The usual encomiums from the usual suspects came out in full force yesterday for Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday. He was declared the greatest genius the world of musical theatre has ever known. I’ve waited a day, not wanting to rain on an old man’s parade, but I’ve got to call shenanigans.
Folks, if you believe Sondheim’s musical theatre’s greatest genius, you don’t know musical theatre, or, (and, possibly, and) you’ve the blindness of a frothing fan who’s so impressed by the best of your idol, you fail to see the flaws, the clay feet, the no-longer-speakable-epithet-for-Chinese in his armor.
I’m not maintaining the man hasn’t done some real good work. I’m very moved by two of his shows. You read that right: Two. Each has longueurs. I am maintaining, though, that such widespread idolatry can’t be a good thing.
You want geniuses? Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, George Abbott, Jerome Robbins and one who’s alive, Harold Prince. Each innovated – one might say most of them remade the form – and had a far greater role in shaping our beloved genre. All of them created works of enduring popularity – that is, shows that people loved then and love now. The first three were songwriters who crafted tunes the world adores.
Sondheim has a slew of Tony Awards and here I’ll say most of them were deserved. From 1970 to 1987, with impressive frequency, he created the best show or best score of the Broadway season. That’s a great accomplishment, but it’s instructive to look up what the competition was. Passion bested Beauty and the Beast, A Grand Night For Singing, and Cyrano. That’s a pretty lean season in my book.
People in the theatre love Sondheim. His work radiates intelligence, while some other songwriters seem dumb or dumber. One of the things I like about his writing – the fact that there’s usually a lot of subtext behind what’s being sung – naturally makes actors love him. It’s a treat to have something to play, beyond the surface, particularly after you’ve been stuck singing Wildhorn or Lloyd Webber songs in which characters say exactly what they mean.
There’s quite a bit to admire about him, but you know what? Fans, performers and collaborators have been trumpeting tributes for days, so it’s time for me, the day after, to cut to the chase.
Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico’s in America.
Say that line out loud, like an actor would, to make sure the listener understands. What syllables do you stress? Where do you pause? I pause after “knows” and “America” and stress the “Ri” in “Rico” and the rather important “in.” And then the line’s comprehensible. Unfortunately, Sondheim wrote these words to Leonard Bernstein’s rapid-fire eighth notes. It zips by, with half the speed on the final three syllables of the first “America” and accents the final “Ri” …in “America.” The “s” in the rhyme works differently, first for verb agreement, then for contracting “is.” The line has something pithy to say, but no audience has ever gotten it. Or laughed.
Crazy business this, this life we live in
The middle part is set on successive quarter notes. One can’t easily hear the comma, which aids your ability to read it on the page. Perhaps you don’t agree with me that the short “i” sound is an ugly one, but the other day I found myself asking “Did Sigrid admit it’s still winter?” and blanched with the harshness of the utterance. Would a genius really write “this” two words in a row?
I know it’s a nitpick. (Ew! Again!) The trouble is, so many show-folk nowadays are so utterly convinced of Sondheim’s genius they fail to see the man’s output for what it is – occasionally accomplished, sometimes banal or uninvolving. I purposely picked the period, 1970 to 1987, his fertile years, because I think the work he’s turned out since then represents a huge drop in quality. If his reputation rested on the past 27 years, we’d be discussing one of the most boring shows I’ve ever seen on Broadway, Passion, and two off-Broadway flops, Assassins and Road Show. He’s wondered, out loud, about whether talent fizzles as we age. Well, let’s see what musicals John Kander’s composed since he turned 58:
Kiss of the Spider Woman
The Scottsboro Boys
When I hear Dear One or Go Back Home – and I know this is a matter of personal taste – I feel Kander’s the greater genius of the two. Considering all the songs heard in Sondheim’s scores, I can’t think of a tune he wrote that’s nearly as moving.
And, really, don’t we all go to the theatre to be moved? Or do you go to the theatre to expand your vocabulary, so you can hear words like reticule and rampion for the first time? I actually read a quote from some star thanking Sondheim for introducing him to the word, reticule, as if it’s a good thing, in popular commercial theatre, to use terms your audience doesn’t know. Someone cited “her withers wither with her” as proof of his genius, and to me that’s a prime example of cleverness that works only when you read it, not in the theatre.
But these are minor details compared to my biggest trouble with the Sondheim oeuvre, the failure to move me in any way.
So, after watching the commitment-phobic guy observe five marriages, he makes a climactic change, to want somebody to sit in his chair. And I go, big deal, because the music’s telling me this is Dramatic and Important, and I simply don’t care. Or the lawyer with the virgin bride who consistently has bad timing trying to get more serious with his long-time mistress. I’d actually prefer to see clowns. Or the middle-aged quartet, two of whom are super rich, all regretting the life choices they’ve made long ago. I don’t sympathize. Or how about the revue depicting the nuts who’ve shot at presidents? Interesting, maybe, but not moving, in any way. And yet people consider this artist who shies away from ardor the Second Coming. Every year with the birthday accolades:
It’s what I call March Madness.