At the time of his death on 26 November, aged 91, the American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim occupied a unique position in the history of musical theatre – oddball and main man, freak and god. He wrote musicals for people who don’t like musicals, giving an urbane (some would say cold) makeover to a folk art, provoking the distaste of critics like John Lahr and colleagues such as Jerry Herman and Cy Coleman, but achieving along the way what one sceptic called “popular unpopularity”, and in the process recreating the mainstream – or a Lin-Manuel Miranda-shaped part of it – in his own image.
That at least was the reputation he acquired. Sondheim himself – though his taste could seem fiercely narrow – had less faith in such divisions. His apprenticeship, first as a boy with the lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein, a family friend, and then as a student with the Schoenberg disciple, Milton Babbitt, had for him a kind of consistency. Hammerstein, he liked to say, was an “experimental playwright”, pointing to his oddest collaboration with Richard Rodgers, Allegro (1947) – and Babbitt, the writer of a bizarre musical of his own with Fabulous Voyage (1946), would use Hammerstein songs as teaching material. In other words, this had been the obvious, perhaps the only, apprenticeship, for a writer who wanted to push the form into exhilarating new places.
Sondheim is probably best-known for an early work, West Side Story (1957), for which he wrote only the lyrics, and a late one, the ingenious fairytale mash-up Into the Woods (1987). But his great run, the bulk of his achievement, came in between, starting with Company (1970), continuing most notably with Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), and culminating in his masterpiece Sunday in the Park with George (1984). Songs from these shows include “Sorry-Grateful”, “Marry Me a Little”, “Being Alive”, “In Buddy’s Eyes”, “Too Many Mornings”, “Send in the Clowns”, “Someone in a Tree”, “The Worst Pies in London”, “Franklin Shepard, Inc”, “Sunday” and “Children and Art”. Apart from Pacific Overtures, which concerns social change in 19th-century Japan, all of these musicals have been performed in London during the 20 years of my theatre-going lifetime, in many cases at the Menier Chocolate Factory (before transferring to the West End), though also at the National Theatre and the London Coliseum. Sunday in the Park with George is due to return, in a celebrated production starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the agonised painter Georges Seurat.
On Sunday 28 November, appropriately enough, I spoke to Mandy Patinkin, the actor and singer who originated the role in the 1984 production, which was workshopped at Playwrights Horizons (in a cast that included Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski), before running for 18 months at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The evolution of Sunday is the subject of a new book, Putting it Together, an exceptionally complete oral history constructed by James Lapine, the director who also wrote the play’s book.
When Patinkin was offered the role of Seurat, he had recently finished playing Che in Evita. This was a different challenge. Sunday was a work in progress – but a work in progress being performed. “I wasn’t used to doing an unfinished work in front of patrons,” he told me. “I wasn’t conditioned for that.” Some of the central elements were not in place. Lapine and Sondheim knew that they wanted to put on a musical play about Seurat’s pointillist painting La Grande Jatte, which was almost exactly 100 years old and had received only posthumous recognition (Seurat died aged 31 in 1891). But while the figures depicted in the painting had been given songs, the painter himself was a blur. “They realised their mistake,” Patinkin said.
Patinkin, now 68, recalled a day when Sondheim came by to watch a run-through. He was thinking about how to put to music a dialogue scene in which George is patronised by a traditional older painter. In the previous scene, George is shown having difficulties communicating with his mother. Patinkin decided that while the actress Barbara Bryne sings the song “Beautiful”, and he simply sits with a sketchpad, he would induce himself to cry – to purge himself of anxiety in time for the scene that Sondheim had come to watch.
That night, Sondheim called to say that he wanted to talk about George’s part in “Beautiful”. Patinkin urged him to ignore his crying – it was just a bit of preparation, a way of getting ready for the important scene with the older painter. Sondheim told him he was happy with that scene as it was. “He said to me then something that I’ll never forget: ‘I find that the scenes that need to be musicalised are ones where the emotions are greater than we can understand.’ The music somehow creates the way in to those emotions that are just more than explainable. He said, ‘That scene is clear, it doesn’t need music to help it, the emotions aren’t complicated. I realise I’m now ready to write the mother’s scene.’”
Later that day, their conversation turned on what Patinkin called “the most painful aspect of our experience – our mutual struggle to try to genuinely connect with our mothers”. Sondheim spoke often about his fraught relationship with the woman known as Foxy, who he may or may not have sent up in the Company song “Ladies Who Lunch”. (He refused to attend her funeral.)
“Stephen’s story is well documented, the pain of it. Now here he was writing a beautiful song for the mother and wanting to write the son’s part. I had a relationship with my mother that I don’t think was as difficult, it had a little more grace, but it was challenging nonetheless. Stephen and I came to the conclusion that we never made the connection in the way we were searching for it. We kept passing by each other like ships in the night. A few days later, he hands me my part of the mother’s song. He’d taken our conversation and poeticised it. I got to be a teeny tiny part of what he was trying to say for this character. He wrote the most beautiful love song of two human beings trying to reach each other. That was the highlight of my entire professional life.”
Another key moment that was missing from the show during the workshop production was the song “Finishing the Hat”, Sondheim’s greatest achievement, a searing monologue in which George sets out the predicament of balancing the demands of art and love. (The titles of both of Sondheim’s books of annotated lyrics derive from the song.) Sondheim performed “Finishing the Hat” for the first time on a piano in a bar across the street from Playwrights Horizons. “He walked in, with a dry shirt on, and played for the first time for us ‘Finishing the Hat’. When he finished playing, he was sopping wet, like he’d walked into the ocean – he was sweating so profusely. He thought he wasn’t good enough. We were all consumed in tears, as I am just retelling it to you, and he said, ‘Is it OK?’ We said, ‘Yes Steve, it’s OK.’ He gave it to me on that onion-skin type paper, and I pasted it into the back of the sketchpad. I sang it that night. When the song was finished, I realised I never looked at the words, which has never happened to me before or since.” That night the director Mike Nichols was in the audience. He came down to Patinkin after the performance, and embraced him. “It was all about ‘Finishing the Hat’.”
“Did he plan to have those moments?” Patinkin asked. “I think he did not. They were intuitive. I think what he worked on, and used his craft to the nth degree for, were the musical constructions and the construction of the rhyme, with the rhyming dictionaries and the play with words. I think he was like the bird in the nest that just has its mouth open until mamma puts the last worm in it.”
In recent days, Patinkin has found himself reflecting more generally on Sondheim. “It was a privilege,” he said. “I got to be in the room with Shakespeare. Who gets that? How come I got to have that even for a minute? And it was a lot more than a minute.” Since appearing in Sunday, Patinkin has sung Sondheim many times – at birthday and anniversary tributes, in his own concerts, and on the 2002 double album Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim. Patinkin derives comfort from the knowledge that his friend is “the furthest thing from gone. He left the heart and soul of his existence, his being, what he cared about, what he thought, what he wished for, wishes that he sometimes couldn’t realise for himself – that will be here forever.” He wasn’t sure if Sondheim ever recovered from the pain of his childhood. He acknowledged that Sondheim used “the canvas of the music paper as the battlefield for his emotions”. But, Patinkin wondered, “was he able to hear our thanks? Was he able to feel our love for him? Could he let it in, or was the wound too great? I’ll never know. I hope so.”
When Patinkin heard about Sondheim’s death, he went for a walk in the woods near his home. “My dog usually wanders off, looking for squirrels,” he said. “But he stayed by my leg the whole time. I wasn’t weeping. I was just singing every word I could remember.”
This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back