Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I Remember

"I Remember"
by Stephen Sondheim
from Evening Primrose (1966)

I remember sky ...
It was blue as ink.
Or at least I think
I remember sky.

I remember snow ...
Soft as feathers,
Sharp as thumbtacks,
Coming down like lint.
And it made you squint
When the wind would blow.

And ice, like vinyl,
On the streets ...
Cold as silver,
White as sheets.
Rain like strings and
Changing things
Like leaves.

I remember leaves ...
Green as spearmint,
Crisp as paper.
I remember trees,
Bare as coat racks,

Spread like broken umbrellas.

And parks and bridges,
Ponds and zoos.
Ruddy faces,
Muddy shoes.
Light and noise and

Bees and boys and days.

I remember days,
Or at least I try.
But as years go by,
They're a sort of haze.

And the bluest ink
Isn't really sky.
And at times I think
I would gladly die ...
For a day of sky.

In the fall of 1966, ABC's weekly arts program Studio 67 aired an original hour-long musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Goldman called Evening Primrose.  The major songs have been recorded a number of times, including a studio cast starring Neil Patrick Harris, Mandy Patinkin's album Dress Casual (where he performs the songs with Bernadette Peters), and the original TV soundtrack (featuring Anthony Perkins and Charmian Carr - Liesl from The Sound of Music - seen in the picture above), though most musical theatre listeners have heard numerous "covers" of the two most famous songs - "I Remember" and "Take Me to the World."

The production entered the "vault" of special musical theatre treasures that few have actually seen ... until recently.  The DVD of the broadcast has finally been released and, as a Stephen Sondheim fanatic, I've been DYING to see it.  Fortunately, my friend Joel tipped me off that it was available as a Netflix instant stream offering ... so I RAN to my television and PS3 last night to watch it.  What an experience to FINALLY see the original work ...

It's an odd and VERY dark piece.  Charles, a poet, hides out in a department store until it closes, hoping to find a sanctuary from the world outside.  He discovers a secret group of older people living in the store who only "come out" at night.  Charles is allowed to stay with the group once he convinces their matronly leader that he is indeed a poet.  He is warned that anyone who threatens to run away or reveal the secret of their group is reported to the "Dark Men."  Those who are caught by the Dark Men are whisked away and returned as one of the lifeless mannequins in the store. 

Happy show, right?  Well, as is the case in most musicals, Charles falls in love with young Ella, an unhappy "maid" to the matron who wants desperately to leave since she was "abducted" as a young child who fell asleep in the store after being separated from her mother.  Charles and Ella plan their escape, but are caught by the "Dark Men," and two new mannequins of a bride and groom appear in the department store's window.

I ADORE the lyrics to "I Remember"... a song Ella sings as she recalls the world outside that she hasn't seen in thirteen years.  It's another deceptively simple lyric in which Ella compares her faint memories of the natural world outside with the merchandise in the department store.  The imagery is astounding ... the sky, snow, ice, leaves, and trees are all matched in perfect similes to ink, lint, vinyl, paper, and broken umbrellas.  What beautiful words - and the haunting melody Sondheim puts to the words only underlines Ella's melancholy and longing.

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