Everything Old is New Again
Pastiche. It's a word you've probably come across in your musical studies. But what makes something "pastiche" and how should it be approached by the performer? To put it simply, a pastiche musical is one in which the music is written to imitate an older artist or genre. It's a concept that fascinates many and a tricky thing to pull off. After all, it's no easy feat to produce a score that can evoke a particular era or musical style so strongly and yet, as the composer, maintain your own unique compositional voice. Stephen Sondheim is particularly good at this. In Assassins for instance, Sondheim presents a collection of seemingly disparate pieces (each of which evokes the era of its particular assassin) and yet the score itself functions beautifully as a single cohesive unit. Numbers such as "How I Saved Roosevelt" are particularly effective when it comes to that odd blend of old and new. Sondheim borrows extended melodies from the marches of John Philip Sousa - giving it that turn of century Americana flair - but harsh interjections from our assassin, Giuseppe Zangara, modernize the overall feel of the piece.
"How I Saved Roosevelt" from Assassins by Stephen Sondheim
To the performer, pastiche offers a different set of challenges for the actor must not simply study their own part but must also demonstrate an understanding of the older styles upon which the show is based. To get a sense for how an actor can approach such a role, let's look at another pastiche score: Follies.
Follies is the story of a group of old friends, one-time actors in "Weismann's Follies," who have come together for a reunion in an old Broadway theatre scheduled for demolition. Throughout the show, composer Stephen Sondheim pointedly imitates the music of the 1920's and 30's. Thus, as the characters reminisce about the olden days, the score directly evokes the era of the Follies themselves and the music of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, and George Gershwin among others.
In some cases the pastiche treatment is more extreme than with others. For example, in the case of "Losing My Mind," Sondheim admits, "Musically, this was less an homage to, than a theft of, Gershwin's 'The Man I Love,' complete with near-stenciled rhythms and harmonies." 1 Additionally, Sondheim reveals that the lyrics are written more in the style of Dorothy Fields.
Armed with this information, the logical next step for the performer is to study the original. How has Sondheim evoked the sound and feel of Gershwin's famous ballad? And how might that inform your performance of "Losing My Mind?"
"The Man I Love" by George and Ira Gershwin, performed by Ella Fitzgerald
For comparison: "Losing My Mind" from the Original Broadway Cast Album of Sondheim's Follies
Let's start with a wide lens. The general shape of these two pieces is the same, each following an AABA form (verse, verse, bridge, verse). This is pretty standard for the music of the 1920's. Each section is 8 bars long for a total of 32 bars. This too, is standard procedure. Moreover, Sondheim clearly indicates that "Losing My Mind," like its Gershwin inspiration, is a torch song. This in itself should keep the performer busy for the torch song genre is a rich one, and a study of performance practices connected to the genre will certainly enhance the performance.
Rhythmically, the two pieces have much in common. This, truly, is where we start to feel a kinship between the pieces. Listen to the phrasing of the original. The phrases here are short (one measure apiece) and punctuated by chord changes. It is the brevity of these phrases that packs such an emotional punch. Compare the phrasing of the two pieces:
(Chord) Someday he'll come along (Chord) The sun comes up
(Chord) The man I love (Chord) I think about you
(Chord) And he'll be big and strong (Chord) The coffee cup
(Chord) The man I love (Chord) I think about you
Notice, too, the repetition of the second phrase in each. "The man I love" and "I think about you" appear again and again, evoking a sense of melancholy upon each reiteration.
Sondheim also indicates that the harmonies of "Losing My Mind" are borrowed directly from "The Man I Love." However, here we run into a snag. I hesitate to contradict the king of musical theatre himself, but I must admit I think it's a bit of a stretch to claim that the Follies number contains "near stenciled ...harmonies." The harmonies are perhaps similar, but certainly not identical. The two pieces do however have some important features in common including a tendency to borrow harmonic ideas from blues and jazz. Let's break it down.
"The Man I Love" begins in the key of E♭ Major. We start with an E♭ chord (our friendly
tonic), tack on a 7th, and then transition to an E♭ minor 7th. Next we have B♭ minor, C major 7, and F half diminished 7 (Alternatively, this could be written as an Ab minor 6, but the notes are the same). That progression from B♭ minor to the half diminished chord is particularly interesting since the whole progression is essentially borrowed from a different key (F minor) and acts as a pre-dominant - dominant - tonic progression in F minor before leading us back to E♭ major with a clear V-I motion (B♭7 - E♭).
Compare this to the opening bars of "Losing My Mind," set in the key of A♭ Major. The chords here progress from A♭ major to A♭ augmented to inverted A♭ major (with an added 6th) and then another A♭ major but this time with a 4-3 suspension and the 9th and 7th on top. Then we have D♭ major 7, C minor in first inversion, another D♭ major 7, and then an E♭ major 7 to round it off. It sounds complicated, but the important thing to note is that rather than borrow from a minor key to jazz it up as Gershwin did, Sondheim instead relies on a lot of added tones (like the 7th and 9th sitting on top of that A♭ chord) to give the number that bluesy feel. Consider, also, the first four bars, all of which contain a variation on the A♭ major chord, but with so many inversions and layered tones that each measure feels like a new harmonic idea.
The really fun thing here is how Sondheim has mimicked the leading tone progression established by Gershwin. If you look at the accompaniment for "The Man I Love," you'll see that there is a definite melodic motion in the accompaniment leading us downwards. Starting with the very first measure, Gershwin very clearly and intentionally moves from G to G♭ to F to E♮ to E♭ to D and finally back up to E♭. I would argue that this descending half step motion is the defining harmonic characteristic of the piece.
What about Sondheim's version? We've already established that the chords of "Losing My Mind" bear little resemblance to Gershwin's beloved standard. How then can we justify Sondheim's claim of "near-stenciled" harmonics? The answer is in this seemingly inconsequential half step progression. You see, "Losing My Mind" mimics Gershwin's harmonic treatment with a half step ascent throughout the verse. The motion here consists of half steps climbing from E♭ up to G (with a slight detour to A♭) and then back down to F. Rather than simply imitate Gershwin's harmonies chord for chord, Sondheim has done something much more complex. By mirroring the half step harmonics and making use of similar (but not identical) bluesy chords, Sondheim has created a piece that evokes the music of Gershwin and yet still maintains a character of its own.
The theory is complicated, I know. I hope I haven't lost any readers as I plow through with F half diminished chords and borrowed keys, but I think the underlying concept is valid. A little investigation proved that Sondheim's claim concerning the harmonics was not as straight-forward as one might assume. But in investigating the similarities between the two pieces, I think we've hit on something important. A good pastiche number does not rely on a chord for chord reproduction or identical rhythms. The best pastiche takes enough of the old to evoke the particular feel of that era and then creates something new. And if the composer can do it, why not the performer? Perhaps the best pastiche performances are those that blend old and new. So study the older genres, discover what they have to offer, but never forget to give it your own flair!
1. Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 235.