Anatomy of a Song: "Someone in a Tree", by Stephen Sondheim
November 17, 2013 7:05 AM   Subscribe

Anatomy of a Song (1976) is a half hour documentary (part two here) about Stephen Sondheim's song Someone in a Tree, from the musical Pacific Overtures. Sondheim talks about the challenges and thought processes behind what he calls his favourite of his own songs. See the original 1976 show in full here. Also see this earlier post on the same song.
posted by rollick (3 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Nice video, thanks for sharing! I had to laugh at the beginning of part two when he talks about making the song "relentless" and "going on, and on, and on"...

I also enjoyed finding this one on Assassins in the related videos.
posted by Gordafarin at 12:05 PM on November 17, 2013


This is one of my favourite songs, and it's also one of the things by which I tracked by intellectual development as I grew. I first heard it on a tape given to me by a friend when I was, myself, ten (like the boy in the song). I thought the tune was great, but not so good as some of the others in the show. Pacific Overtures, while largely forgotten due to its dusty-sounding subject matter (the opening of Japan to Western trade), is full of great music and powerful emotions and wit. "Someone in a Tree" is subtler than some of the other songs, less immediately arresting to a boy of ten.

As I got older, however, I kept referring back to the tape, and every time I listened I hears new things in it. I could, basically, feel my mind growing as I glommed on to ideas I hadn't been able to process before: like the terrifying irony in "Pretty Lady" and how age changes perspective in "A Bowler Hat" (in spite of some rather odd choices, one of my favourite songs of all time). And over time, I found myself returning again and again to "Someone in a Tree", because as I grew I found myself attracted to a song that is about someone looking at their place in a big and interesting world and trying to make sense of it from a limited perspective, and about how history happens to everybody, not just the people making the demands and signing the papers.

Long story short, I became a historian. And now, after studying history at a high level for almost half my life-to-date? I find myself drifting away from the perspective of the song again. It seems, once again, slightly inconsequential that there was somebody in a tree, or waiting underneath. Every day I encounter similar, peripheral people whose tiny bits of information fail to add much to a story that we already know, and there's so much history, and so little time and so few people to study it, and how can we waste our time with...

And when I start thinking that way, I need to go back and listen to this song again. The brilliance of this song is not the humour, or the cleverness of the structure... well it is, but the brilliance of the song is that in a show about a Big Change in history, it shows how the little guy counts, and how each experience matters, and how we who are essentially professional rememberers need to remember each and every person, for they each have value and drama. Like Sondheim says, we need to look at the sea, but see the ripples.
posted by Dreadnought at 2:27 PM on November 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


The presenter of this piece, Frank Rich, just wrote an article about his friendship with Sondheim: The Sondheim Puzzle.
posted by rollick at 1:14 PM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


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