If you know anything about me, you’ll know how difficult it is for me to disagree with Stephen Sondheim. To me, the Venerable Steve is not just the world’s greatest living composer of musical theater (and perhaps the greatest of all the dead ones, too), he is also a sort of deity, one no less capricious and omniscient than the cantankerous God of the Hebrews. Like Tevye with the Good Book, I quote him constantly; I frequently ask myself what he would think; I even invented a holiday dedicated to him that is still observed in cities around the globe (or at least one).
So you’ll know I mean this when I say it: Stephen Sondheim is wrong about Lady Gaga’s Sound of Music medley at the Oscars. Or at least (before I’m struck down by a bolt of heavenly lightning), he’s not exactly correct.
Let’s review, since nearly a full month has passed since the Academy Awards, and I don’t know about you, but I can barely remember who even won anymore: As part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the classic Julie Andrews/Christopher Plummer holiday staple, Lady Gaga appeared on stage in a staid white ball gown and sang a lengthy medley from The Sound of Music, including all the show’s best known hits: your title song, your “Do-Re-Mi,” your “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” your “Edelweiss.”
She did not miss a note. She did not use Auto-Tune. She did not rip open her dress halfway through an Electroclash arrangement of “The Lonely Goatherd.” At the end, Julie Andrews came out and enveloped Gaga in a long, stately, and genuinely felt embrace, and the Internet lost its collective mind. It was the most punk rock thing she’s ever done and nobody could say enough nice things about it.
Nobody, that is, until Stephen Sondheim finally caught the ceremony this weekend while he was clearing out his DVR and made public the following thoughts:
“[S]he was a travesty. It was ridiculous, as it would be from any singer who treats that music in semi-operatic style. She had no relationship to what she was singing. What people liked was her versatility.”
Okay. Deep breath as I prepare myself to blaspheme. Because yes, he’s right that people liked her versatility, and the sheer audacity of going out there, knowing people were expecting her to do something outrageous at any second, and not. The tension of waiting for it all to go to hell, and the collective euphoria at the moment when you realized she wasn’t going to, was a master class in large-scale performance art. The operatic thing, whatever that means, I guess I’ll give him, but the idea that she had no relationship to what she was singing is correct only in the most literal sense.
True, Lady Gaga was not singing the songs as though she were playing the character of Maria, a young novitiate who finds her place in life through the power of love, music, and anti-Nazism. She was connected to the music as Stefani Germanotta, a young musical theater nerd who clearly spent her childhood memorizing Julie Andrews’s every inflection, down to her plummy English accent, in front of the mirror and then performing this very interpretation at the Oscars, in front of every famous person in the world—including Julie Andrews herself.
The character Lady Gaga was playing—and, in that moment, stopped playing—was herself; her younger, more innocent, more uncomplicated self. That’s who the tears and the applause and the big white dress were for. For all the weird looking little girls whose hearts had been blessed by the sound of music, even though nobody would ever cast them to play Maria in a thousand years. That’s relationship enough for me.
Previous: 50 Years of ‘The Sound of Music’
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Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.