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Stephen Sondheim: A life’s work in progress

On Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday, he will be revered as the genius of musical theatre. But his failures are just as fascinating as his successes.

Of all the tributes bestowed on Stephen Sondheim, the most revealing is the birthday concert. A composer-lyricist, Sondheim, who turns 85 in March, writes his songs within a context at once dramatic and musical. But in the events at the Royal Albert Hall and Lincoln Centre to mark his eightieth birthday, as in the revue shows Side By Side By Sondheim and Putting It Together, songs conceived as dramatic monologues or narrative set pieces, and studded with internal allusions and motifs, are wrenched from their setting and treated as “hits”. A faulty show can be reduced to a couple of ear-catching moments; a song that seemed wrong for the character – an accusation that Sondheim now levels at most of the lyrics in West Side Story – is free to show its virtues. This act of filleting is consistent with a wider process whereby Sondheim’s vices and off-days have been tippexed from the record, leaving only genius.

It’s a word that follows him around. In his 1997 book on musicals, Mark Steyn called the chapter about Sondheim “The Genius”, with the inverted commas left implicit. The opening chapter of the recently published Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies (OUP) talks bluntly of “Sondheim’s genius”. The rival views that a) Sondheim betrayed the musical – held by Steyn, John Lahr and others – and that b) he revolutionised it – shared by the contributors to the Oxford Handbook – is a suitable response to his mixed heritage. A boyhood apprenticeship to Oscar Hammerstein (the lyricist of Show Boat and Oklahoma!) was followed by training with Milton Babbitt, a disciple of Schoenberg and author of the notorious essay “Who Cares If You Listen?”, which advocated a retreat from the “social aspects of musical composition” into a world of “private performance”. Sondheim himself has no trouble finding overlap. He stresses that Babbitt – the composer in his own right of the 1946 musical Fabulous Voyage – would assign Hammerstein songs for analysis. And he reserves special affection for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s highly antisocial Allegro, an earnest morality tale with a Greek chorus, one of the few forerunners in the Broadway canon of his own “unlikely” musicals, among them Pacific Overtures (1976), a slice of geopolitical history set in 1850s Japan, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) and, greatest of all, Sunday in the Park with George (1984), about the composition and afterlife of Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

As with most acquired tastes, the alternative reaction tends towards allergy, with no room for what the impresario in Sondheim’s 1981 show Merrily We Roll Along calls “sort of in between”. What has been lost, in the Sondheim skirmishes, is a sense of proportion. To his admirers, overzealous in defence, Sondheim has become a writer of musicals that never – not for even a minute – repelled a thoughtful audience with ostentation in wordplay or desperation in rhyme, with underfed melodies or overworked parodies, with glibness or gloom. A reluctance to cheer equals a failure of discernment. If you’re not part of the ovation, you’re part of the problem. And so a composer-lyricist who dares to alienate and annoy is borne heavenwards on a wave of what Steyn called “popular unpopularity”.

In commercial terms, the take on Sondheim which mattered – playing no small part in securing the unpopularity – was that of the New York Times, whose critics Walter Kerr and Frank Rich covered Broadway during the period in which Sondheim wrote all of his important work: Company (1970), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd during Kerr’s tenure, Merrily We Roll AlongSunday in the Park with GeorgeInto the Woods (1986) and Assassins (1990) during Rich’s. Where Kerr panned show after show but declared Sondheim “the most sophisticated composer now working for the Broadway theatre”, Rich struck a more coherent balance, opening his first Sondheim review, of Merrily’s famously bad (and brief) initial run, with a crisp statement of what used to be a recognised yes-but position, before hero-worship washed it away: “. . . to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one’s heart broken at regular intervals”. It may be true, as he wrote in a later article, that people were never “neutral” about Sondheim, but ambivalence, too, is increasingly off the menu.

The perception (strengthened by Rich’s stubborn insistence on holding him to his own standards) that Sondheim was unloved in his homeland was among the factors that led to his adoption over here. As Steyn put it, the American public made Lloyd Webber “a multi-gazillionaire” but the British establishment made Sondheim “an artist”. It was Sondheim, and not Lloyd Webber, who was the inaugural Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford, Sondheim who received his own Prom. (His next biographer is the former Independent journalist David Benedict.) In the Oxford Handbook – based on a university conference held almost a decade ago at Goldsmiths – the American-born, London-based critic Matt Wolf, after asserting that Sondheim has “always held unique pride of place in Britain”, points out that the subsidised London theatre liberated his work from “the commercial dictates that rule on Broadway”.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, revival after revival ensured a Sondheim boom at just the point that the new work dried up. While directors such as Declan Donnellan, Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage mounted productions of Sweeney ToddAssassinsCompany and Merrily, Sondheim busied himself with curatorial projects, tweaking old shows and working on two books of annotated lyrics – Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat – that offer a tour of his principles and methods (musical theatre’s counterpart to Henry James’s prefaces). His sole addition to the oeuvre in this period was a musical about the enterprising Mizner brothers – an architect and an entrepreneur who were well known in the 1920s – that first appeared, in Mendes’s 1999 workshop production, as Wise Guys, briefly became Gold! and then Bounce, before arriving in 2008 under the title Road Show at New York’s Public Theatre, where it was greeted as little more than a non-turkey. (Back in 2000, Sondheim was already saying it had consumed too much of his time.)

His current work-in-progress, altogether more promising, is a musical that merges two of Buñuel’s films, The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. (His Bergman adaptation, A Little Night Music, is one of his best-loved shows – and produced his best-known song, “Send in the Clowns”.) For the time being, though, his reputation continues to depend on revivals, including, over the coming months, such tributes as a concert performance of A Little Night Music at the Palace Theatre on 26 January and a ten-night ENO residency for the Lincoln Center’s Sweeney Todd, with Bryn Terfel in the title role and Emma Thompson as his pie-baking accomplice, Mrs Lovett. More significant is the West End transfer of Chichester’s celebrated production of Gypsy, one of three shows for which he wrote the lyrics but not music (the others being West Side Story and Do I Hear a Waltz?), opening at the Savoy a week after his birthday. Kicking off festivities a little early is the ongoing run of Assassins, staged in traverse by Jamie Lloyd, the director credited (by Sondheim, among others) with finally making sense of the problematic Passion (1994) in his 2010 Donmar Warehouse production. (Assassins, which runs until 7 March, is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has replaced the Donmar as Sondheim’s official London home.) There is also a long-awaited film of Into the Woods, his Grimm Brothers mash-up, directed by Rob Marshall, and starring Meryl Streep as the Witch responsible for bringing the hapless Baker (James Corden) into contact with the Wolf (yet another Johnny Depp moustache), Rapunzel and co.

Variations on a tone: Sondheim’s form as a composer and lyricist runs the gamut from turkey and cliché to sublime artistry. Photo: Piotr Redlinski/New York Times

One of the myths of Sondheim’s production history is that resourceful directors undo the wrongs of those who went before, shedding light on a show’s too-long-hidden glory. In reality, Sondheim’s shows have often been better served by directors than the other way round. In Maria Friedman’s 2012 Menier production of Merrily, the one weak link was the backwards-running narrative – a pair of disillusioned Broadway songwriters end up wide-eyed – which doesn’t refresh, merely reverses, a familiar trajectory, and doesn’t complicate, simply flips, the surface tone and meaning of half a dozen wonderful songs. Another standout revival, Tooting Arts Club’s production last year of Sweeney Todd – staged in a pie-and-mash shop and sung with clarity and gusto – managed to thrive despite that show’s blockish characters, pantomime-ish predictability and hectic final third.

Jamie Lloyd and Rob Marshall deserve similar praise for bringing conviction (Lloyd in Assassins) and charm (Marshall in Into the Woods) to shows that don’t hang together. Having abandoned irony and neatness in the open-hearted, free-form Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim proceeded to write a pair of shows built around a gimmick-conceit – a fairy-tale musical! A political-murder musical! – and full of winky wit, lame wordplay (“If the end is right,/It justifies/The beans!”) and sweated-over punchline rhymes, as in the Wolf’s “There’s no possible way to describe what you feel/When you’re talking to your meal!”. Where Sunday uses a delicate musical counterpart to Seurat’s pointillism, the score to Into the Woods is all plinky placation, showing that, as one of the better songs (“I Know Things Now”) puts it, “Nice is different than good,” while Assassins offers a succession of formal parodies in place of a score that ramifies or accretes. (The parodies in Follies, better justified by its nostalgic story and theatrical setting, capture the forms’ original feeling as well as being clever at their expense.)

An aim of both these musicals is to solve the problem of what Sondheim calls “the monolithic chorus”, the musical-theatre convention whereby several characters seem to be expressing an improbable common aim. The opening and closing number of Assassins, “Everybody’s Got the Right” (“Everybody’s got the right to be happy”), sung by the whole cast, is designed as an anthem for the dispossessed – residents of an alternative America who can neither “be a scholar” nor “make a dollar”. The opening number of Into the Woods, “I Wish”, like the piece as a whole, works better partly because the characters are united by wishing without harbouring the same wish – and interrupt each other to that effect. The need to give Assassins a semblance of unity is evident in the idea of John Wilkes Booth as the muse of presidential assassins. Yet even this conceit doesn’t emerge until the final sequence, when Booth urges Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate American hope for good – which, given that we have already met characters with a fervent wish to kill later presidents, hardly stands up as a historical thesis.

But what is most disappointing about Sondheim’s later musicals is that, although they enable him to use song as a vehicle for drama and ideas, they inhibit his greatest gift as a songwriter, which is also his greatest contribution to the musical – the capture in writing of songs that evoke the moment of thought in movement. In the final song of Company, for instance, the Peter Pan-like central figure talks himself into accepting love, the grounds of his resistance (“Someone to need you too much./Someone to know you too well”) mutating into a plea: “Somebody, need me too much./Somebody, know me too well.” The opposite decision is rendered with equal sympathy in Sondheim’s most intricate monologue, “Finishing the Hat”. The title line, associative rather than grammatical, announces what the women in Georges Seurat’s life “have never understood” (“Finishing the hat/How you have to finish the hat”), setting off a long stream-of-consciousness sentence in which Georges weighs the urge to create against his desire for companionship. (The final line declares the winner: “Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat.”)

But whereas the historically cloudy Seurat could be built from Sondheim’s tailored sense of his character, Booth and Oswald and the ardent wishers who form a makeshift nuclear family in the woods are defined in terms of their actions – actions more or less fixed by the record and the Grimms. Motivation is mocked up after the fact. If these shows can nevertheless form the basis of a striking production and a diverting film, that is because Sondheim’s touch is never entirely absent. As with any great artist, the things that don’t work spring from the same sensibility as the ones that do, and serve to throw them into relief.

“Into the Woods” (PG) is on general release from 9 January

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth