Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday

Sondheim's tunes aren't always the best, but he knows how to put the theatre in musical theatre

Turning 80 years old today is Stephen Sondheim, possibly the most famous living writer of songs for musical theatre. (The only person of comparable fame is Andrew Lloyd Webber, who also celebrates his birthday today, though he’s only 62.) Sondheim is certainly the greatest cult figure in musical theatre, someone whose fan following has transformed the perception of his career. From a purely commercial point of view, his career has been a great start followed by a lot of disappointments. But his fans, imitators and followers have made him into a key figure in modern theatrical history.

Few writers have ever had as successful a start in theatre as Sondheim did. After a stint writing for the sitcom Topper, and writing music and lyrics for the unproduced Saturday Night, he was hired (at the age of only 27) to write lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music for West Side Story. Originally, Bernstein and Sondheim were going to collaborate on the lyrics, and early posters had them sharing credit, but Sondheim rewrote nearly all the lyrics, to the point where Bernstein took his name off the lyrics credit: “The only line of mine left is ‘Gee Officer Krupke, Krup You!’,” he told Sondheim. West Side Story, despite the challenging subject matter and approach, was a huge hit (the cast recording alone sold over a million copies). Sondheim was then going to write both music and lyrics for Gypsy, a show that WSS director Jerome Robbins was creating for Ethel Merman, but Merman wanted a more experienced composer, so Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Jule Styne’s music. (Sondheim also did some incidental musical work, stitching together reprises of Styne’s tunes into the famous second act musical monologue, “Rose’s Turn.”) The result was another big hit. When Sondheim finally got to write music and lyrics, for Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove’s musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, the result was… yes, another big hit. That’s three Broadway shows, three hits.

Though Forum‘s success was attributed more to the book than the score, Sondheim’s songs demonstrated one of his great gifts as a theatre writer: the ability to shape his songs to what the show needs as a theatrical whole, not just their own individual impact. And also, his willingness to test and revise ideas of what songs should do in a musical. The traditional idea is that the songs are the high points of a musical. But Forum was such a wild fast-paced farce in the book scenes that the songs have the opposite function: they’re the spots where the show slows down a little and takes a breather. So Sondheim provided a light, charming score for a crazy, loud musical. (My own favourite song in the show, which is usually cut and shouldn’t be, is the adorable “Pretty Little Picture.”) However, Sondheim also showed that he could go too far with a concept absent a strong director to put the brakes on: his original opening number, “Love Is In the Air,” followed through on this idea by providing a sweet, light, cute opening that left the audience confused about what kind of show this would be. Jerome Robbins came in to re-stage the opening and made Sondheim write a new song that would tell the audience directly what to expect:

Then, as often happens when someone starts big, Sondheim floundered a bit. His next show, Anyone Can Whistle, an absurdist satire written by WSS and Gypsy writer Arthur Laurents, closed in only a week. (How much you like the Anyone Can Whistle score may define how big a Sondheim fan you are. It’s a deliberately grinding, weird-sounding score where a lot of the material is derived from the first few notes, and where orchestrator Don Walker banished violins and violas from the orchestra. To me it’s a rather ugly-sounding score, but others argue that it’s supposed to sound that way.) Stung by the flop, Sondheim took his last lyrics-only job on what promised to be a can’t-miss hit, Do I Hear a Waltz?, written by Laurents and with music by Richard Rodgers. Sondheim and Rodgers produced a lovely score, but they got along very badly, nobody was satisfied with the work, and it didn’t succeed.

For the next few years, Sondheim wrote no Broadway shows, working on unproduced projects as well as the one-hour TV musical Evening Primrose (starring his friend Anthony Perkins).


Finally, in 1970, he struck up a partnership that would redefine his career and the musical theatre. Harold Prince, the producer of West Side Story and Forum, had gone into directing; he’d had a huge success with Cabaret. A young writer-actor named George Furth asked Prince to produce a set of one-act plays about married life. Prince decided to fuse the plays into one evening-length musical by adding a single character to observe all the other married couples, and he asked Sondheim to write the songs. Company was a new kind of musical comedy: plotless, non-linear, cynical about marriage family (though, ultimately, concluding that the single life is even less fulfilling). Sondheim’s songs, orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick — who has scored all but two of Sondheim’s subsequent shows — had a sound that fused Broadway with contemporary pop and experimental music; they also went even farther than he had ever before in changing how songs would work in a show. Again, a lot of Sondheim’s imitators — which means just about everyone who writes a “serious” musical — think that it’s all about characters singing out their feelings. Sondheim did exactly the opposite, with a central character who almost never sings what he really feels (we have to read between the lines and know that he’s in denial) and songs that comment on the action rather than growing out of it. The most powerful song in the show, “Another Hundred People,” is sung by a very minor character, and it’s about the urban world where people never really know each other — but to know that this song is really about the main character, we have to pay careful attention, or catch the trumpets’ reference to his motif (“Bobby, Baby”) near the end of the song.

Company was not only Sondheim’s show, of course, and the thing to understand about Sondheim — something he frequently mentions — is that he rarely originates projects. He doesn’t write scripts for his shows (he can write scripts; he and Perkins wrote the mystery movie The Last of Sheila) and he is often working toward the conception of the director, in this case Prince (along with choreographer Michael Bennett, whose work was the hit of the show). So Company was as much Prince’s show as anyone’s, and Prince had the final say: he had Sondheim throw out his ambiguous final song, “Happily Ever After,” in favour of a more unambiguously positive revised version, “Being Alive.”

Despite its experimentation and its lack of musical-comedy conventions, Company actually made money. It was one of the last Sondheim shows to turn a profit in its initial Broadway run. The next and perhaps best Prince-Sondheim show, Follies, lost a ton of money despite running over 500 performances. Written by James Goldman, he and Sondheim originally had the idea to do a murder-mystery musical about a reunion of people from an old Broadway revue. This developed into another plotless show where the reunion alternates with flashbacks to the characters’ past, along with specialty numbers that are pastiches of old Broadway songs. At the end of the show, the different worlds collide and the main characters have big showstopping numbers where they face up to the personal dysfunctions that have ruined their lives. The most famous song, “Losing My Mind,” had Sally (Dorothy Collins) confronting her unhealthy obsession with another man in a parody/pastiche/tribute to old torch songs, in a lyric that is at once generic and totally specific to the character’s life:

The show was one of the biggest ever: it calls for a big cast, chorus, orchestra, glitzy costumes, special effects, elaborate choreography. It was so huge that Prince couldn’t direct the whole thing himself; he and Bennett co-directed it. It cost so much to produce that it could never have made money; it was a “folly” all its own. Follies became almost a focal point for arguments about how serious and ambitious musical theatre could be. Because Sondheim’s huge, almost two-hour score consisted of pastiches of almost every type of song from Broadway history, it was a tribute to the musical but also a repudiation of it: the message, contrary to the nostalgia craze of the early ’70s, was that the Good Old Days are over, that they never really existed except in our minds, that the messages of these old songs were lies, and that we have to accept our loss of innocence and move on. Here is some footage, shot in the theatre, of the most famous number, where the middle-aged women perform side by side with their more graceful younger selves; it’s grainy and unclear, but at least it gives an idea of what the show was doing: using the tools of musical comedy with a thematic seriousness usually reserved for nonmusical plays.

After the bath they took on Follies, Prince and Sondheim followed up with a more commercial project, A Little Night Music, based on Ingmar Bergman’s comedy Smiles of a Summer Night. Sondheim’s gimmick here was writing the whole score either in 3/4 time or multiples thereof, making everything sound vaguely waltz-like; he also asked Prince to include a group of unidentified singers who comment on the action. But while the biggest hit from the show (Sondheim’s only genuine pop hit as a composer-lyricist) was “Send In the Clowns,” the best number in the show — and my favourite Sondheim song — is the Act 1 finale, “A Weekend In the Country.” Again, this is theatre music: Sondheim didn’t even write it until Prince had already planned out the action. It gives lots of plot exposition while characterizing everyone individually; it’s at once a parody of opera (Sondheim and Tunick quote Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier toward the end) and a really operatic, thrilling number. And it’s really funny, showing off Sondheim’s rhyming skills. Sondheim is perhaps the greatest rhymer in the history of lyric writing, a master of everything that rhymes can do, and this song is loaded with them, including the famous internal rhyme “Hopelessly shattered by Saturday night.”

By this time, Prince and Sondheim were the team known for always trying something new: every musical was different, every show had a completely different approach to songwriting within Sondheim’s basic style (which involves a lot of repetiton of phrases, chords, etc; the easiest way to parody Sondheim is to play one chord over and over). Pacific Overtures, which like Company started life as a nonmusical before Prince asked Sondheim to write songs, was an ambitious retelling of how Japan was “Westernized,” a post-Vietnam political commentary and a historical pageant rolled into one. Sondheim once again wrote songs that were mostly at the periphery of the action, commenting on themes rather than characters or plot. His favourite of all his songs, “Someone In a Tree,” is sung by three people who witnessed the signing of the trade agreement between Japan and America: an old man who remembers being there, his younger self (played by Gedde Watnabe from Sixteen Candles), who could see them but not hear, and a warrior hiding under the floor, who can hear but not see. They muse on the question of whether history is about the big things and people, or the little things and the observers: “If I weren’t [here], who’s to say/Things would happen here the way/That they’re happening?” And like all Sondheim’s best songs, this is very closely tied to the staging concept of the director; it almost doesn’t make sense on a record.

Pacific Overtures also includes “Please Hello,” a song about various countries forcing trade agreements on Japan; it’s way too long, but may be the most intricately rhymed song in history. Take a look at this one verse out of many (internal rhymes in bold):

Her majesty considers the arrangements to be tentative
Until we ship a proper diplomatic representative.
We don't foresee that you will be the least bit argumentative,
So please ignore the man-o'-war we brought as a preventative.

Sondheim’s relationship with Prince started to sour a bit after that. Sweeney Todd, one of the few ideas Sondheim brought to Prince rather than vice versa, was conceived by Sondheim as a small-scale revenge melodrama. Prince felt that the story was basically pointless (something that was confirmed to a certain extent by Tim Burton’s movie version) and decided to impose a thematic concept on it, making it about the industrial revolution and the individual vs. the system. The show was successful, though not necessarily profitable, but it was the first project where Sondheim and Prince were almost working at cross-purposes. Here’s the ending of the production, taped live in the theatre with Canadian Len Cariou as Sweeney:

After the team suffered a humiliating flop with Merrily We Roll Along, about how young people with big dreams turn into middle-aged sellouts, Prince stopped working with Sondheim. (Sondheim’s songs are the only part of Merrily that works, though in my opinion it has some poor songs, and “Not a Day Goes By,” a repetitive meandering mess, is one of my least-favourite songs in the musical theatre canon.) Prince had more success applying his ambitious themes and staging concepts to more conventionally tuneful shows, like Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. Sondheim hadn’t produced a hit song since “Send In the Clowns,” though he was clearly hoping for a pop hit or two from Merrily (one song, “Good Thing Going,” is plugged from beginning to end, almost begging Sinatra or somebody to record it), and he was getting a reputation as an uncommercial songwriter.

So in the next phase of his career, Sondheim embraced the “uncommercial” label, turning to smaller-scale theatre. His next show, Sunday In the Park With George, written and directed by James Lapine, wasn’t really a commercial production; instead it started in workshops before being picked up for Broadway, and it used a reduced-size orchestra. It had few of the showstopping numbers of the Prince/Sondheim shows, and there was almost no dancing. It was basically a small-scale experimental play with music. The show won the Pulitzer prize (thanks in part to ferocious lobbying from Frank Rich in the New York Times) and pointed the way for a new kind of musical theatre that could adjust to the new economic realities of Broadway, where it was impossible to raise money for a huge, difficult show like Follies: go through workshops, be influenced by noncommercial theatre, and do what might be called a “chamber musical.” And where Sondheim pointed the way, many others have followed. The most famous song from this show, “Finishing the Hat,” is not on YouTube, but here’s the famous act 1 number where Mandy Patinkin, as Georges Seurat, finishes his famous painting. Note that Sondheim uses hardly any rhymes in this particular lyric.

Sondheim’s output since then consisted of two shows with Lapine, Into the Woods and Passion, and two shows written by Pacific Overtures’ John Weidman, Assassins and Road Show. Assassins is probably the most important of these despite its short initial run; it’s a return to the historical-pageant style of Pacific Overtures, with long songs that are almost like numbers in a revue; the dialogue and musical scenes are supposed to add up to a portrait of the dark side of America and why people will do anything (including kill a President) to get what they believe to be their rightful moment in the sun. The theme song of the show, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” is a bitter parody of feel-good songs (packed with lots of triple and internal rhymes):

Sondheim hasn’t written a new show in a long time; Road Show was begun in the late ’90s and revised for years thereafter (including one failed version, Bounce, directed by none other than Hal Prince). Recently he’s been concentrating on his upcoming book, “Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics,” which will have his complete lyrics along with annotations, comments and anecdotes from Sondheim himself. Some of his cultists can be over-bearing in their unwillingness to believe that serious musical theatre existed before him, or that he’s not 100% the creator of his shows. And his imitators have sometimes learned from his biggest faults — melodic monotonousness, over-length (“A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd was, is and remains absurdly overlong for its one joke) — while not sharing his greatest virtues, like careful craftsmanship and above all theatricality. But those virtues make all the other stuff irrelevant, because they make his best work immortal. It’s not just the brilliant rhyming or the ingenious musical structures, or even the ability to get the right character details into every song; it’s the fact that the songs are true theatre pieces, that work with stage action, lighting, performance, design, everything, to create the perfect emotional effect. This song from A Little Night Music is typical. It’s typical in the brilliant rhyming, the Ravel-inspired melody, and the great throwaway jokes, but it’s also typical in the way it incorporates action, dialogue and rapid-fire exchanges between the characters. And it’s typical of Sondheim because instead of the character coming right out and saying what he feels, he says the opposite (he’s come there because he’s frustrated with his young wife, but instead he sings about how great she is). And it’s typical because instead of being static, the characters end the song in a different place — emotionally — from where they began. That’s not just a musical, it’s musical theatre.

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