Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Stephen Sondheim: Finishing the Hat

Last night, I attended a talk by legendary musical theater lyricist and songwriter, Stephen Sondheim. It was fascinating to hear stories about how he started writing for musicals (and TV and film) and his encounters with Oscar Hammerstein, John Ford, and Leonard Bernstein (or, as Sondheim called him, "Lenny").

Sondheim has a new book out called Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes that tells the stories behind writing lyrics for great musicals like West Side Story, Gypsy, and A Little Night Music.

Last night, I loved the story he told about bringing the first musical he ever wrote to Oscar Hammerstein. Sondheim was 15 at the time, and the play was all about little events at his high school (it included songs like "I'll Meet You at the Donut"). He told us he could hardly sleep the night he handed off the play. He was convinced that Hammerstein was going to be so excited to produce it that they'd get started right away and of course it was going to be a Broadway sensation: Fifteen Year Old Writes Hit Play! Here's the rest of the story as told to Adam Guetell:

Stephen Sondheim: Legacy Project Interview
(You can also watch a longer PBS interview with Sondheim on News Hour.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Catherynne M. Valente: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

This week, I'm back to blogging after a long hiatus from all things online. Kevin and I moved this summer so I decided to take some time off. And guess what? It can be done, people: I did not blog, tweet, or facebook for nearly three months! (Well, barely. I did log on to write a post about my ill-fated softball career for the ACLA Summer Reading blog.)

While it was good to have a break, I'm glad to climb out of the avalanche of (still) unpacked boxes and return to some semblance of normalcy and routine. And speaking of the ACLA, I'm back to my schedule of writing monthly book reviews for them as well. Hope you all had a great summer!

One of my favorite reading experiences this summer was actually not a reading experience at all. While I was pulling vintage 1980s wallpaper off the walls of what is now my new music room, I listened to the audiobook of Catherynne  M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Here's what you should know: everything about this book is remarkably endearing.

One day, a young girl named September finds herself whisked away from Omaha and into Fairyland by the Green Wind. What follows is a quest story that is full of so many unexpected and marvelous twists and turns that I hardly noticed my messy wallpaper task at all. I was completely caught up in September's new world.

Words that pop into my mind are: delightful, wonderful, joyful. But these words can be saccharine and aren't what I mean to say at all. Valente's book is filled with delight and wonder and joy in the old-fashioned, hushed sense of the words. Like a walk through the woods when the sun is slanted just right through the trees and that odd noise could be a deer, or a trick of the wind, or the strange laughter and music of an honest-to-goodness fairy circle.

Valente's Fairyland is fantasy, but it has more in common with old-fashioned Faerie stories or Tolkien than it does with the modern fantasy stories of Harry Potter and the like. It is surprising and challenging and very, very strange. Valente manages to create a sense of wonder that feels like it's from another time, and yet September is so relevant, so likable, droll, and modern, I'm certain kids of all ages and times will be able to relate.

Apparently, there are plenty of people out there who did not like this book. Well, that's why there's something for everyone, I guess. (For more on this, you can read the effervescent Betsy Bird's review and discussion of the divisive nature of Fairyland at her School Library Journal blog.) As for me, this goes into my 5-star top-ten for the year category. Hands down.

Also posted at the ALCA Youth Services blog.