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The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage
by Stefan Kanfer
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Sondheim vs. Sondheim
Stefan Kanfer
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Only a handful of major Broadway composers have written lyrics to accompany their own melodies: Irving Berlin, Noel Coward, Jerry Herman, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim. Of that extraordinary group, Sondheim enjoys the highest critical status. He has earned clutches of Tonys, a Grammy, an Oscar, the Kennedy Center and British Olivier Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize. Doctoral students study his compositions; he is a favorite of newspaper theater sections here and abroad; a quarterly magazine, The Sondheim Review, prints nothing but examinations of, and interviews with, the Master; and every year or so there is either a new Sondheim show or a revival of one of his past works. And still the writer ruefully observes, "I've never been popular."

That's not bogus self-deprecation. Sondheim's latest musical, Assassins, opened this spring to admiring reviews—and slammed shut after two months. A string of other Sondheim shows have had early closures and unprofitable runs, among them Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures (1976), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), and Passion (1994).

Sondheim's history of flops has been one of Broadway's greatest conundrums for almost half a century: Why should an artist who inspires such intense devotion be so resistible to so many theatergoers? Is it because he crams his lyrics with complex rhyme schemes and unexpected feints and thrusts—as in the aging beauty's lament in A Little Night Music?:

What was once a rare champagne
Is now just an amiable hock,
What once was a villa at least
Is "digs."
What once was a gown with train
Is now just a simple little frock,
What once was a sumptuous feast
Is figs.
No, no, not even figs—raisins.
Ah, liaisons!

But "Liaisons" is only one aspect of Sondheim's work. He can also write simple gags with the rhythm of a metronome, as in the tyrant's braggadocio for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:

I, in war the most admired,
In wit the most inspired,
In love the most desired,
In dress the best displayed,
I am a parade!

Have theatergoers stayed away because Sondheim's melodies can be as elusive as anything Leonard Bernstein ever wrote? Yet he can also compose tunes that a stone could hum: "Send in the Clowns," for example, a melody heard in elevators and restaurants around the world.

It's not an on-again-off-again talent that explains Sondheim's strange duality. Instead, the evidence suggests that there are two Sondheims, a mainstream artist and a contrarian, with a willfully perverse wish not to appeal to the general public. That second Sondheim has been in the ascendant for many years.

Starting with West Side Story, his Broadway debut as a wordsmith (Bernstein wrote the music), Sondheim displayed a gift for seizing an idea and giving it wings. Take the number "Gee, Officer Krupke." Before anyone had coined the term "political correctness," at a time when the idea of "root causes" only applied to diseased agriculture, a group of young malefactors mocked the juvenile courts that they blatantly abused:

Dear kindly Judge, your Honor
My parents treat me rough,
With all the marijuana,
They won't give me a puff.
They didn't wanna have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin' lizards, that's why I'm so bad!

My father beats my mommy,
My mommy clobbers me.
My grandpa's always plastered,
My grandma pushes tea,
My sister wears a mustache,
My brother wears a dress,
Goodness gracious, that's why I'm a mess!

Dear kindly social worker,
They say go earn a buck,
Like be a soda jerker,
Which means like be a shmuck.
It's not I'm anti-social,
I'm only anti-work,
Gloriosky, that's why I'm a jerk!

This number, deriding the fakery of the street-smart wise guys and exposing the emerging social-work and psychiatric no-fault orthodoxy, was remarkably prescient. Bernstein, who later personified radical chic in his support of the Black Panthers, would never return to the attitude of "Krupke." And Sondheim edged away from it, too, until he seemed to embrace what he once ridiculed.

The lyricist was just 27 when West Side Story opened to acclaim in the fall of 1957. Critics hailed Sondheim as a Broadway wunderkind. In the Journal-American, John McClain spoke for most of his colleagues: "Young Mr. Sondheim has gone all the way with the mood in his lyrics. His ballads are the lament of the sincere, and he can come up with the most hilarious travesty of our times—'Gee, Officer Krupke'—a plaint which should settle the problem of juvenile delinquency forever."

In 1957, Bernstein was one of America's foremost conductors and composers; director Jerome Robbins had established himself as one of the nation's most imaginative choreographers; and the book writer, Arthur Laurents, was a much produced playwright and scenarist. But who was this kid, this total unknown? Sondheim's astonishing arrival seemed a melodramatic deus ex machina. In fact, like most overnight discoveries, he had served a long and rigorous apprenticeship.

The only child of affluent dress manufacturer Herbert Sondheim, Stephen grew up in Manhattan until the age of ten. Then, in 1940, his parents divorced and his world went into reverse. He had to transfer from a comfortable New York school to a military academy. Home also changed, from a city apartment to a large country house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the boy lived with his mother, Janet Fox Sondheim, known as "Foxy."

After the split, Foxy became possessive and overbearing, casting her son as an emotional stand-in for his absent father. In Meryle Secrest's biography Stephen Sondheim: A Life, the subject speaks about his mother in the years following the divorce: "She would hold my hand in theaters. . . . I remember going to a play with her and she not only held my hand, but looked at me during the entire play. It was really upsetting." Then he became aware that she was trying to seduce him. "Well, she would sit across from me with her legs aspread. She would lower her blouse and that sort of stuff. . . . When my father left her, she substituted me for him. And she used me the way she had used him, to come on to and to berate, beat up on, you see. What she did for five years was treat me like dirt, but come on to me at the same time."

Thus began a strange, sorry-grateful relationship that would play out over a conflicted adolescence and young manhood. On the one hand, Stephen found himself severely discomfited by his mother's possessive and celebrity-collecting life-style. References to Foxy appeared in many a Sondheim song over the years, none more acrimonious than "The Ladies Who Lunch," describing wealthy women of a certain age:

Here's to the ladies who lunch—
Everybody laugh.
Lounging in their caftans
And planning a brunch
On their own behalf.
Off to the gym,
Then to a fitting,
Claiming they're fat.
And looking grim,
'Cause they've been sitting,
Choosing a hat.

Here's to the girls on the go—
Everybody tries.
Look into their eyes,
And you'll see what they know:
Everybody dies.
A toast to that invincible bunch,
The dinosaurs surviving the crunch.
Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch—
Everybody rise!

Yet he owed a great deal to one member of his mother's bunch—Oscar Hammerstein II. Her Bucks County neighbor provided the most important creative influence in Stephen's career. In early adolescence, Sondheim befriended Oscar's son, Jimmy, and began hanging around the Hammerstein house. When the Broadway pro learned that his young visitor wanted to write musicals, he offered avuncular encouragement and advice.

At 15, Stephen thought he was ready for the Big Time. He composed a score for his school musical and showed it to Oscar. In Sondheim & Co., biographer Craig Zadan quotes Stephen's account of that epochal meeting: "He said, 'Now you want my opinion as though I didn't really know you? Well, it's the worst thing I've ever read.' " As the youth's lower lip trembled, Oscar went on: "Now, I didn't say that it was untalented, I said it was terrible. And if you want to know why it was terrible, I'll tell you."

Hammerstein proceeded to rip apart every detail, from stage directions to rhymes. Recalled Sondheim, "At the risk of hyperbole, I'd say in that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime." Never did the man talk down to the boy. Slowly, deliberately, Oscar spoke of structure and the value of each word; how essential simplicity was; how to introduce character; the interrelationship of music and rhyme. "He was at least as good a critic as he was a writer. Most people think of Oscar as a kind of affable, idealistic lunkhead. Instead, he was a very sophisticated, sharp-tongued, articulate man," Sondheim noted.

Over the next few years, Hammerstein encouraged and instructed as Sondheim worked on various experiments, from a musical adaptation of the old George S. Kaufman-Marc Connelly comedy Beggar on Horseback to an adaptation of a serious play, Maxwell Anderson's High Tor. None reached the public, but all were stepping-stones to Broadway.

At Williams College, Sondheim majored in music and worked on the score for an original musical called Saturday Night. Upon graduation, he won a two-year fellowship to study with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt in New York. Babbitt remembered him well: "No one could have been more serious about his music than Steve. . . . He wanted his music to be as sophisticated and as knowing within the obvious restraints of a Broadway musical." Despite grandiose plans, Saturday Night proved another dead-end exercise. But the songs made ideal audition numbers for prospective backers. Sondheim's name soon got around at showbiz parties. To the cognoscenti, he became known as the best unknown songwriter in town.

That label wasn't to last much longer. Sondheim's work drew Bernstein's attention. The great musician wanted the young man to co-write West Side Story's lyrics. Working with a big name enticed Sondheim, but he held back. He considered himself primarily a musician, and he hated to share credit with anyone—even Lenny. What's more, he thought that the material was beyond his experience. "I can't do this show," he told his agent. "I've never been that poor, and I've never even known a Puerto Rican!" Advised that this was a story of star-crossed lovers, not a sociological treatise, he sighed like a prisoner and wrote like an angel. The rewards were a little fame, a lot of money, and his first movie sale.

Sondheim intended to make his next Broadway work a solo job, but it wasn't to be. An opportunity came up to work with Jule Styne on the ur-show business musical, Gypsy, and Sondheim grabbed it. Styne's brash melodies established the theme, and Sondheim amplified it with the bright cascading rhymes and assonances that would become his signature:

Whenever I go I know he goes.
Whenever I go I know she goes.
No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos,
Amigos,
Together!

Gypsy starred Ethel Merman as the adrenal mother of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and her sister, June Havoc. She was precisely the kind of woman Sondheim knew in his bones. He caught her psyche in the classic "Some People":

Some people sit on their butts;
Got the dream, yeah, but not the guts.
That's living for some people,
For some hum-drum people I suppose.
Well, they can stay and rot!
But not Rose!

Gypsy was another smash, annihilating any fears of a sophomore jinx and propelling Sondheim to his primary goal: writing words and music for a major musical comedy. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was the writer's true proving ground. For even with the explosively comic Zero Mostel, the Roman farce bombed out of town; no one in the audience seemed to know what the show was about. Over a weekend in Washington, D.C., Sondheim crafted a new opener, the chorale "Comedy Tonight." It provided a billboard for all that was to follow:

Pantaloons and tunics!
Courtesans and eunuchs!
Funerals and chases!
Baritones and basses!
Panderers! Philanderers!
Cupidity! Timidity!
Fakes! Mistakes!
Rhymes! Mimes!
Tumblers! Fumblers! Grumblers! Mumblers!
No royal curse, no Trojan horse,
And a happy ending, of course!
Goodness and badness,
Man in his madness,
This time it all turns out all right.
Tragedy tomorrow! Comedy tonight!

The song, letting the audience know that they were about to see a knockdown farce set to music, turned fortunes around. Forum opened at the Alvin Theater in May 1968 and ran for 964 performances—a longer Broadway run than West Side Story, than Gypsy, than any subsequent Sondheim show.

Now that it was clear that Sondheim was no fluke, he began to generate his own productions. This was no downhill slalom. The second time out on his own, Sondheim came up with Anyone Can Whistle, starring Angela Lansbury. A few songs had distinction, but Arthur Laurents's staging was so chaotic and campy that audiences began walking out during the first act. Nine performances later, it closed.

Elements of the show clung to the memories of everyone who worked on it. Sondheim, then in the middle of intensive psychoanalysis, was coming to grips not only with his long-suppressed homosexuality but also with his hatred of emotional intimacy. Tony Walton, who designed the sets and costumes, recalled the composer singing the title number, the lament of a woman yearning to express her deepest emotions:

What's hard is simple,
What's natural comes hard.
Maybe you could show me
How to let go,
Lower my guard,
Learn to be—
Free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.

Sondheim's rendition "seemed so autobiographical," Walton observed. "It made me think of Noel Coward on his seventieth birthday, singing, 'All I've had is a talent to amuse.' " Arthur Laurents agreed: "I always thought that song would be Steve's epitaph."

After the closing, Sondheim unwisely decided to collaborate once more—this time with Broadway giant Richard Rodgers, whose partner, Oscar Hammerstein II, had recently died. Sondheim was wary, but he remembered saying to himself, "Okay, I'm doing my little obligation to Oscar, I'm going to make a lot of money, and it's an easy job."

Wrong on all counts. Hammerstein would probably have disdained to adapt Laurents's arch drama, The Time of the Cuckoo, about a loveless spinster in Rome. The show, never compelling to audiences, didn't have a hit in it and barely broke even. And working with Rodgers was a horror. The composer drank heavily and at one time bawled out his young collaborator in front of the whole company. Sondheim furiously exited, but was talked into making peace with his collaborator. Sondheim said little at the time, though later he claimed that the show "deserved to fail." Rodgers would describe Sondheim as someone whom he watched "grow from an attractive little boy to a monster."

Up until now, Sondheim had worked within established traditions; Company changed all that. The composer had all-new partners: Harold Prince as producer, Michael Bennett as director, George Furth as book writer. The musical broke with tradition: there was no chorus and precious little plot. There was also a rare and daring sophistication. Company debuted during the Age of Aquarius, when cutting-edge Broadway fare emphasized nudity and single entendres. At a time when shows like Oh! Calcutta! and Hair were getting all the ink, Company went its own singular and intellectually demanding way. It centered on Bobby, a 35-year-old male coquette still wondering about commitment, and several married couples of his acquaintance. The show featured some brilliant patter songs, some melodies that suggested Ravel at his most inventive, and a couple of ballads about wedded life written by an outsider looking in—among them "Sorry-Grateful":

You don't live for her,
You do live with her,
You're scared she's starting to drift away,
And scared she'll stay.

Good things get better,
Bad things get worse.
Wait, I think I meant that in reverse.

And a bride's charmingly terrified monologue to the assembled witnesses, "Getting Married Today" became an instant classic:

Go, can't you go?
Look, you know
I adore you all,
But why watch me die
Like Eliza on the ice?
Look, perhaps
I'll collapse
In the apse
Right before you all
So take back the cake
Burn the shoes and boil the rice . . .
Let us pray,
That I'm not
Getting married today!

Company's undertone, though, was decidedly anti-marriage, and one number, "Little Things You Do Together," sung by a couple, contained a cringe-making element of autobiography:

It's the little things you share together,
Swear together,
Wear together,
That make perfect relationships.
The concerts you enjoy together,
Neighbors you annoy together,
Children you destroy together,
That keep marriage intact.

The out-of-town tryout in Boston earned scattered commendations, and one heavy brickbat from Variety: Sondheim's songs proved "undistinguished"; furthermore, it was "evident that the author, George Furth, hates femmes and makes them all out to be conniving, cunning, cantankerous, and cute. . . . As it stands now, it's for ladies' matinees, homos, and misogynists." The New York critics were kinder and wiser; Time and Newsweek hailed Company as a "landmark" and "so brilliant it passes over one like a shock wave." In London, reviewers set the tone that was to greet almost every subsequent Sondheim work. The Sunday Times was typical: "There are no native composers in this city of the varied brilliance of Stephen Sondheim, who is responsible for both music and lyrics—lyrics that are sometimes sharp as an icicle, and that at others set the mind achingly dreaming of unforgotten joys and irrational sorrows."

Yet it was the New York Times's influential Sunday critic, Walter Kerr, who kept his cool and made the most discerning comments. After praising the cast, the direction, and Sondheim's "sophisticated and pertinacious" work, he concluded, "Now ask me if I liked the show. I didn't like it. I admired it. . . . Personally, I'm sorry-grateful."

This sort of ambiguous tribute would follow Sondheim for most of his career. Working with Prince again, but with various book writers, the composer/lyricist turned out five shows: Follies (written by James Goldman), A Little Night Music (Hugh Wheeler), Pacific Overtures (John Weidman), Sweeney Todd (Wheeler), and Merrily We Roll Along (Furth). No one could accuse Sondheim of a lack of originality—or of a yen for consistency. His work acquired a new polish, and his rhymes dug deep into character and history—as in the aging soubrette's song "I'm Still Here," from Follies:

I've stuffed the dailies
In my shoes,
Strummed ukuleles
Sung the blues,
Seen all my dreams disappear
But I'm here.
I've slept in shanties,
Guest of the W.P.A.,
Danced in my scanties,
Three bucks a night was the pay.
But I'm here.
I've stood on breadlines
With the best,
Watched while the headlines
Did the rest.
In the Depression, was I depressed?
Nowhere near.
I met a big financier,
And I'm here.

Follies, ingeniously telling the story of music-hall veterans by turning their lives into vaudeville numbers, was similarly admirable without being likable.

Making matters even worse, in the early 1970s, audiences for musicals weren't interested in new conceptions. They wanted "book" shows—musical plays that they could easily follow, with songs that they could hum. Follies lost its entire $800,000 investment, though it garnered seven Tonys and the Drama Critics Circle Award as the Best Musical of the Year.

In 1973, a group of singers offered a one-night tribute to the composer, featuring songs going back to Saturday Night. That event, coupled with the release of the original-cast album of Follies, prompted New York Times critic John S. Wilson to assess Sondheim's achievement. "He is, in effect, a summation and an elevation of all the lyric writing that has gone before him. To have this made clear in an evening's program of 40 songs covering 20 years is impressive. But to find this point being made with equal clarity in a single score is an indication of the creative level at which Sondheim has arrived."

“Arrived” was the operative word. Sondheim had now achieved the status of cult figure, and from here on, whatever he wrote enjoyed a respectful, if not down-right awed, reception from a growing group of enthusiasts that included reviewers, cabaret singers, and non-showbiz "civilians" who made bestsellers of the original-cast recordings of his productions.

None of this seemed to affect the writer, at once gnawed by self-doubt and consumed by ambition. The British playwright Alan Ayckbourne remembered meeting Sondheim at an Oxford restaurant to discuss a possible project. "He speaks very, very fast and very, very quietly and he tends, certainly with people he doesn't know, to stare anywhere but at the person. I talk very, very fast and very, very quietly and don't stare at people either. So there were two guys—one of us could have left the table and the other would never have known it." Conversely, Elaine Stritch, one of Sondheim's favorite performers, stated, "He really lets you have it. He's terrible when you're not with it, but when you get it right he is so overjoyed by the material being interpreted the way he saw it that he makes you feel like a million bucks." And more than once, Jonathan Tunick saw the composer willing his material to thrive, "standing at the back of the house during a run-through or a tech rehearsal, his face bathed in tears."

To provide a little comic relief, Sondheim took time off in 1972 to write a mystery movie, The Last of Sheila, collaborating with actor Anthony Perkins. "Not having to write lyrics," said Stephen later, "made it like a vacation." This vigorous but rather nasty send-up of Agatha Christie, starring James Mason and Raquel Welch, displayed a few glints of wit but was "boy's work, not man's work," and he soon buckled down to write his next show.

A Little Night Music marked the return of the mainstream Sondheim. Laurents's book was a slyly commercial adaptation of Smiles of a Summer Night, Ingmar Bergman's peek at drawing-room and bedroom shenanigans in nineteenth-century Sweden. As a tribute to the epoch and the subject matter, Sondheim began thinking in terms of "fughettos, canons, contrapuntal duets, trios" and eventually composed every number in three-four time. The best of the waltzes, "Send in the Clowns," is the only Sondheim song to have reached the status of a platinum megahit, recorded by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Collins. Over 30 years later, the bittersweet words still resound in the cabarets of Europe and America:

Just when I stopped opening doors,
Finally finding the one that I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again with my usual flair
Sure of my lines—nobody's there.

Don't you love farce? My fault, I fear
I thought you'd want what I want—sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns—send in the clowns—
Don't bother . . . they're here.

In 1976, though, the contrarian Sondheim surfaced once more. Pacific Overtures told the story of nineteenth-century Japan's collision with Western influence. It was intellectually provocative and emotionally parched (193 performances; a loss of its entire $650,000 investment). Sweeney Todd, a tongue-in-cheek thriller about the partnership of an nineteenth-century London pie maker and a killer whose victims wind up in her creations, enjoyed a better reception. The opening number set the tone:

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
His skin was pale, and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again.
He trod a path that few had trod,
Did Sweeney Todd,
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

He kept a shop in London Town,
Of fancy clients and good renown.
And what if none of their souls were saved?
They went to their Maker impeccably shaved
By Sweeney, by Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Sweeney, with every piece of dialogue set to music, won eight Tonys, including Best Score, Best Book, Best Direction, and Best Musical. On opening night, drama critic Harold Clurman challenged Schuyler Chapin, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera: "Why didn't you put this on at the Met?" Replied Chapin, "I would have put it on like a shot, if I'd had the opportunity." He added, "And I would have. There would have been screams and yells and I wouldn't have given a damn. Because it is an opera. A modern American opera." Bearing out Chapin's claim, revivals of Sweeney Todd later emphasized its Verdiesque qualities, particularly those performances at the New York City Opera and the Royal National Theatre in London.

Again the profits failed to arrive; the show only earned back 59 percent of its investment. But by now, there was no shortage of producers willing to get involved with anything that the composer chose to write. Sondheim had become synonymous with glamour; prestige belonged to anything with his name on it. Revivals began to open in regional theaters across the U.S. and Britain, and if the royalties from these productions were small, they eventually mounted up to over $1 million a year for their creator, and more for those who had expressed financial faith in his efforts.

And then came Merrily We Roll Along. Preceding it was a minor heart attack that did little to slow Sondheim down. He quickly went to work on what seemed a standard Broadway adaptation of the Moss Hart–George S. Kaufman play. In this tragicomedy, lives and careers take place backward, starting with the corruption of success and winding up at an innocent high school graduation. The 1981 musical lasted just 16 performances, triggering a breakup with Prince, who had produced and/or directed five consecutive Sondheim works.

For months, the dejected writer holed up in his Turtle Bay townhouse, working on crossword puzzles and playing the board games that had always intrigued him—anything to take his mind away from public failure. "I am serious," he commented lugubriously, "but I'm serious in an art that is hardly worth being called one. There's a case to be made for 'Am I wasting my time in the long run?' " A friend recalled, "Steve was in a very dark place in his head and in his life. . . . It was bleak."

Sondheim's personal situation didn't improve his mood. He had friends in the entertainment business, but he lived alone; he had gone solo since college. Theater people knew he was gay; they also knew he was extremely private, and kept their distance. What only a few knew was the extent to which Foxy still pervaded his life. A few years before, she had entered the hospital to have a pacemaker installed. The night before the operation, she had a letter hand-delivered to her son, "because," said Stephen, "she thought she was going to die and wanted to make sure I got it." The note's bottom line: "The only regret I have in life is giving you birth."

Recalled Sondheim, "As quickly as my hand could cross the paper I wrote her a three-page reply. Everything I'd felt, that I'd never expressed up to this point. It wasn't hard. I just said, 'I don't want to see you any more. I'll continue to support you, and just call my business manager'; that was all."

That catharsis could not heal the childhood wounds. Sondheim wouldn't permit himself to fall in love with anyone. If the relationship didn't work out, the pain would be unbearable; look at what the theater had just done to him. He told people that he was thinking about forsaking composition altogether, that perhaps he'd try to write mystery novels. But this would have been like Canute commanding the tide to reverse itself, and he knew it.

In 1984, Sondheim tentatively edged back into the creative mind-set, working with dramatist James Lapine, making certain to avoid the mainstream in every respect—musically, lyrically, conceptually. He wanted to do something totally different this time—not only from what others might offer but also from anything he had written before. He intended to push and prod the audience, even against its will, to recognize the American musical as an art form as valid as opera or jazz.

And, in fact, when Sunday in the Park with George debuted at the Booth Theater in 1985, critics could find no basis of comparison with any other musical, for the show had taken on nothing less than the act of creation. Its subject: the pointillist painter Georges Seurat and his effort to create a fresh way of looking at the physical world. Though Sunday had a romantic air, and Tony Straiges's remarkable sets evoked fin-de-siècle Paris, even the love songs addressed the compensations and demands of art, as in "Finishing the Hat":

And when the woman that you wanted goes,
You can say to yourself, "Well, I give what I give!"
But the woman who won't wait for you knows
That however you live
There's a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing the hat.
Starting on a hat.
Look, I made a hat—
Where there never was a hat!

To give his new work the verbal equivalent of pointillist painting, Sondheim repeated certain small phrases—"color and light," "move on," "bring order to the whole." Musically, he used three or four short notes followed by upward-reaching intervals, usually minor thirds or fourths. In the Times, John Rockwell delved into the melodic structure: "His use of these little building blocks hardly precludes soaring lyricism, however, especially with the warmly orchestrated sustaining lines to counterpoint the pointillism. At its best, this method recalls the lyrical climaxes in the operas of Leoš Janáček, which are similarly built up from interlocking motifs, repeated over and over in a climactic upward curve."

Reviewers and feature writers tended to be respectful rather than ecstatic, but their enthusiasm picked up considerably when Sunday won the Pulitzer Prize—only the sixth musical to win the award. The Pulitzer committee may well have had in mind Frank Rich's shrewd comment in the Times: "This protagonist is possibly a double for Mr. Sondheim at his most self-doubting . . . . In keeping with his setting, Mr. Sondheim has written a lovely, wildly inventive score that sometimes remakes the modern French composers whose revolution in music paralleled the post-impressionists' in art."

That Sunday in the Park with George failed to earn back its investment counted for nothing; Sondheim's confidence was back, and that was all that mattered to the theatrical community—and to the backers, who had learned to wait for their payoff. A burst of energy followed, along with some competitive sniping at the lyricists who had preceded him. He judged Ira Gershwin "self-conscious." Irving Berlin told jokes very well in his songs, but "I don't think he has ever touched me. I admire him more than I love him." Lorenz Hart had "sloppy" technique and kept writing "the same song over and over again." Some time later, Berlin rose to defend his old colleague: "Stephen Sondheim, a very successful lyric writer, came out of left field with an unkindly, an unjust interview about Larry Hart as a lyric writer. All I can say is that Larry Hart's lyrics have lasted so many years. . . . Larry Hart was not only a lyric writer but a word writer. He had a fine education and could use four- and five- and six- and seven-letter words, and still get down to writing 'With a Song in My Heart.' I mean, he could be very simple. And very moving, when a lot of others can't be."

In mitigation, no one was harder on Sondheim than Sondheim. Weighing some of his work in West Side Story, for example, he disparaged the internal rhymes for "I Feel Pretty" ("It's alarming how charming I feel") as too mannered for the uneducated Maria. And he was especially critical of "America":

"I had this wonderful quatrain that went,

I like to be in America,
OK by me in America.
Everything free in America,
For a small fee in America.

"The 'For a small fee' was my little zinger—except that the 'for' is accented and 'small fee' is impossible to say that fast, so it went 'For a smafee in America.' Nobody knew what it meant!"

There would be no such flaws in Sondheim's next production, Into the Woods. The musical premiered on Broadway in 1987 and became his second-greatest success. Again working with Lapine, he took inspiration from psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim's great explication of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. To Bettelheim, the woods of the tales have always "symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious. . . . When we succeed in finding our way out we shall emerge with a much more highly developed humanity." Accordingly, Into the Woods interwove several classic fairy tales, among them Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood.

Act 1 narrated the traditional story, but Act 2 was something else again: a twice-upon-a-time narrative, following the principals past the standard "happily ever after" conclusion. Cinderella finds that life in the castle isn't what she imagined; the giant's wife terrorizes a village, furiously pursuing the man who killed her husband; Prince Charming enjoys a liaison with a baker's wife in the forest. Violence ensues before everything rights itself in the finale.

When Sondheim was on his game—particularly in Act 1—he was both hilarious and charming. Confronting Little Red Riding Hood, for example, the Wolf licks his lips and sings:

Think of that scrumptious carnality Twice in one day!
There's no possible way
To describe what you feel
When you're talking to your meal.

The trouble with the plot—and the score—was its insistence on turning everything on its ear, jeering at tradition in a grotesque and angry way. It seemed a paean to relativism, an insistence on the individual's rights, at whatever cost to the community. One of the songs, "No One Is Alone," became something of an anthem for AIDS sufferers:

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.
Others may deceive you,
You decide what's good . . . .
People make mistakes
Fathers, mothers,
People make mistakes
Holding to their own
Thinking they're alone.
Honor their mistakes
Everybody makes
One another's terrible mistakes.
Witches can be right
Giants can be good.
You decide what's right,
You decide what's good.
Just remember . . .
Someone is on your side
No one is alone.

That song makes an interesting contrast to a similar number, "You'll Never Walk Alone," written more than half a century earlier by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

When you walk through a storm hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark.
At the end of a storm is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.
Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Though your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone;
You'll never walk alone.

The difference is one both of sincerity and authenticity. Hammerstein's lyric seems the authentic utterance of a congenital optimist who believes what he says. Sondheim's rings false, the work of someone who doesn't quite stand behind his words. The man who failed to attend his mother's funeral, for example, is hardly in a position to advise others, vis-à-vis parents, to "honor their mistakes." As for the notion that "you decide what's right, you decide what's good"—can the moral relativist who wrote that line be the same man who once showed teenage punks mocking the experts who blamed their gangbanging on their victimization by bad parents and lack of economic opportunity rather than on their own exuberantly free choice?

Nonetheless, on the strength of the sparkling score, Bernadette Peters's star turn as a witch and Joanna Gleason's as the baker's wife, and the popular (and correct) belief that Into the Woods was the only kind of "family show" Sondheim would ever write, the production thrived at the box office. It ran for 764 performances, received ten Tony nominations, and in a season overwhelmed by Andrew Lloyd Webber's spectacular The Phantom of the Opera, won in the Best Score category. Lapine won another award for Best Book, and Gleason took honors for Best Actress.

The songwriter was to go on, but this would be the best of his last hurrahs. To demonstrate that he could write "singles" as well as a score, he contributed songs to two films, The Seven Percent Solution and Dick Tracy. Madonna performed "Sooner or Later" from Dick Tracy with surprising felicity. The number showed that Sondheim, just like Irving Berlin, could write clean lyrics and memorable melodies when he wanted to:

Sooner or later you're gonna decide
Sooner or later there's nowhere to hide
Baby, it's time, so why waste it in chatter?
Let's settle the matter.
Baby, you're mine on a platter,
I always get my man.

"I Never Do Anything Twice," from The Seven Percent Solution, in turn demonstrated an ability to out-entendre Cole Porter:

And then there was the abbot who worshipped at my feet,
Who dressed me in a wimple and in veils.
He made a proposition that I found rather sweet,
And handed me a hammer and some nails
In time we lay contented and he began again
By fingering the beads around our waists.
I whispered to him then, "We'll have to say Amen,"
For I had developed more catholic tastes.

Once, yes, once for a lark, twice, though, loses the spark.
As I said to the abbot, "I'll get in the habit, but not in the habit
You've my highest regard, and I know that it's hard.
Still no matter the vice, I never do anything twice."

Over the last ten years, almost all of Sondheim's musicals have enjoyed revivals, either on Broadway or the West End (even a 40-minute sketch, The Frogs, wound up as a lively two-hour off-Broadway farce.) Yet the composer refused to satisfy himself with sights in his rearview mirror. For the 1994 musical Passion, an adaptation of an obscure Italian film, he again tried something completely new. Weary of operatic, showstopping moments that brought the action to a halt, he crafted his songs to begin and end in dialogue, with no opportunities for applause. To his dismay, it turned out that audiences wanted the show to stop after big arias by the lead, Donna Murphy. Denied the opportunity, they grew restive. Word of mouth was extremely negative, and the show closed before the season was out.

Sondheim licked his wounds and pressed on. The recent Assassins sought to send up the American "can-do" spirit. Staged like a carnival, it put such presidential killers as John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald up against wannabes like Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore, the two women who tried to slay Gerald Ford. The nineteenth-century assassins exchanged thoughts with their twentieth-century counterparts, with everyone egging everyone else on between songs. The numbers represented Sondheim at his most perverse: vinegary music and a series of cynical internal rhymes:

No job? Cupboard bare?
One room, no one there?
Hey, pal, don't despair;
You wanna shoot a president?

The style was reminiscent of Gore Vidal doing American history in full bitch-revisionist mode (George Washington as a bumbling, pear-shaped soldier, Thomas Jefferson a double-dealing hypocrite, and the like). Assassins, workshopped and polished for ten years, did have moments of intensity and some weirdly comic interludes, as when the drugged-out Fromme defends her demented hero Charles Manson: Charley may not be much to look at, but "at least he's the son of God." Alas, like so many Sondheim efforts, the show was cold and unlikable. In the end, the theater piece was one more instance of ironic postmodernism separating itself from emotion and paying the box-office price.

When Meryle Secrest's Sondheim biography appeared, it came as no surprise to learn that the composer was 61 before he let anyone move in with him. (He lived with the composer Peter Jones for several years, but they broke up.) After all, Sondheim characterized himself as "the boy in the bubble," and he has remained that enclosed child for 70-plus years. More than once, he has stated that he "never grew up," and that self-appraisal seems to contain more candor than caricature.

Unfortunately, however high his standards of prosody and musical composition, he has relaxed his standards about the stuff he chooses to ornament. Lately, he seems to have no standards at all, save those of proper meter and melody, and he has lost himself in a cul-de-sac: what he writes is increasingly bright, superficial, pseudo-perceptive, a glistening maze with no exit. Last season, a satire called Musical of Musicals, The Musical, opened off-Broadway. Its creators, Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell, mocked the composer's intricate style:

I'm weary. Be wary of the weary. Don't worry if it's scary.
But wary isn't eerie. Be leery of the wary.
Are you with me? Stay with me.
This is all too deep. I'm falling asleep.
When you have to strain to explain the arcane
It's bound to sound profound.

An unkind portrait of a conflicted genius perhaps, but not inaccurate. Today Sondheim is working on another musical with John Weidman. Wise Guys intends to present the double biographies of two once-famous brothers, Addison and Wilson Mizner, one gay, one straight. In the composer's view, the siblings represent "two divergent aspects of American energy, the builder and the squanderer, the visionary and the promoter, the conformist and the maverick, the idealist planner and the restless cynic, the one who uses things and the one who uses them up." Sondheim remarks that Wise Guys is "about to set a record" for gestation. It has been almost 50 years since he first came across their story and started to turn it into a musical. "Bizarre as it may seem, I believe the delay has been good for it."

Only a full-scale production will tell. But even if it never sees the klieg lights, people will be arguing about the two Sondheims for generations to come, thanks in large part to the press. The disconnect between the adoring critics and the critical ticket holders began decades ago and has only widened since. Even as the general public turned away, reviewers and academics, sick of the pop pap that has become a large part of Broadway fare, have either celebrated or overlooked the composer's lack of melody and the lyricist's absence of warmth. Something astringent tends to clear their heads. The critics also like to nourish the illusion that they are guiding public taste, leading it to undreamed-of modernist heights. Sondheim has responded by giving them ingenious and elaborate coterie compositions, growing more obscure and off-putting as the years advance.

Yet though Sondheim has won greater academic honors than Rodgers, Berlin, Hart, the Gershwins, and other front-rank showmen, he has paid a price for his critical renown. Save for a handful of numbers, it is unlikely that 50 years from now popular entertainers will sing his songs and that the general public—those uncelebrated people who finally determine which Broadway and Tin Pan Alley figures enter the pantheon—will cherish them. Such eminence was well within Sondheim's reach, but he didn't take that road. He had better things to do. For better or worse, he still does. At 74, the boy in the bubble can't be bothered with popularity. He's too busy making a hat.

 

 


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