Posted by Hannah Miller
On Saturday March 22, the world wished a very happy 78th birthday to STEPHEN JOSHUA SONDHEIM, so this edition of Word of the Week is created in his honor. This week’s word is HALLOING.
Stephen Sondheim is one of the most respected composers and lyricists of the 20th century. He has won more Tony Awards than any other composer on Broadway. Sondheim developed his love for theatre and music after attending his first musical at the age of nine. He was hooked when the curtain rose and a piano was revealed.
Never fitting easily with his parents, Sondheim spent many afternoons learning from his “surrogate father,” Oscar Hammerstein II, of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame. The Hammersteins and the Sondheims lived near each other on the upper West Side of NYC. When Sondheim wrote By George, a musical for his high school, Hammerstein spent an entire day teaching him what he could do to make the musical better. In Sondheim’s words, he “learned more about songwriting and the musical theatre” in that one afternoon “than most people learn in a lifetime.” Sondheim continued his apprenticeship with Hammerstein until he left New York to attend Williams College in Massachusetts.
In 1957, Sondheim made history by writing the lyrics to West Side Story, and then to Gypsy in 1959. Though both of these shows brought him great success as a lyricist, Sondheim knew that what he really wanted to do was compose. Three years later, he received that opportunity and wrote both music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, another hit. His string of commercial success was broken in 1964 when he wrote Anyone Can Whistle, which lasted for only nine performances.
Sondheim went on, of course, to write other history-making hits such as Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, all in partnership with director Hal Prince. He was disappointed by the short run of their next show, Merrily We Roll Along. Following this commercial flop, he considered quitting theatre to write murder mysteries. Instead he switched directors, breaking with Prince and teaming with James Lapine (pictured with Sondheim to the left), who not only directed his subsequent musicals but also wrote the books. The first Sondheim/Lapine triumph was Sunday in the Park with George (my favorite musical), based on the artistic genius of French painter Georges Seurat, the father of Neo-impressionism. Sunday in the Park is one of only seven musicals to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Other Sondheim/Lapine musicals include Into the Woods (produced at Barksdale last summer), Passion, and Assassins.
I study voice with Amy Hruska, and one of the songs she has me singing currently is Green Finch and Linnet Bird from Sweeney Todd. Inspired by the beautiful warbling of caged birds, the character of Johanna sings:
Green finch and linnet bird,
How is it you sing?
Whence comes this melody constantly flowing?
Is it rejoicing or merely HALLOING?
Are you discussing or fussing or simply dreaming?
Are you crowing?
Are you screaming?
When I first sang the word HALLOING, I assumed it meant something like “saying hello.” But this is Sondheim, so of course there are other layers of meaning. In 16th and 17th century England, to hallo or halloo was to shout an exclamation in a hunt when the quarry was spotted. In Coriolanus, Act I, Scene 8, Shakespeare writes, “If I fly, Marcius, halloo me like a hare.” Considering the plot of Sweeney Todd, certainly the birds were halloing when they spotted Johanna—or perhaps when they spotted the Judge.
Our word hello, issued as a greeting rather than a shout, dates from the mid-19th century, and fell into popular usage when Thomas Edison proclaimed it the appropriate way to greet someone when answering a telephone. Alexander Graham Bell preferred the phrase Ahoy, as used on ships. But by 1889, telephone operators were known as hello-girls due to the public acceptance of the Edison-inspired hello.
Today, Sondheim continues to write, create and inspire young admirers like me. His 2003 original musical Bounce has failed thus far to receive a NYC production. But in 2007, he composed incidental music for the Public Theatre production of King Lear, directed by Lapine. In that same year he had a bit part as himself on The Simpsons episode Yokel Chords.