Stephen Sondheim: Master of Reinvention
Stephen Sondheim transformed musical theatre through his groundbreaking works – yet he never appreciated his true impact, writes James Inverne
It is five months since Stephen Sondheim died at the unshocking age of 91. Yet the profound sense of shock, of a gaping hole that nothing but his own work can fill, still permeates the entwining worlds of music and theatre. ‘I equate him to my hero, Gustav Mahler,’ says conductor Andrew Litton. ‘I’ve worked with many brilliant living composers, but none of those has had the same kind of impact on the world as Sondheim.’ Others, including Bernadette Peters – who unforgettably took on leading roles in his Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods – still sound stunned. ‘It’s so hard to understand that he’s not on the planet anymore; it’s just…strange,’ she says.
Truly great creative artists inevitably alter their art forms. A rare few do so several times over, and a still smaller number do it in more than one discipline. Sondheim was a master composer, a master lyricist and a master show-creator. While linked, those three crafts are not the same and he changed all three of them. In his hands, musicals became shifting – sometimes abstractly so – pieces of complex drama, to be sifted and fitted together in the audience’s minds.
It didn’t come from nowhere. As a youngster he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II, who himself had changed the course of musical theatre twice (with Show Boat and Oklahoma!). Hammerstein demanded that the wannabe composer first learn the mechanics of lyric-writing: the results were West Side Story (one of the best musicals of all time) with Leonard Bernstein, and Jule Styne’s Gypsy – not a bad start. Nor was his first songs-plus-lyrics show, the 1962 farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which ran for 964 performances, won six Tony Awards and became a film.
It was after Forum that Sondheim started to produce true masterpieces but, ironically, he never recaptured that hit-out-of-the-gate smash. Experimental, reinventing himself almost by the show, his musicals moved through contemporary dating drama Company (1970), nostalgic theatrical tragedy Follies (1971), poised waltz-time comedy A Little Night Music (1973), Japan-set Pacific Overtures (1976), Grand Guignol comedy-horror Sweeney Todd (1979), a tale of decaying friendship told backwards in Merrily We Roll Along (1981), an examination of the life and work of pointillist artist Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George (1984), fairy-tale mash-up Into the Woods (1986), a showcase of American presidential murderers in Assassins (1990), and twisted classical romance Passion (1994). And those are just the major ones. Some did moderate box-office. Others flopped – Merrily closed after a paltry 16 performances on Broadway. Yet the pattern, by and large, was the same. Show comes out, show does OK (usually), show closes, show is later hailed as a masterpiece, constantly revived and revered.
‘So much of his stuff was ahead of its time,’ says Litton, who conducted famous concert performances of Sweeney Todd with the New York Philharmonic in 2000 (happily, preserved on record). ‘Audiences weren’t ready for it when it first came out. Once they experienced it, it opened the doors to everyone else trying to be like him. Sondheim wasn’t afraid to use multiple genres within a work: Sweeney Todd has everything from opera to waltzes to almost a Schubert lied, and much more. And with Sondheim, you wouldn’t come out humming the songs; instead, you came out with this whole experience in your brain, and your head exploding because there was so much information, so many different emotions.’
For many, it is that barrage of gifts that is so irresistible – fusillades of brilliantly clever lyrics, plots so gloriously conceived that they sometimes aren’t even plots (looking at you, Company), and the way everything flows into a sea of endless compassion: for the characters and, through them, for actors and the audience. Maria Friedman, who created the role of Fosca in Passion and has performed in and directed many of Sondheim’s works, explains how these qualities can be found in the most minute of moments. ‘In Follies, in the song “Losing My Mind”, you get the line “The thought of you stays bright”,’ she says. ‘The word “bright” goes right down to a low note. The character is feeling low, and that “bright” has darkness to it. What she’s feeling is not brightness, it’s despair. The word “bright” also means piercing. Sondheim loves those contradictions, the contradictions of being alive. With everything he writes, his characters say one thing and also mean another – “I love you, I can’t love you, I wish I could”. For most of us, what we say is not actually what we feel. What is more important is what you feel underneath – and Steve leaves room for the actor, for the humanity. The person who interprets it has space to bring their own life to it. Sondheim doesn’t dictate or decide. He asks questions, and there are rarely definite answers.’
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It can be a painful process. ‘I directed Sunday in Chicago in 2004, with Audra McDonald and Michael Cerveris,’ says actor and director Lonny Price (who created the role of Charlie in Merrily). ‘We were all having difficulties in our personal relationships. And it was hard to get through rehearsals, because we were all emotionally so raw, and that show just felt so truthful about what we were all going through. Sondheim said the songs were never about him, but so keen and so on target was his understanding of human emotion and heartbreak that many moments in the shows, however old you are, they keep meaning different things to you. The material grows with you, or you grow with it, and it gets richer because you understand more.’
Friedman, mid-rehearsals for her Sondheim tribute show at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, agrees, and adds a caveat. ‘I did Passion when I was going through a breakup. Fosca was a person who was obsessed and didn’t know how to love healthily – it was a daily lesson that it was better for me to let go than to hang on. That caused me unbelievable pain; it was like tapping on an open wound every night. People in the show who knew what I was going through used to watch from the wings and say they couldn’t breathe, because they knew the relevance to my own life. But as a performer, you can’t be the one sobbing. You’ve got to know where that goes, let it go there and then you need to focus it like a laser beam, offering it in a healing way, for the audience. You have to get out of the way at that point. You bring your life to Sondheim, not for catharsis, but in order to offer.’
Within the works themselves, however, Sondheim also offers a balm for performers and audience alike, at least some of the time. Bernadette Peters remembers, of the original run of Sunday In The Park With George, 'There’s a lot of pain in the character I played, Dot. Here’s a girl very much in love with George and he’s very much in love with her, because she understands his passion, she loves his work and because of all that she also understands how much he gives to it and how he can’t give enough to her - and that’s why she has to leave. She’s pregnant with his child, she has the baby and he won’t even look at it. So as the story goes on it becomes increasingly heartbreaking for her. But I used to wait for her climactic song, “Move On” because Sondheim finally gives her this uplifting moment, uplifting for Dot the character and for me playing her. To play that moment was almost like meditating; she would have all the answers, and those high notes would resonate in my head. Singing it with Mandy there as well, it would be my healing moment after having gone through all of that.'
The music is suffused with that multi-dimensional richness. Reviewers used to view Sondheim as a great lyricist and only a good composer – something he hated, having studied composing with the distinguished modernist Milton Babbitt, while regarding lyric-writing as ‘grunt work’. That view has changed.
‘I regard Sondheim as one of the great American composers,’ says pianist Anthony de Mare, whose Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim project has seen dozens of leading composers contribute piano miniatures based on Sondheim songs. ‘The mission of my project was to show him as a composer. And there is so much in his music; it can take many approaches. Both Gabriel Kahane and Kevin Puts opted to tackle “Being Alive” from Company, and each did it completely differently. The song depicts the character, Bobby, trying to open himself up, wanting a relationship. Gabe’s perception was that Bobby wouldn’t be able to embrace this, so in his version, every time he gives you a portion of the melody it quickly evaporates. Kevin Puts sees it as celebratory, so his version is a celebration of Sondheim’s utterly unique harmonic vocabulary – starting serene, and in a very virtuosic way building harmonically and emotionally to a huge climax.’
Sondheim’s process was as thoughtful as the results. ‘He wrote slowly,’ says Peters, ‘When we workshopped Sunday, he was writing it as we were doing it. A new song would come in every day. We’d wait, agog. I remember the day he came in with “Finishing the Hat”; Mandy Patinkin, as George, loved it so much he put it in that night. The character had a sketchbook, and Mandy hid the lyrics in the sketchbook! He hadn’t had time to learn it, but couldn’t wait to do it.’
Yet there was also something more emotional, says Peters, something of the all-consuming method actor to Sondheim. ‘He took on each show as an actor taking on a role – he would inhabit the show’s unique personality. When he worked with me on Sally in Follies, he would say, “I know exactly what her house looks like, what her life’s like.” He delved so deeply, and he went into everything. So, his writing takes you where you need to be, because he’s already chosen the best way.’
Thoughtful, emotional – also personal. Sondheim once told me, ‘I’ve spent years in therapy trying to understand why my shows aren’t as successful as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s.’ Lonny Price believes he never appreciated the contribution he had made. ‘At the end, no, I don’t think he had recognised what he had done,’ says Price. ‘When I was younger, I used to collect The New York Times theatre ads. I’d saved the ones from Company and Follies, with all the glorious review quotes, and I showed them to Steve. He looked at this slew of compliments, and he said, “Well, this guy didn’t like Forum, this one walked out of this.” He only saw the negative. That was very sad. I don’t think he ever came to a point where he felt he had done what he had wanted to or as much as he had wanted to. He continued to look at success based on how long the shows ran. He’d look at Phantom and say, “That’s a hit”. Somehow, he wanted to convince himself that they weren’t successful, with all of the evidence to the contrary. He chose to do things that interested him, and yet when they were ahead of their time or didn’t bring in a mass audience, he was disappointed.’
The work, though, could bring him a very pure kind of joy. After the New York Philharmonic Sweeney Todd, Litton describes the audience reaction as ‘like an animal roar. And out came Steve for his bow and the sound of 2,500 people screaming, it was actually scary!’ But the real reward? ‘Afterwards he and I walked off and shared an elevator down to the dressing rooms. And he did a little dance – a jig! – all to himself in the elevator. I’ll never forget that.’
Price’s favourite Sondheim memory is similar. ‘I put together a birthday concert for him in New York, and we had the camera on him – he didn’t know. And seeing his intense emotional responses to the performances, watching him watch his material with an audience that was so enamoured of it all, was very moving.’
You can see this sort of thing in some of the many YouTube videos of Sondheim watching singers perform his music. It’s as though he can’t help himself. The eyes half-close, the eyebrows go up and if he’s happy, they dance and the head sways gently. And those of us who love Sondheim’s work feel happy because we wanted him to be happy. Because through his shows, we have come to know ourselves a little bit more, and a little bit better. And I hope he knew.
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This article was published in BBC Music Magazine's May 2022 issue.
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