Sondheim Rhyme: Sublime


As I wrote about here, I’ve listening to a fair amount of Stephen Sondheim… and more you listen to Sondheim, the more his genius kind of sinks in. Like other great art, repeated listenings just get deeper and stronger. The first time I hear a Sondheim piece, I can get the basic gist, and I may like it – especially when it’s performed in a musical. I admit that, sometimes, hearing a piece for the first time, without knowing any of the plot that it hangs on and is completely integral to, it can be more difficult to appreciate. The first time I heard the soundtrack to Sunday in the Park with George, I didn’t get it… and now it seems like it’s part of the fiber of my being.

It’s repeated those listenings and viewings that deepen one’s appreciation for Sondheims work. It sounds deceptively simple… but then there are huge underlying complexities… both musically and in the rhymes. I am not a musician, so I can’t explain the musical textures (maybe watch this NY Times video to get a wonderful taste of it), but lately I’ve been thinking about the way Sondheim rhymes.

When my mom, the biggest Sondheim fan of my life, was in the hospital, I was thinking about her, cruising Youtube for Sondheim, I came across this 2010 PBS Newshour video:

Starting at minute 9 in the video, Sondheim talks about rhyming things based not just on sound but also spelling! This is something I’ve never thought of… isn’t rhyme just about sound? Isn’t that the definition? Sondheim says that he prefers rhymes that are spelled differently, because they surprise. The examples that he uses in the video is that “suffer” and “rougher” is a better or richer rhyme than “rougher” and “tougher.” The other example Sondheim cites is rhyming “journal” and “colonel.” 

Mrs. Lovett and Mr. Todd - from the Broadway musical

Since I wrote about mom’s kitchen, I’ve been listening to, and singing to myself, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street… which is a work of genius and complexity that reveals itself over and over after repeated listenings.

Here’s an incredible sequence from the Todd song A Little Priest: (if you’re unfamiliar with the song, watch this 1982 Lansbury-Cariou version repeatedly – these lines come at about 3:30)

Todd: Is that squire – on the fire?
Lovett: Mercy no sir look closer you’ll notice it’s grocer
Todd: looks thicker – more like vicar

In the sequence of those last two lines, Sondheim nails a triple rhyme and a double rhyme (I guess any basic rhyme is already a double rhyme), all with exactly the same sound and completely different spelling… and it all sounds so perfectly spoken – nothing forced or artificial. I think Lovett’s line is actually a quadruple – because the o in notice (and even the c with s sound) also rhyme with “no sir” “closer” and “grocer”, right? The rhyme in notice is pretty much imperceptible on the page, but when sung, it’s on the same beat.

The contrasts, too are great. Lovett bounces around almost hyperactively trying to get Todd’s attention. Todd’s voice is slower, plodding, ponderous… so Lovett crams four rhymes into the same line that Todd drags two out of. Sometimes they pick up eachothers’ rhythms and cadences… ay… it’s brilliant.

There are multitudes of other alt-spell rhymes peppered throughout A Little Priest: “poet” and “know it”, “priest” and “least” and “deceased”, “when you” and “menu”, “follow” and “swallow”, “peppered” and “shepherd”, “financier” and “career” and “cashier” and more. They’re all over… and truth be told, I never noticed any of them until I heard the Sondheim interview two weeks ago.

While A Little Priest introduces pretty much the core plot element of the entire story (baking people into pies), it’s, perhaps, more than any other song I can think of, also consciously and overtly about rhyming. It includes a whole rhyme-game sequence where Lovett offers imaginary pies and Todd responds:

Something pinker.
Something paler.
Something hotter.
Something subtler.

I am tempted to just leave it there… and recommend that you watch and listen to A Little Priest a few hundred times. But I will toss in a few more things.

Why do these alt-spell rhymes work??? Sondheim says that rhymes work at some sort of visual level, where, perhaps unconsciously, we’re reading the words, too… so we’re surprised when the sound matches and the spelling doesn’t. I trust that Sondheim is correct… but I think that (like all the stuff Sondheim touches) there’s even more below the surface.

It makes me a think a bit about V.S. Ramachandran. Ramachandran is a brain scientist that looks at many kinds of tricks that our brains play on us… sort of like bugs that are also features, intrinsic to the sort of complicated short-cuts that make brains efficient and brilliant. (If you’re unfamiliar with his work, I’d recommend possibly starting with his talk and the BBC series Phantoms in the Brain.) Ramachandran has a great lecture (90 minutes long and worth it) about how and why art works on our brains. Ramachandran asserts that one reason that some art, including cubism, works on our brains is that by showing multiple views that can’t be seen instantaneously in everyday life, art is able to instantaneously activate multiple brain centers at the same time. Rhyme itself already does this multi-brain-center thing, perhaps… then I think that one thing that makes Sondheim’s alt-spell rhymes work even more that your average rhyme is that they’re doing an extra dose of this multiple brain-center thing… instead of just activating the part of the brain that keeps track of “things that end in the sound -ougher” doing the alt-spell rhyme skips over to another brain center that could be equivalent but is “thing that  end in the sound -uffer”.

Sorry… I think that’s a too-long explanation for a short point (and one that Sondheim had already made succinctly in the interview video above.) In some ways it ties into language, memory, too – in the way that Primo Levi asserts a biological basis for rhyming poetry. Having multiple spellings of the same sound may cue us to English’s roots in so many other languages… so there’s maybe some ties to coincidence and convergence and difference and diversity… but those ideas are even less congealed than the brain one above… and that one is pretty half-baked (to badly mix metaphors.) This is a blog article, not a dissertation… so I’ll wind down.

Now that I’ve seen, I can’t stay blind, and I notice these rhymes all over – and they’re just cooler than your average rhyme. I have a new-found appreciation for the name of the blog (named by my colleague Jessica Hall) where I’ve written a great deal: L.A. Creek Freak.

I’ll close by saying that if you don’t see and hear and feel Sondheim’s genius (or even if you do)… well… watch and listen again and again.

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One Response to “Sondheim Rhyme: Sublime”

  1. Some Standard Excuses for Not Rhyming Properly … And Why We All Still Should (Pt 2) | major to minor Says:

    […] pointed out, the same parts of speech, and so not as effective when paired. Sondheim would add that words with the same spelling aren’t as surprising. Yeah, I just made reference to Wimsatt and Sondheim in a blog post […]

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