Stephen Sondheim, the Boy Wonder of Broadway, turns 90 today, so I’m hell-bent on saying some positive things about him that other people might not say. And those who’ve read my comments over the years know that I have a somewhat idiosyncratic view of the man so many take to be a God. I think he’s written a handful of excellent shows, maintains a very high level of craft, but doesn’t nearly live up to all the adulation heaped upon him. I’ve known many otherwise perspicacious folks who claim they only like Sondheim musicals. And I’m appalled at those who believe he’s never done anything bad. I’m sure he’s just as appalled, because nobody could possibly think as highly of themselves as most Sondheim fanatics – I like to call them Steve-adores – think of him.
His first effort, Saturday Night, failed to raise enough money to get produced. I musical directed a school production and it’s charitably described as an interesting failure. One can see the positive influence of Frank Loesser, and there are a few nice moments: The verse to the main ballad, So Many People, goes up and down the thirds of a single chord in a haunting way. There’s a little chorale about Brooklyn that’s certainly droll. And there’s a fine up-tempo late in the show, What More Do I Need, which I prefer to the Berlin ballad it’s stolen from.
But then came West Side Story, the first of two for which the 20-something only did lyrics. This is a classic, a huge leap forward. While Saturday Night never managed to build up enough feeling for its characters, audiences are totally invested in Tony, Maria, Riff, Anita et al. I’d say it’s one of the most moving musicals ever written. When Maria warbles “It’s alarming how charming I feel” she is Everygirl In Love, effusing in her native language.
Next, his Gypsy lyrics do more of the narrative lifting, and he hits an entertaining balance of humor, colloquialisms and cleverness. The proficiency of West Side Story and Gypsy, which both have fine books by Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins staging, would land him in the first tier of Broadway lyricists had he written nothing else.
The Sixties, though, were a bit of a let-down. The success of the first Broadway show to feature Sondheim’s music, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was due to its riotous libretto, not the songs themselves, which failed to garner a Tony Nomination. Not-funny-enough comedy songs also litter Do I Hear a Waltz and Anyone Can Whistle.
Then, 1970’s Company ushered in a truly brilliant period. Here was a show not quite like anything that had been attempted before: The songs, at long last, featured great gobs of actable subtext. A languorous ode to ambiguity, Barcelona, finds humor in a real and previously unsung situation. There’s also a patter song that’s a prestissimo ode to ambiguity, a ballad about ambiguity, and a quirky little jazz number about, you guessed it, ambiguity. If you can abide a whole score of that sort of thing… I’ll drink to you.
The following year, Sondheim demonstrated a real knack for pastiche with Follies. He used the type of songs we were familiar with from the age of Gershwin
and added inner emotional layers.
As I was writing this not-quite-successful attempt at positivity, a friend asked what my favorite cut Sondheim song is, and I knew right away it’s Follies‘ Who Could Be Blue?/Little White House. So unlike anything else he’s ever written because it’s naive, simple, pretty, and a wholly positive expression of love. Not a color he paints with very often.
In his next show, A Little Night Music, a waltz called Soon begins and you think it’s going to be this loving expression but then he cuts the sweet with the sardonic and makes fun of the character. I want to say “I get it, Steve: You think love is awful.” It’s the color he paints with most often and anti-romantic cynics eat it up.
Still, the quality and craft exhibited in Company, Follies and A Little Night Music have no precedent; that is, I can’t think of anyone else who wrote three better shows in a row. What followed was Pacific Overtures, a wildly experimental entertainment with no human protagonist, and I admire its ambition if not its execution.
But then came Sweeney Todd, a brilliant synthesis of Grand Guignol melodrama and techniques taken from opera. It sounds overwrought but Sondheim filled every moment with enough majestic scoring to make it riveting.
After the debacle known as Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim stopped working with director Hal Prince, who’d helmed all his shows since Company. He sought something truly new and experimental off-Broadway, and cast quite a spell with Sunday in the Park With George, a score filled with leitmotifs, its staccato riffs standing in for the pointillist techniques of artist Georges Seurat. I found this one very moving and relatable, and I’m one of the very few who prefers the second act to the first. It gives meaning to a whole bunch of things that, at intermission, seemed meaningless.
His most-performed show, Into the Woods, has a blithe vaudevillian duet for the baker and his wife that charms me, but I find it exhausting to sit through the rest. It means to be profound – always a bad sign – and means to be funny, which it isn’t – and I’ve very little emotional connection to Cinderella and what seems like a dozen familiar fairy tale characters. What it does have, in spades, is intricacy, and one comes away impressed with the mind that thought up all those tricky numbers.
The less said about The Frogs, Passion and the one I didn’t see, Road Show (f.k.a. Bounce), the better; so I won’t. Instead, I’ll take a complaint I’ve made about Sondheim – that he wrote so little beyond the age of 57 – and make it a compliment. I truly wish you had taken your words to heart: “Give us more to see.” The work is so good, so fascinating, I wish there were more of it.