On the Genius of Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim presents an award for Best Director during the National Board Of Review of Motion Pictures award gala in New York in 2008. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
The musical master turns 90 on Sunday.

To understand the influence Stephen Sondheim has had on the musical theater, imagine in the rock world that one artist had roughly the impact of Bob Dylan plus the Beatles. The undisputed master of his medium is turning 90 (March 22), and his influence remains as dominant as ever, even as two major New York productions of his work sit frozen and anxious, awaiting the all-clear signal.

Rock, once a province of brainless lyrics and cotton-candy musical schemes, entered maturity with first the protest anthems and apocalyptic prophecies of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), then the anguished soul-searching and musical shadows of Beatles for Sale (1964). Broadway, a cultural lagging indicator guided by the tastes of its gray-haired audience, grew up a few years later, in 1970, with Sondheim’s landmark musical Company. While respecting the medium’s traditional devotion to bubbly delight, Sondheim dug out deep new foundations, taking stock of the reverse-Copernican revolution that had swept through popular culture. Now the self was at the center of everything, all was subjective, the artist’s gaze was directed inward, and he was mightily unsettled by what he found there. “O what a beautiful mornin’, oh what a beautiful day” gave way to a plea for “someone to force you to care, someone to make you come through . . . As frightened as you of being alive.” Sondheim’s protagonist, Bobby (who is to be played by a woman, Katrina Lenk, in the latest Broadway revival, which was due to open on Sondheim’s birthday) bobs along on a surface of cocktail parties and flings without forging any emotional bonds with anyone and cannot understand the source of his disaffection. In the languorous, beautiful but wounded morning-after song “Barcelona,” Bobby hesitantly asks a flight attendant he has slept with to stay instead of jetting off to Spain, then panics when she does remain. The song has the same aching fineness — that delicate despair — captured by John Lennon in “Norwegian Wood” five years earlier. Company rips through ingenious triple-speed patter (“Getting Married Today”), hilarious caricature (“The Ladies Who Lunch”) and urban lament (“Another Hundred People”) on its way to the finale of all finales, “Being Alive.” Company is a colossus, and yet it isn’t even Sondheim’s finest achievement. He had two even greater masterpieces coming within the decade.

“You’re always sorry, you’re always grateful,” was a married man’s weary take on marriage in Company, and Sondheim mined the possibilities of equivocation, hesitance, doubt. He practiced social distancing from his own core, notably in the song he has often called his favorite of his own creations, “Someone in a Tree,” from Pacific Overtures (1976), in which the narrator luxuriates in hiding, in maintaining distance from history and memory. By contrast, in the enchanting A Little Night Music (1973) Sondheim settled into the one sunroom in the chilly mansion that was the career of Ingmar Bergman and focused himself on romance. As this is Sondheim, his choice of source material was that rare romcom (the 1956 film Smiles of a Summer Night) that contains a Russian roulette scene. But the show finds Sondheim with a big heart, engorged and pulsing with feeling. The barrel-aged longings of Sondheim’s middle-aged characters are more potent than the hectic obsessions of the desperate youth he developed in “Somewhere,” “Tonight,” “Maria,” and the other lyrics he wrote for West Side Story (1957), whose music was composed by Leonard Bernstein. Early in A Little Night Music, after three of the principal characters map the contours of their desires in the songs “Now,” “Soon” and “Later,” Sondheim interweaves all three together in one magnificent helix, “Soon/Later/Now,” full of absurdity and misdirection and hope. Later, Sondheim will look at love via an old woman’s satisfied remembrance of a life of rumpled sheets (“Liaisons,”), a young woman’s lip-licking anticipation of the same (“The Miller’s Son”), rageful jealousy (“You Must Meet My Wife”), parting (“Send in the Clowns”), and the numbness of being wronged (“Every Day a Little Death”). This is the greatest genius on the greatest subject; in two and a half lambent hours Sondheim rescues love, reclaims its conceptual complexity from all of the insipid lyricists and three-chord composers who profaned it. This is the greatest musical ever written.

Or possibly it’s tied, with Sweeney Todd. Broadway makes a virtue of its frivolousness and limitations, but Sweeney Todd sets out to overwhelm the borders of its form and succeeds so completely that it is frequently performed in opera houses. Intricately and thrillingly plotted, the story of a vengeful barber who slashes his clients’ throats (then makes pies of their flesh) unleashed Sondheim’s mischievous misanthropy in the sanguinary waltz “A Little Priest,” a riot of wit in which Sweeney and his partner Mrs. Lovett consider the possibilities of human meat pies, such as “a shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top.” The music ranges from the thundering (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”) to the limpid (“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”), set off by those impeccable comic numbers (“The Worst Pies in London,” “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”). Sondheim’s affinity for obsession enabled him to so fully inhabit Sweeney that he made this furious serial killer a figure of sympathy. Sweeney’s inevitable fall hits the audience like Sophoclean tragedy. Sweeney Todd is hilarious, gorgeous, terrifying, immense.

Those three constitute a brilliant career, but in addition to them some of Sondheim’s second-tier works approach perfection, notably Sunday in the Park With George (1984), in which Sondheim reflected on his own art via a painting by George Seurat, and Into the Woods (1987), whose woozy second act is an unbuilding of fairy tales. Even two famous Sondheim flops, Follies (1971) and Merrily We Roll Along (1981), later became adored. A song from the former was intended as the international anthem of brassy old dames but today its defiance sounds personal to Sondheim: “I’ve seen it all and my dear/I’m still here.” Take a curtain call, Mr. Sondheim.


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