The pleasures of cataloguing in the list songs of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim

The obituaries for Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) amounted to a late tribute to the Broadway integrated musical, a theater genre and cultural industry that lasted for thirty years, from Oklahoma! (1943) to Company (1970) and Follies (1971). 

There are many elements of this genre that Sondheim brought to self-consuming exhaustion, from plot to orchestration, but none more than the list song.  Going through the songs mentioned in the obituaries, I was struck by the frequency of lyrics that catalogue things, people, feelings, and qualities additively desired and compared.  The speakers in the songs do not converse, they hurl lists at each other and the audience.

Sondheim determined early on that he would specialize in one particular music number, the list song, and that therefore he would compete with its master, Cole Porter (1891-1964).  Thus, he turned its inherently agonistic form into a competitive sport.  This became the hallmark of his career.

Cole Porter’s list songs (“You’re the top,” “Anything goes,” “Friendship,” “All of you,” “I get a kick out of you,” “Let’s do it,” “Brush up your Shakespeare”) are driven by a tension whereby meter and rhyme deliver and at the same time delay, complete and leave open, repeat and differ, satisfy and increase yearning.  Sondheim competed with Porter through one main compositional modality, acceleration.  In his songs (“I’m still here,” “Being alive,” “The ladies who lunch,” “Another hundred people,” “Getting married today,” “Liaisons,” “Comedy tonight”) everything became faster because less satisfying:  Wit became patter, irony sarcasm, delay futility, neoclassical emotions baroque sentiments, syncopation ostinato.  Their distraught singers obsess with cataloguing frustrations which gradually become more furious than funny as the lyricist/composer accelerates in tempo and melodrama.

As David Savran observes in a splendid Deleuzian listening to the two composers, Sondheim’s list songs “may be desiring-machines, but they produce something very different from the swarming abundance of Porter’s.  If Porter’s represent joyous acts of accumulation, Sondheim’s are acts of disbursement, of nervous expenditure as desiring-machines sputter and malfunction, and the very desires they produce are impulsively dissipated” (“’You’ve got that thing’:  Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, and the Erotics of the List Song,” Theatre Journal 64:4, 2012, p. 540-1).  Porter operates out of abundance and through accumulation:  Can he top this sizzling couplet, we keep wondering.  To our exhilaration, most of the time he does.  Sondheim operates through expenditure on the basis of the “sorites paradox,” asking:  If removing a single grain from a heap of sand does not cause the heap to become a non-heap, how many grains may be removed individually for the heap to still be a heap (“With so little to be sure of”)?

In their different ways, the stylistics of the list song in both artists remains a fascinating lesson in composition as well as listening (and spending).

20 December 2021

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