Cabaret Setlist: “Sand” – Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

May 15, 2020 | By | Add a Comment

Repertoire for the Once and Future American Songbook

Song #2 in this new running series.

Few among us dispute the idea that Stephen Sondheim is the most important living American composer/lyricist in musical theatre. He has raised the artistic bar for songwriting so high that giants in the sky could effortlessly dance the limbo beneath it.

The question is, what Sondheim to sing? Some songs in his catalog have been done to death, or nearly. Good as they are, how many times can we hear “Send in the Clowns,” “Being Alive” or “I’m Still Here” without getting fidgety? And those are just the most obvious titles. What about a song like “The Boy From…,” a comedic retort to “The Girl from Ipanema” that Sondheim and Mary Rodgers wrote for 1966‘s The Mad Show?  It’s since been sung by crowds of whispery chanteuses who want to get their Astrud Gilberto on.

The good news is that Sondheim has written tons of songs, and there are still some fine ones that don’t get all that much play. Celia Berk included the little-known “Sand” for her first CD, 2014’s You Can’t Rush Spring. She subsequently sang it in live performances.

 

“Sand” was written for a musical film that Rob Reiner hoped to direct in the early 1990s, called Singing Out Loud. Screenwriter William Goldman worked on the script, but the film was never made.

Sondheim writes about Singing Out Loud in Look, I Made a Hat, his second volume of collected, annotated lyrics. The film was to have been a backstager, about the creation of a movie musical. Its protagonist was a “superstar/actress/conglomerate” who is producing and starring in the project. Though Sondheim doesn’t mention it in Look, I Made a Hat, Barbra Streisand was cited in press reports as having been in talks to take the leading role.

The song’s lyrics explore the ways that “love is just sand”—both for good and for ill. Like sand, love can seem a welcoming, pleasurable thing, but it can also be an irritant. Worst of all, it can be treacherous: “Soon as you stand, / You begin to sink.” There have been sand-focused pop songs over the decades—“(I’ve Got) Sand in My Shoes,” “Love Letters in the Sand,” and “Song on the Sand” come to mind—but the difference here is that Sondheim extends the metaphor into a conceit, giving us a Tin Pan Alley take on an Elizabethan sonnet:

It can seem smooth,

When really it’s bumpy,

It can look soft and be dry,

Warm and be soothing,

Hot and make you jumpy,

Although you’ll never know until you try:

Is it the Sahara

Or a beach beneath a Caribbean sky?

“Sand” would have been heard in the movie’s first moments—depicting rough-cut footage of a disastrous production number from the film within the film. Sondheim and Goldman envisioned the song as “a foxtrot in the style of the Gershwins” that would soon morph absurdly into “an MTV rock number, complete with male dancers dressed as Arab brigands, riding camels.” Perhaps the writers’ muse was not Streisand but, rather, Madonna, who had sung Sondheim’s songs (including the Oscar-winning “Sooner or Later”) in the 1990 film Dick Tracy.

Berk’s arranger (and co-producer of her CD), Alex Rybeck, suggested the number, though Berk wasn’t immediately convinced it was a “keeper.” In those days, she wasn’t yet known for her interest in unearthing hidden musical gems. “It was more a case of finding material where I wouldn’t have to get the interpretations of other singers out of my head, or the heads of my listeners,” she explains. She wound up performing the song as a ballad with a loping, hypnotic tempo.

“Alex and I spent time deciding where the instrumental break would start, agreeing that I would hold the word “sand” over the start of the tenor sax solo, and considering where I would come back in for the vocal repeat. Alex believes that if a song is not well known, you have an obligation not to distort it. In our Song Notes at GramercyNightingale.com, he has written that he wanted to give it a lazy, bluesy, slightly ominous feel, with the cello and vibes adding a touch of sensuality.”

When it came time to perform the song live, director Jeff Harnar helped Berk physicalize the elements in the song’s progression. It seems the lyrics can be almost as treacherous as their subject matter. ”I’ve got tangled in them from time to time,” Berk notes. In the song’s first stanza, for instance, sand is ”slippery,” while, in the second, it is “slipping.” No wonder one loses one’s place.

The song has become something of a signature number for Berk. She performed it both at the 2015 Bistro Awards and at the Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention. A woman even asked her for the lyrics, so that she could read them at her husband’s funeral. 

At least one other performer has now recorded “Sand.” Jazz singer Cheryl Bentyne included it in her 2017 Sondheim album ReArrangement of Shadows. Her take is frenetic—and especially so in an elaborately produced music video, in which she emotes like an agitated Norma Desmond. One wrong lyric is sung twice: Bentyne tells us that you can’t get sand “out of your head” instead of “out of your hair” (a notion that make sense, perhaps, only when you’re talking ostriches). In the bargain, Bentyne misses the rhyme of “hair” with “there.”

 

Berk recalls a night on which she learned a vital lesson when singing the number. She was supposed to perform a few songs at an event, but illness had reduced her vocal range to “about three notes.” She and Harnar decided “Sand” could stay, but she would have to speak-sing it.

“The last thing Jeff said to me before I went on was, ‘This will change you as a singer forever.’  And it did. I sat on a stool, the melody pretty much fell away, and I just told a confessional story. I’m not sure any other song would have taught me that lesson or could have taught me that lesson. But, boy oh boy, those lyrics were all I really needed.”

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Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. In addition to reviewing for BistroAwards.com, he contributes regularly to theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com. Other reviews and articles have appeared in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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