Randy Newman and Stephen Sondheim, two of this decade's finest songwriter-craftsmen, are both misanthropes intent on subverting the optimism generally associated with American popular music. But until their most recent works, each man took care not to overexpose his nihilism. Newman balanced his despair with humor: if his lyrics mocked religion and homeland, his eloquently sentimentalized Americana often ached for those very ties. He's probably the only pop artist in this country who's given both Aaron Copland and Little Richard their due. Working in a brittle, more refined theatrical style, Sondheim made his own ambivalence his central theme as he refashioned a moribund Broadway tradition into talky, neurasthenic art songs. No American composer, save Cole Porter, matches Sondheim in elegance of diction and in metrical and rhyming ingenuity.
Born Again, Newman's seventh LP, and Sweeney Todd, Sondheim's seventh musical, may be these writers' riskiest projects, since each is the vehicle for a flagrant and unusual degree of bitterness. But only Sondheim gets away with such bile.
On Born Again, Randy Newman addresses the Me Decade in a voice that's unremittingly snide. The album's tone is immediately established by a cover photo in which Newman poses as a prosperous young businessman with dollar signs painted, Kiss-style, on his face. "It's Money That I Love," the opening cut, suggests that in these cynical times, the only thing most Americans care about is material gratification. "Used to worry about the poor/But I don't worry anymore," crows a narrator for whom consumption is the best revenge against ordinariness. Unfortunately, this bourgeois Caliban, like most of the people on Born Again, is just a paper tiger on which Newman hangs his contempt. Not once does he stop to suggest any reasons for contemporary grabbiness.
"The Story of a Rock and Roll Band," a galumphing polka, sends up corporate rock by ridiculing the Electric Light Orchestra. Though the production cleverly glosses snippets of ELO's hits, the joke quickly palls. This is the first time Newman has treated rock & roll with unequivocal snootiness.
In the record's cheapest shot, "Mr. Sheep," a Seventies hippie lashes out at a briefcase-toting square. The moral irony is appallingly smug. We're supposed to frown on the hippie and pity the square, but we don't, since both characters are such ciphers that they're impossible to care about.
Born Again's dramatic setups ring as false as its moralism. The almost impenetrable "Pretty Boy" suggests an incipient street fight, but the song ends before the action starts. "Half a Man" pits a trucker against a drag queen, but Newman cops out by turning the encounter into a bad surrealist joke when the trucker mysteriously starts walking and talking "like a fag."
Glimmerings of the classic humorist who gave us Sail Away and Good Old Boys are evident in only two cuts, and both are mere scraps. "William Brown," the odyssey of a working man, has a beginning and an end but no middle. In "Ghosts," Born Again's best moment, an old man, deserted by his children and living in one room, cowers in fear and poverty. His final words are a mumbled "I'm sorry" for having lived at all. Set in Newman's florid Stephen Foster-cum-Gustav Mahler style, "William Brown" and "Ghosts" contain the LP's only interesting music. The rest of the tunes either listlessly parody bad movie themes ("Spies," "Pretty Boy") or stick close to the limited novelty rock of "Short People."
Ultimately, Randy Newman's Born Again sounds less like a coherent song cycle than a sloppy nightclub act whipped up at the last minute in a fit of pique and "produced" in a studio. How dismaying that the Mark Twain of American pop should have shrunk to the size of Martin Mull!
Sweeney Todd, the Tony Award-winning "musical thriller" based on Christopher Bond's adaptation of a Grand Guignol Victorian melodrama, has the expansive complexity of an opera (its closest counterpart being, in fact, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Three-Penny Opera). Set in London during the Industrial Revolution, Sweeney Todd is about a mad, vengeful barber who slits the throats of his customers. A doting woman accomplice then grinds up the corpses and bakes them into meat pies that become the basis of a thriving business.
Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince have transformed this grisly scenario — in which the world is literally man-eat-man — into a rancid masterpiece: a high-style satire where unimaginable fiendishness not only becomes comprehensible but almost sympathetic.
Sondheim's score, a stately light-classical pastiche, turns out to be an ideal vehicle for gore. Part Gilbert and Sullivan, part Leonard Bernstein, with many German expressionist touches, the music makes the story's ghoulishness palatable by imbuing it with a detached, elevated pathos. Roughly two-thirds of the dialogue is set to music that embraces English parlor song, music-hall turns and operatic burlesque, among other forms. Of the several leitmotifs that mesh in dazzling choral set pieces, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is the most significant. Sondheim has woven his themes so ingeniously that the score has a breathtaking flow and an almost breathless momentum. At any moment, a sunny chorale can shatter into horrific dissonance.
The original-cast recording of Sweeney Todd captures much of the dramatic impact of the stage production, which in a theater is overwhelming. Heard outside the theater, the music exhibits Sondheim's characteristic strengths and weaknesses. The score's magnificent construction and scope can't entirely compensate for its dearth of memorable melodies, and the cooings of a pair of cardboard young lovers seem a bit insipid. Only "Not while I'm Around" boasts a strong enough tune to stand on its own.
No matter. In "A Little Priest," Sondheim's arch, inflexible song patter rises to new peaks of witty precision. Here, the demon barber and his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett (both played to perfection by Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury), imagine the relative culinary merits of vicars, clerks, poets and the like: "What is that?/It's fop/Finest in the shop/And we have some shepherd's pie peppered/With actual shepherd/On top."
Just how dark the center of this epic work really is, however, is suggested by Sweeney Todd's "Epiphany," an avowal of vengeance on a totally sadistic and corrupt world: "There's a hole in the world/Like a great black pit/And it's filled with people/ Who are filled with shit." That Stephen Sondheim finally persuades us to accept and perhaps even to relish such outrageous misanthropy is quite a testament to his extraordinary artistic powers. With this blood-smeared orgy of ice-cold hate, he's transformed his chosen genre, the Broadway show, into something that approaches "musical tragedy."