Stephen Sondheim


Meeting Cinderella

Mélanie and I had an enchanting night last week attending the brilliant touring production of Into the Woods. It’s a favorite of mine and of Mélanie’s as well, thanks to the movie and a local theatre production last year. We play the CD all the time and she can sing most of the songs, which we sometimes act out at home. It was a treat to see this beautiful, inventive production (do go if you get a chance!) done on a fairly bare stage with a great cast who found new nuances in the songs and story.

 

The night  was made extra magical by Cinderella (the golden-voiced and very talented Laurie Veldheer who made the princess both engaging and multi-layered) coming over to talk to Mélanie before the show when some of the cast greeted the audience. Mélanie was in transports and waved to Cinderella during the curtain call. Later we ran in to Laurie Veldheer by the stage door and she couldn’t have been nicer. Mélanie kept saying “I can’t believe we met Cinderella!” Some kids meet Cinderella at Disneyland for the first time. Mélanie met her at a Stephen Sondheim musical. Definitely my daughter :-).

 

With this and Beauty and the Beast it’s a been a week for fairy tales. My characters often refer to “not living in a fairy tale” and yet there are echoes. The line in Into the Woods from the Baker’s song “No More”, “No more curses you can’t undo, left by fathers you never knew” always makes me think of Malcolm. Not that Raoul left him a curse precisely or that Malcolm didn’t know him. But Malcolm certainly is dealing with the often mysterious legacy of the older generation. And it occurs to me that though Suzanne would say she’s the opposite of Cinderella, she does meet her husband while masquerading, she worries about when he will realize she’s not who she claims to be, and she goes from living on the streets to the equivalent of living in a palace. Like the Into the Woods Cinderella, she finds living in a palace has its challenges (though Malcolm is certainly very different from her prince in the musical).

 

Do you see any fairy tale parallels in the Rannoch series?

 

On another note, we’re finishing up a very fun reread of the Rannoch books on the Google + Group. On April 1st we’ll have an Ask the Author thread, and I’ll be giving away an advanced electronic copy of Gilded Deceit to a commenter. Do stop by!

 

 

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Hope everyone celebrating United States Thanksgiving is having a wonderful holiday and everyone else is having a great weekend. After a lovely Thanksgiving dinner with my family (and four dogs and four cats), I’ve been writing, reading (finished Lauren Willig’s The Mischief of the Mistletoe, a fabulous holiday treat), and doing some holiday decorating. Thinking about what one is thankful for, this seemed a good weekend to post about things I’m thankful for, from a literary perspective:

A mom who introduced me Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Sayers, and a host of other writers, as well as the magic of creating worlds and characters.

A dad who listened to my stories and encouraged my creativity

My editor, my agent, and all the people who get my book through production (particularly as I just received the gorgeous ARCs for Vienna Waltz).

All the people who read my books and especially the ones who write, email, and comment online. That interaction and feedback is so important for keeping a writer going in a solitary profession.

Greg and jim, without whom my website and my ability to have much of that interaction would not be possible.

Booksellers who take the time to hand sell books (yes, Cate, I am talking about you).

My writer friends who brainstorm, commiserate, and celebrate, both in person and online.

The History Hoydens, a fabulous group of historical novelists to hang out with online.

Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Sayers, Tom Stoppard, Dorothy Dunnett, Len Deighton, the Baroness Orczy and a host of other writers that have and do inspire my own writing and are just plain brilliant to read.

Stephen Sondheim (also a brilliant musician, but in this case I’m thinking of his brilliance with words; who saw his birthday celebration on PBS Wednesday?).

What are you thankful for from a literary perspective? Have you had time to read this weekend?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Mélanie writing to Raoul about David’s suggestion that Charles leave the diplomatic corps and stand for Parliament.

My fellow History Hoyden Pam Rosenthal had a wonderful post last week inspired by the lyrics of the brilliant Frank Loesser. It was the 100th anniversary of Loesser’s birth on 29 June, and Terry Gross had a wonderful interview with Michael Feinstein on Fresh Air about the composer.

The interview and Pam’s post got me thinking about the wonderful texture and imagery in the lyrics to musicals and how so many of those songs inspire me as a writer. I love the way musical lyrics can distill emotion (reinforced when the words are put with the music). As I’ve blogged about, I get a lot of inspiration from classical music, but I also have moments in my books that are inspired by musical theater. When I saw the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, I realized how “No Place Like London” echoes the mood and tone of the opening of Beneath a Silent Moon:

There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren’t worth what a pin can spit
and it goes by the name of London.
At the top of the hole sit the privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo
turning beauty to filth and greed…
I too have sailed the world and seen its wonders,
for the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru
but there’s no place like London!

That imagery must have lingered in my subconscious from seeing the musical years before. On the other hand, the last between Charles and Mélanie in Beneath was consciously inspired by Sondheim’s Sondheim’s “Being Alive” (from Company). Sung by a contemporary character at contemporary birthday party, but

Somebody crowd me with love.
Somebody force me to care.
Somebody let me come through,
I’ll always be there,
As frightened as you,
To help us survive,
Being alive

pretty much sums up Charles in that scene.

So many songs from musicals capture the emotional essence of a moment, particularly romantic moments, which can be so hard to write in ways that are fresh and emotionally truthful. Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” from Guys and Dolls (which Feinstein sung at the close of the Terry Gross interview) which somehow manages to be searingly romantic and worldly wise at the same time:

I thought my heart as safe
I thought I knew the score
But this is wine
That’s all too strange and strong
I’m full of foolish song
And out my song must pour

Love lost but enduring despite the bitter after taste in “So in Love” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate:


In love with the night mysterious
The night when you first were there.
In love with my joy delirious
When I knew that you could care.
So taunt me and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I’m yours ’til I die,
So in love,
So in love,
So in love with you, my love, am I.

The ability of love to change one’s perceptions and experience of life in “Til There was You” from Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man:

There were bells on the hill
But I never heard them ringing,
No, I never heard them at all
Till there was you…

…There was love all around
But I never heard it singing
No, I never heard it at all
Till there was you!

The rueful, bittersweet acknowledgment of a love affair coming to an end in Noel Coward’s “Let’s Say Goodbye”, a song that always makes me think of Mélanie and Raoul:

Now we’ve embarked on this love affair
Don’t let’s destroy it with tears
Once we begin to let sentiment in
Happiness disappears…

…Let’s look on love as a play thing
All these sweet moments we’ve known
Mustn’t be degraded when the thrill of them has faded
Let’s say goodbye and leave it alone

I could go on and on. Do you like musicals? Are there particular songs that make you think of moments in books? Writers, are there songs that inspired scenes in your books, consciously or unconsciously?

I just posted a new letter to the Fraser Correspondence from David to Charles about Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the reaction in London.

Last week I did a post-Valentine’s blog on History Hoydens that I thought I’d repeat here for those who missed it. I like to do a romantic moments blog around Valentine’s Day. This year I thought I’d focus on moments where a happy ending for the couple in question seems an impossibility. Sometimes they are the ending to a story. Sometimes they are the bleak moment before a triumphant ending. Either way, they can be intensely romantic, despite or perhaps because of the edge of sorrow.

My examples are mostly historical and come from novels, films, and a Broadway musical.

Venetia by Georgette Heyer. Damerel sending Venetia away for her own good. I feel a heart tug every time I read about him throwing her up into the saddle for the last time. Much as I want to shake Damerel, there’s something that always gets me about a guy trying to be noble.

Atonement by Ian McEwan. Cecilia running after Robbie and embracing him before the police take him away. The fact that she stands by him against the seeming evidence, against her family, against the pressures of class prejudice stunned me the first time I read the book and stunned me the film version as well.

The Silicon Mage by Barbara Hambly. Antryg saying farewell to Joanna before sending her off to her own world, both of them fully expecting him to die. There’s a lovely restraint to the scene which makes the words all the more powerful.

The Empire Strikes Back by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas. Princess Leia saying farewell to Han Solo before he’s frozen in carbonite (“I love you.”/”I know.”). I was talking about this scene to a friend over dinner on Valentine’s Day. The moment my thirteen-year-old self fell in love with Han Solo/Harrison Ford. I still remember sitting with my parents in a restaurant afterwards and saying “It’s so unfair we have to wait so long to find out what happens next.”

“Send in the Clowns”, A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Desirée’s song captures the poignancy of the moment when love seems lost, wry irony with a wealth of pain underneath.

Casablanca by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Rick putting Ilsa on the plane. I can’t think of another scene that is at once so poignant and so satisfyingly right.

Shakespeare in Love by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. Will and Viola saying goodbye. I find this scene much more painful than the end of Casablanca. And yet there’s the power of the fact that you can already see Will beginning to think about writing again and you see Viola’s will to go on.

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine by Lauren Willig. Robert sending Charlotte away for her own good. Like the scene in Venetia, this one brings a lump to my throat. But unlike Damerel, who simply thinks he’s too tainted to make Venetia happy, Robert is caught in a dangerous web he really can’t tell Charlotte about. Fortunately for both of them, the intrepid Charlotte unravels things on her own.

Any examples of your own to add? What makes this type of scene work or not work for you? Writers, do you find these scenes harder or easier to write than happy love scenes?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is David’s reply to Simon’s letter of a couple of weeks ago about his visit to his family in the north of England.

Following up on the playlist for Secrets of a Lady I posted a while ago, here’s a playlist for Beneath a Silent Moon:

Moonight Sonata, Ludwig von Beethoven

I spent a lot of time listening to Beethoven sonatas, trying to pick Mélanie’s favorite. I resisted this piece because I was afraid it was too obvious, but I kept coming back to it. This hauntingly beautiful music somehow seems right for Mélanie. She is playing it in the drawing room during Charles and Honoria’s scene on the terrace. It was only after Beneath a Silent Moon was published that I learned, to my profound embarrassment, that this sonata wasn’t called the Moonlight Sonata until after 1817 when the book is set. I was very happy to be able to correct this in the trade reissue. After consulting with a pianist friend, I reworded the lines to have Charles thinks of it as “Mélanie’s favorite Beethoven sonata, the one that always put him in mind of moonlight shimmering against water.”

Il catalogo è questo, Don Giovanni, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart & Lorenzo da Ponte

Leporello’s aria about Don Giovanni’s legion of conquests sums up Honoria’s and Val’s attitudes toward their love affairs. Mel refers to the aria, adding that Val’s appeal was “The eternal lure of Don Juan. Women like to think he’s looking for his one true love and that they’ll be the one to tame him. And all the time all he wants is another name to add to his infernal list.” That line came out of a talk I had with my friend Penny Williamson after a performance of Don Giovanni.

A Weekend in the Country, A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim

I love stories where characters with tangle lives and tangled love affairs converge at country house parties, as they do in both Beneath and in A Little Night Music. This song captures the delights and plot complications of a country house party story perfectly.

Per pietà, ben mio, perdona, Così fan tutte, Mozart & da Ponte

As the puzzle pieces are swirling in his head, Charles unconsciously finds himself picking out this aria on his mother’s Broadwood grand pianoforte. In this aria, Fiordiligi resists (with increasing difficulty) the impassioned pleas of her would-be lover Ferrando, not understanding that she is caught up in a romantic game that hinges on a bet. As Mel says, Charles’s choice of music is “Perhaps more apt than you know.”

No Place Like London, Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim

I’ve always loved Sweeney Todd, but it wasn’t until I was watching the recent movie, not long before the reissue of Beneath, that I realized how much this opening song where Sweeney returns to London by boat, reflects Tommy’s attitude in the prologue to Beneath.

ll core vi dono, Così fan tutte, Mozart & da Ponte

Mel recalls joining Charles at the piano in a rendition of this duet, where Dorabella succumbs to Guglielmo’s romantic games. The Merola Opera Program did Così fan tutte the summer I was working on Beneath, and the opera, with its tension between a vision of love as a game and what treating love as a game does to the emotional reality, was definitely an influence on the book.

Being Alive, Company, Stephen Sondheim

As I’ve said before, my idea for Beneath began with the scene between Charles and Mélanie at the end of the book. The inspiration was that scene was the concluding scene in Dorothy Sayers’s Busman’s Honeyroom and this concluding song from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. A song that brilliantly and poignantly sums up why people need other people. And also, I think, sums up Charles’s opening up to Mel at the end of the book.

Do you have any pieces of music to add to the Beneath playlist? I’d love to hear some suggestions. Any pieces of music that call to mind other favorite books? Writers, do you come up with playlists for your own books?

I was watching North & South last night (for the umpteenth time), so in honor of it, this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence is a letter Simon writes to David while visiting his family in the industrial north.

A lot of my writer friends have been away this week at the Romance Writers of America National Conference, this year in Washington D.C. I’ve been enjoying their updates on Twitter. Thanks to Twitter, I knew almost immediately last night that my friend and fellow History Hoyden, Pam Rosenthal, had won RWA’s Rita award for Best Historical Romance for her wonderful The Edge of Impropriety.

One of the things I love about Pam’s writing is that her characters have, in Regency terms, “a keen understanding”–they’re brainy people who enjoy talking about ideas (The Edge of Impropriety’s hero and heroine are a classical scholar nd a Silver Fork novelist respectively). Another blog by Jean on the All About Romance blog this week on “The Beautiful Minds of Heroes” got me thinking about this more.

The first brilliant hero Jean mentions falling in love with is Sherlock Holmes. I confess I discovered Sherlock Holmes first through dramatizations (notably the fabulous Jeremy Brett series). I didn’t actually read the Arthur Conan Doyle stories until I discovered Laurie King’s Russell & Holmes books. Because much as I love brainy characters on their own, I particularly love intellectual and romantic partnerships between two exceptionally brilliant people. There’s the fun of watching two fine minds click, especially over solving a problem. I love the scenes of Russell and Holmes talking through a case. The same is true of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and I’m particularly fond of a scene in Have His Carcase where they break a code together. Mulder and Scully’s debates about science and paranormal phenomenon were one of the delights of The X-Files.

There’s also the inevitable clash of two people who love to think. As Miss de Vine says to Harriet in Gaudy Night, “A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity. You can hurt one another so dreadfully.” That’s certainly true of Peter and Harriet and also of Holmes and Russell and Mulder and Scully. In all three cases, a determination to battle a problem through intellectually and a refusal to open up emotionally can leave the other partner feeling shut out. Peter in Busman’s Honeymoon, Holmes in The Language of Bees, Scully battling her cancer, Mulder coping with family revelations.

I love writing about brainy characters. The intellectual debates, the fun with words, the angst of clashing minds. In theory, at least, Mélanie, Charles, and Raoul are all brilliant. Of course, that means the author has to keep up with them, which is sometimes a challenge :-).

Do you like reading about brainy characters? Do you like them paired with a partner of equal brilliance? Any interesting examples to suggest? Writers, do you like writing about brainy characters? What are the challenges?

Mélanie’s mind is more on matters frivolous than intellectual in this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition, as she writes to Isobel Lydgate about the masked ball at the Hofburg that opened the Congress of Vienna.

As a postscript, going back to last week’s post, I’m listening to Sondheim’s A Little Night Music as I write this. Speaking of characters who talk about books and ideas, I love Frederick’s catalogue of books as he tries to figure out how to get Anne into bed, particularly “Stendal would ruin the plan of attack as there isn’t much blue in the red and the black.”

Jean had a wonderful post on the AAR blog this week about Stephen Sondheim. I’ve been playing Sondheim CDs ever since (though I often play Sondheim). The post also reminded me of how much Sondheim has influenced me as a writer.

My first exposure to Sondheim (in addition to the lyrics to West Side Story) was when the national tour of the original Broadway production of A Little Night Music came to San Francisco when I was eight. loved it–an historical setting, pretty clothes, and lots of love stories with happy endings (and a whole lot of irony I slowly began to appreciate as I got older). And music I adored even then. We had the record, and I learned all the songs. To this day, I remember the words (probably because I still play the score all the time, now on CD). Not too long ago, a friend commented that he couldn’t catch all the words to “A Weekend in the Country” at a concert. I remember being vaguely surprised that anyone didn’t simply know the word to a “A Weekend in the Country.”

I saw Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George (both of which I later saw on stage) and a concert version of Follies on PBS, saw the national tour of Into the Woods, listened to the score of Company (which I still haven’t seen, though I know most of the songs). Then I was in New York for the RWA (Romance Writers of America) National Conference the season Passion opened on Broadway. I was organizing the theater tickets for my friend and fellow writer Penny Williamson and me. I got tickets to Passion, but I was a little nervous about what she’d think of it because it’s so *not* a typical Broadway musical (imo, a lot of Sondheim borders on opera for musical complexity). We both loved it.

I love listening to Sondheim when I write. His lyrics are so witty and his music is so rich and complex. Both music and lyrics delineate character so brilliantly. As I’ve mentioned before, my starting place for Beneath a Silent Moon was the final scene between Charles and Mélanie. I had that in mind before I plotted the rest of the book. Part of my inspiration was the final scene between Peter and Harriet in Busman’s Honeyroom. My other inspiration was Sondheim’s “Being Alive” from Company, a wonderful ode to the wonder and terror of sharing one’s life with another person. I had that song running through my head when I wrote the scene. I also think, though I didn’t realize it until I saw the recent movie, that the song “No Place Like London” from Sweeney Todd helped inspire the prologue to Beneath. And just a few days ago, listening to Passion, I realized what was missing from a scene that had been giving me trouble.

Who else is a Sondheim fan? What are your favorites of his songs and musicals? Writers, are there particular songs (by any composer) that have inspired scenes or characters? Readers, do you find yourself reading a book and thinking that a particular song fits a particular scene?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Raoul to Mélanie with some advice about how to handle Talleyrand and Tsar Alexander.