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The Musical Theater Post: Sondheim and the Joy of Not being a Pro

So full disclosure: I love musical theater. This seems to shock people when I tell them, what with my “holier-than-thou” opera proclivities, but it is true. I fondly remember watching the Tony’s every year with my mom, filling out our ballots to see who could guess more winners right. In many ways musical theater was my gateway drug to opera, and I was interested it WAY before I even knew who Giuseppe Verdi was. Whether it was making lifelong friends in the Dowling Catholic school musicals, discussing the many merits of various Phantoms from Phantom of the Opera with my dear friend Madi Monroe (these date back at least to 1997), or adding an extra semester to my Iowa State career explicitly to take Brad Dell’s class of the history of the genre (easily my favorite class at ISU), musicals have always been something that brought me great joy in performing and listening/watching.

So I guess it is no surprise that when I was at one of my lowest points in the pandemic earlier this year it was a composer from the Great White Way that helped get me out of it. I entered the year 2021 with no gigs on the horizon, a mandatory 2 week break from teaching for school, and quite a few personal issues going on. It was cold, miserable, and I couldn’t really enjoy music or sing well at all. I was a mess.

Then one day I was sitting in front of my TV watching YouTube when I saw that the entire Kennedy Center production of Sweeney Todd (starring Bryn Terfel, Emma Thompson, and Audra McDonald) was streamable. I figured it was worth a watch and put it on. My GOD. From the opening number (which I won’t spoil here) I was hooked. In fact, the production took me back to being a freshman at Iowa State, when the opera department put on Sweeney. I was just an audience member, but the show was ELECTRIC. After finishing that, I immediately moved on to Raul Esparza’s star turn as Bobby in Company, and then to Disney+ so I could watch Into the Woods (sue me I like the movie).

Stephen Sondheim. Wow. With every show I rewatched or listened to, his mastery of lyrics and music became more highlighted. The way that each of his songs perfectly captured the characters mind in ONE moment in time was magical, and his banal melancholy really affected me during these pandemic days. My Friends, Finishing the Hat, Epiphany, No More, Marry me a Little, Send in the Clowns, Sorry-Grateful, Stay with me, Being Alive: All of these songs spoke to me in a slightly new or more powerful way than they had before.

I could not get enough Sondheim, and I knew that with this newfound need to consume his work I could pull myself out of this funk if I did it right. However, now that I was going on a bona fide MT binge, I knew there was one person I needed to call.

Enter Jonathan Brugioni. Jonathan (or Bruge, as he will be known from here on out) went to Iowa State with me, where we were voice majors together and were castmates in Kiss me, Kate and Candide (among many other shenanigans). He is one of my closest friends, and later went out to San Diego to pursue his graduate degree in musical theater. He is now actively doing the actor thing in New York City, and I couldn’t be prouder (I’m 100 percent sure he’s going to run a theater company one day, and frankly I’m counting on him booking me). Every couple of months or so we have a one-to-two-hour phone call where we fill each other in on what we’re doing and discuss how the opera and MT industries compare and contrast.

So, on this call I tell Bruge about my Sondheim obsession, and explain all the shows I’ve been watching, the documentaries on HBO (Six by Sondheim is amazing) and even the interviews on you can find on YouTube (Adam Guettel interviewing Sondheim is really cool), but I tell him I want MORE. There is a short silence on the line, and then Bruge tells me about the tome.

Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. The holy grail of Sondheim relics. A two-part book series where Sondheim himself annotates nearly every lyric he has ever written. So, once my copy arrived, I poured over it, and an amazing thing happened. Suddenly, I started to enjoy listening to music again, and after a while even managed to make some halfway decent sounds in the practice room (my bedroom). And what was amazing was that I was not pouring over this Sondheim material because I wanted to sing it for an upcoming audition or wanted to add it to my repertoire: I just liked working on it and learning about it, and it had been a LONG time since I felt that way about music.

That’s when I occurred to me. MT wasn’t clicking in my brain as “work” like operatic rehearsal and practicing was. I called Bruge and we spent hours discussing MT and Sondheim in general. He was able to keep educating me about what he had learned in school (his thesis was on Sondheim's compositional methods). I was THRIVING being back in a position where I could simply learn from my more knowledgeable colleague. Learning about this thing in which I was NOT a fully trained professional was helping me remember my love for music and performing in general. Slowly, this spread to my operatic work, and I was back in business. Thank you, Mr. Sondheim (and Bruge, but mostly Sondheim.)

Now, a few disclaimers: Just because this specific opera singer is never going to be a MT performer does NOT mean that there are not brilliant crossover performers out there. One of my dearest friends, Jocelyn Hansen, sings both opera and MT at an incredibly high level, and is currently creating an incredible MT program at UT Arlington. Vice versa exists as well, where some primarily MT performers can suddenly pull out some really killer arias when they want to.

Secondly: Some of my colleagues may read this post and think “My god, he needs to get his shit together. If he can’t get himself to practice opera every day he obviously doesn’t love it enough”. I would warn those colleagues that that is a dangerous attitude to have. If I have learned anything over the last year, it is that you MUST be able to look at your life from more than just the lens of being an opera singer. You are a person with a multitude of facets and value. Being an opera singer is just one of them. I would also tell those singers to fuck off and get off my blog on my professional website. Yes, you, the one scoffing to your screen. Go somewhere else with your negativity, thank you very much. This blog is for artists reading about another artist’s thoughts.

I’ll leave you all with a quote from Mr. Sondheim that I think is really poignant to being an artist in the world today:

“Art isn’t inspiration. It’s craft”

Keep Singing,

Joseph Canuto Leon

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