Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Rob Kapilow: What Makes It Great? Finishing the Hat: The Songs of Stephen Sondheim
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of Gidion's Knot

Rob Kapilow
Photo Courtesy of Rob Kapilow and the Scottsdale Center
for the Performing Arts
I believe that Stephen Sondheim is the most influential Broadway composer of the past 50 years. He is a writer who is frequently praised for his intricate, complex and succinct lyrics that perfectly state what his characters feel and want to say. But what about his music?

Last week Rob Kapilow, a composer and teacher who for over 20 years has presented his "What Makes It Great?" series of concerts, was in Scottsdale to explore the musical structure of Sondheim's work in an evening that delved deep inside four of Sondheim's songs. Kapilow's concerts deconstruct and explore the music of famous composers, both classical and contemporary. This one was an eye-opening view into the mind of a brilliant musician.

This concert was the final night of three evenings Kapilow presented this season at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts; each concert focused on the works of one musical theatre composer. Kapilow's knowledge and expertise on the subject matter is evident in his ability to easily communicate and teach audience members to understand the intricacies of musical composition.

The "What Makes It Great?" concerts deconstruct the music by breaking it apart and exploring the notes and chords while Kapilow narrates the entire process. He then puts the whole song back together with a performance by a skilled vocalist to allow us to experience the nuances of the piece that, most likely, had gone completely unnoticed before. While at first it may come across as a college musical composition course, it is incredibly entertaining and rewarding. Plus, there isn't any test afterwards.

Sondheim's music has often been referred to as challenging, not only for the actors singing it but also for the audience, because his songs are often counter to simpler, "popular" showtunes that often have catchy, "hummable" music, or ballads that are usually sentimental. Throughout the evening, Kapilow demonstrated numerous times how a less knowledgeable composer might choose other notes which are perfectly fine, but Sondheim's notes often go counter to where you would assume they would go. In doing so, the musical notes actually echo the feelings and emotions of the characters singing the song.

Kapilow talked specifically about how Sondheim was never really interested in writing hit songs and how his compositional technique would often use dissonant chords or melodic ideas that would repeat but change chord sequences or have notes that build with added layers as a way to express the passions, problems and emotions of the characters in his shows. The four songs that Kapilow focused on for this concert were "Send in the Clowns," "Finishing the Hat," "Too Many Mornings" and "Getting Married Today."

For "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music, Kapilow spoke about how the structure of the song and the selection of chords and notes signifies the longing of the character singing it. He broke the song down into sections to demonstrate how Sondheim begins with a simple four-note section, then adds a triplet to establish the longing of the character but then returns to the previous four-note section to identify the resolution and heartbreak the character feels once the reality that she and her lover are in different places sets in. He also talked about how "clear thinking about mixed feelings," a quote from the poet W.H. Auden, perfectly sums up Sondheim's approach to this song and many others in his canon. Sally Wilfert's performance of the piece was exquisite.

For "Finishing the Hat" from Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer Prize winning Sunday in the Park with George, which focuses on the impressionist painter George Seurat, Kapilow first spoke about how the staccato rhythms of the piece mirror Seurat's pointillist style of painting. He then demonstrated how Sondheim's song structure and choice of notes echo Seurat's feelings, and express the words and emotions that Seurat is unable to state. The song was given a dramatic interpretation from Michael Winther.

This was followed by the soaring duet "Too Many Mornings" from Follies, and Kapilow focused on how the style, structure and selection of notes and chords demonstrate the heartbreak, emotion, regret and longing of the two characters who sing it. The last song that was deconstructed was the comical number "Getting Married Today" from Company, which Wilfert, Winther, and local artist Janine Smith delivered perfectly after Kapilow broke it apart to show how even in a comical number Sondheim's music accentuates the uncertainty of the humorous lyrics of the piece.

A question and answer session followed, as well as two encore pieces, "The Little Things You Do Together" from Company and "No One Is Alone" from Into the Woods. My only complaint with the entire evening was that for these two additional songs it would have been nice if Kapilow mentioned something in each number that we should be listening for musically as a way to connect both with the musical composition dissection that came before.

The beauty of Kapilow's concerts are that when you hear the full song after hearing his dissection of the compositions, it's almost like hearing the number fresh for the first time and clearly seeing how a composer like Sondheim is even more of a master than you previously thought.

Rob Kapilow: What Makes It Great? Finishing the Hat: The Songs of Stephen Sondheim was performed at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, March 15th 2018. Information for upcoming concerts at the SCPA can be found at

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