjan-esque Sondheim would sound like.
ELERI WARD: I totally agree. When it comes to the Sufjan aspect, I cull primarily from Carrie & Lowell as an inspiration point; that is my favorite Sufjan Stevens album by far. My other favorite is Age of Adz, which is more that crazy experimental sound.
Right, I guess I just don’t think of him as having a monopoly on fingerstyle guitar, or as being known primarily for that. But your inspiration is your inspiration, I won’t question it. Tell me about how you came up with these arrangements.
I have played piano my whole life, and it wasn’t until 2015 that I started learning the guitar, teaching myself, when I was going into my second year with an emphasis in songwriting at Boston Conservatory. I was just feeling stuck on the piano, like I hit a plateau with it. I was like, “Well, my friend is selling her guitar, I’m gonna buy it and see what happens.” I knew how to play a G chord and a C chord, and from there it just opened up a totally different voice in me, both physically and metaphysically. It made me change my songwriting, it changed my singing voice.
It took me a long time to start finger-picking; I was so scared to try it. My journey with the finger-picking is all just experimenting with it, finding certain patterns that feel comfortable in my hands. It wasn’t until I made the album that I actually started layering the picking patterns, and that’s where I got a lot of my inspiration from Sufjan. Those layered parts are some of my favorite arrangements of his. So I was like, if that’s one of my favorite things, why not try doing it myself? I definitely pushed myself to try more new patterns on this album than I ever really thought to write.
You can see the progression. I think the first song you did was “Every Day a Little Death.” The video is still up, and I can see your hands making basically just three chord shapes. And somehow that song works beautifully that way—even the bridge!
I’m telling you, I don’t know how to play guitar. I just do what feels good and sounds right.
You do a few other songs that don’t require a lot of chords: “Johanna (Reprise),” “Sunday.” But by the time you get to “In Buddy’s Eyes”—that’s a whole arrangement, and remarkably true to the original.
My boyfriend is really good at guitar, and he was like, “You need to learn barre chords,” and I was like, “I’m scared, my fingers are weak.” He’s the one who really pushed me and taught me barre chords, and I did and it was like, “Okay, these Sondheim arrangements I thought I couldn’t do, now I can. Now I have to push myself to do new ones.” “In Buddy’s Eyes” was a really hard one to figure out where it landed, but I just kind of allowed it to unfold as it came. That’s true for all of the arrangements. I never forced anything. If it wasn’t happening in the moment, then I would come back to it another day.
Did you base these arrangement on scores, or was it all by ear?
By ear.
It’s stunning, honestly. I was struck by how you handle the bridges in “Every Day a Little Death” and “Finishing the Hat”—I had to go back to the scores to see how much you changed the harmony, though you really don’t touch the shape of the melodies.
I mean, I was that kid who stumped my piano teacher—I was just listening to what she would play, not reading the music. My mom caught on and told her, “You can’t play the tune for her beforehand or she’ll just play it back.” I did learn to read music, but I’m mostly an ear-based musician.
Can you tell me about your history with these songs?
They were just sort of around, because I did theatre as a kid, but it wasn’t until high school when my two department heads, Andy Robinson and Pat Rusk—they always did a Sondheim show or Sondheim scene study. I’m really happy about that, because it was my way of falling into a whole new world of musical theatre that I hadn’t experienced before. Sondheim’s music has a darkness about it that just doesn’t match up to any other thing in the theatre to me. So I was like, “Oh, musical theatre can be this.” That blew my mind at 14 years old.
What your record makes me hear in a new way are Sondheim’s melodies. There’s a strain of thought, which he shares, that his music is all about the accompaniment figures and the harmonies, and that melody is often secondary. What your versions show, by creating different accompaniment figures but keeping the shape of the melodies, is that there’s still an essence in there, even when your harmonies diverge from his. I feel like you’ve kind of reclaimed his melodies in a way, and made them work as sort of sad indie folk.
Listening to you say that I’m like: Yeah, I am a melody-driven person when it comes to my own writing and when I listen to songs. To me that is like the skeleton of a song: the words and the melody that supports them, and the rest can support that in whatever way. It’s kind of the inverse of his perspective, and I hadn’t thought of that because it’s just how I think of it.
Supposedly a great melody, and this is true of a lot of Rodgers’s songs, can stand by itself without accompaniment. Sondheim’s melodies are weirder than Rodgers’s, certainly, but it turns out they’re also quite strong. Having steeped myself in your rendition, I found myself singing “Take Me to the World” a cappella the other day; I just don’t think I’d ever thought of doing that before. His songs can seem less approachable than others’.
I think that is perhaps the crux of what I wanted to experiment with. Like, if I decontextualize these songs, not only from their plot and their characters onstage, but their orchestrations and arrangements, what kind of life can they live? Can these characters play? These are amazing songs. They have the capacity to live many lives.
He’s also got moments of harsh dissonance you mostly avoid, though I did notice a little pinging discord at the end of “Pretty Women” that hints at the original.
When I first made the recording, I played it for my boyfriend and he was like, “The ending sounds weird.” And I was like, “Good.”
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre. [email protected]
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