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Could Good Poets Make Good Musicals? Edna St. Vincent Millay and Renascence

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Carmel Dean had worked closely with celebrated musicians and theater artists ranging from Green Day to Chita Rivera, but she panicked when she met Stephen Sondheim, not because she revered him – although she does – but because he asked her what she was working on. She had heard that Sondheim believed you should never set poems to music, but that’s precisely what she was doing. “I’m writing a show about Edna St. Vincent Millay,” she confessed “and all of the songs are set to her poems.”
He looked at her briefly, and then started to recite Millay’s “Renascence” — the exact poem that is the title of Dean’s musical, and that figures prominently in the musical’s book, as I relate in my article on  “Renascence” for TDF Stages, entitled Making Edna St. Vincent Millay Sing

What Sondheim actually has said on the subject is more nuanced: “One difference between poetry and lyrics is that lyrics sort of fade into the background. They fade on the page and live on the stage when set to music.”
Dean understood that Millay’s poems don’t fade. “The language is so dense. She often uses words that are no longer familiar to us. In setting her poems to music, I had to be sure I was allowing the audiences to connect with the emotion of the poem.” One of her techniques? Having the singers belt out “oooh”s in-between the stanzas. “I needed to add ooohs and ahhs to let the audience’s ear settle before digesting more of the language.”

Sample of Carmel Dean’s songs, with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “lyrics,” from “Renascence”:

Exiled
Searching my heart for its true sorrow,
This is the thing I find to be:
That I am weary of words and people,
Sick of the city, wanting the sea;

Wanting the sticky, salty sweetness
Of the strong wind and shattered spray;
Wanting the loud sound and the soft sound
Of the big surf that breaks all day.

Always before about my dooryard,
Marking the reach of the winter sea,
Rooted in sand and dragging drift-wood,
Straggled the purple wild sweet-pea;

Always I climbed the wave at morning,
Shook the sand from my shoes at night,
That now am caught beneath great buildings,
Stricken with noise, confused with light.

If I could hear the green piles groaning
Under the windy wooden piers,
See once again the bobbing barrels,
And the black sticks that fence the weirs,

If I could see the weedy mussels
Crusting the wrecked and rotting hulls,
Hear once again the hungry crying
Overhead, of the wheeling gulls,

Feel once again the shanty straining
Under the turning of the tide,
Fear once again the rising freshet,
Dread the bell in the fog outside,—

I should be happy,—that was happy
All day long on the coast of Maine!
I have a need to hold and handle
Shells and anchors and ships again!

I should be happy, that am happy
Never at all since I came here.
I am too long away from water.
I have a need of water near.

 

Time Does Not Bring Relief

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

 

Figs from Thistles: First Fig

My candle burns at both ends
I shall not last the night
But ah my foes, and oh my friends.
It gives a lovely light.

The Penitent

I had a little Sorrow,
Born of a little Sin,
I found a room all damp with gloom
And shut us all within;
And, “Little Sorrow, weep,” said I,
“And, Little Sin, pray God to die,
And I upon the floor will lie
And think how bad I’ve been!”

Alas for pious planning —
It mattered not a whit!
As far as gloom went in that room,
The lamp might have been lit!
My Little Sorrow would not weep,
My Little Sin would go to sleep —
To save my soul I could not keep
My graceless mind on it!

So up I got in anger,
And took a book I had,
And put a ribbon on my hair
To please a passing lad.
And, “One thing there’s no getting by —
I’ve been a wicked girl,” said I;
“But if I can’t be sorry, why,
I might as well be glad!”

 

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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