REMEMBERING STEPHEN SONDHEIM By Peter Filichia
He might not be happy that I’m starting with a lyric for which he didn’t write the music.
In addition, he might be slightly miffed that it’s from his first show, much of which he pooh-poohed over the years.
As for you, will you be surprised that I’m quoting a lyric that doesn’t involve an amazing rhyme he had found somewhere between a rhyming dictionary and his unique brain?
True, no tribute to Stephen Sondheim could possibly be inclusive without a few of those – and we’ll presently get to them. And to think that the lyric that still impresses me the most is one that he wrote when he was twenty-six or twenty-seven at the latest.
It’s one that I didn’t particularly notice when I was a kid, when I so often squeezed out WEST SIDE STORY from whatever two records surrounded it – so often, in fact, that the tops and sides of the front and back covers were worn down to dull grey cardboard.
Back then, as a teen, the jokes in “Gee, Officer Krupke” were the highlights for me. That brings up a Sondheim lyric that I didn’t plan to quote so quickly, but one that certainly applies to a high school sophomore who favored funny songs to ballads: “Ev’rybody has to go through stages like that.”
Oh, “Tonight” was nice enough but a few years had to pass before I truly had realized the absolute brilliance of “Make this endless day endless night.”
Isn’t it true? When you’re avidly anticipating an event that will happen that night, the day does seem absolutely endless. Will these hours ever, ever pass?
Eventually, of course, they do. And once you’re enjoying that night you’ve been anticipating, you never, ever, ever want it to end.
All that in one line of a half-dozen words.
We never wanted it to end for Stephen Sondheim. Even when he appeared on Stephen Colbert’s THE LATE SHOW nine weeks ago and said he was working on a new show, we had to fear that he wouldn’t finish it.
Nov. 26th took care of that and took its toll on us.
We had hopes, of course. People who love musicals usually are optimists. A friend who’d been to his West 49th Street townhouse in recent months did see a piece of sheet music on his piano entitled BUNUEL, but of course he didn’t know if it had just been placed there the day before or years before.
We haven’t heard that one. The last new Sondheim song we heard may well have been eleven-and-a-half-years ago in the revue SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM. It was his tongue-in-cheek tribute to himself, acknowledging that he’s been called a certain name by many musical theater enthusiasts.
The song was called … “God.”
Rose in GYPSY always wanted “a big finish.” Well, what could be bigger than writing a song called “God”?
Rose herself had a very big finish in “Rose’s Turn” which Sondheim later acknowledged that he essentially wrote with Jerome Robbins, the show’s director-choreographer. Rose detailed the sacrifices she had made for her daughters: “It wasn’t for me, Herbie” she noted, before adding, “and if it wasn’t for me, where would you be, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee?”
The first phrase meant, “My efforts weren’t for me and me alone” while the second means “I’m responsible for your success.”
Before you get all Ruth Sherwood on us and say, “I’m afraid you’ve made a grammatical error,” Sondheim didn’t refuse the subjunctive – “If it weren’t for me” – because he’d have lost a good turn of phrase. He knew that Rose as a girl had skipped a good deal of school, so she’d be no stranger to grammatical errors.
The film of WEST SIDE STORY made most of the nation see his name for the first time (if they stayed around for the end credits). They didn’t know what they’d missed from the stage show. There, Anita was looking forward to her night with Bernardo. Chita Rivera sang, “He’ll walk in hot and tired. So what? Don’t matter if he’s tired – as long as he’s hot.”
In the film, Rita Moreno sang, “He’ll walk in hot and tired – poor dear. Don’t matter if he’s tired – as long as he’s here.”
What a loss for filmgoers to be denied Sondheim’s clever use of the word “hot” in two completely different contexts. Anita first meant “hot” as “sweaty” and later “hot” meant “sexually charged.”
To the censors, we give a hearty “Krup you!”
For Sondheim’s his first music-and-lyric assignment – A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM – he offered three different vowel sounds next to the same consonant in one line: “Today I woke too weak to walk.” Conductor Lehman Engel always said that words should be music, too. Here’s a fine example of it.
No cast album had ever been made of a musical that had run a mere nine performances. Yet, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, Sondheim’s second Broadway score, has seldom been out of print in the ensuing six decades. It’s been on LP, CD, cassette and even 8-track tape.
It also served to reiterate Sondheim’s new and ambitious sound that would dominate the musical theater in the ‘70s and beyond. Since then, the score has even inspired two more recordings. Can any musical boast of having as few as three pro-rated performances per recording?
Then came DO I HEAR A WALTZ? Whenever Sondheim appeared at a seminar, during the Q-and-A session afterward, someone inevitably asked “Mr. Sondheim, of all your musicals, what is your favorite?” to which he always answered “I don’t have a favorite; I have a least favorite: DO I HEAR A WALTZ?”
His difficulties with composer AND producer Richard Rodgers is the reason why. A listen to SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE shows Exhibit A. On the cast album, “We’re Gonna Be All Right” is a nothing throwaway – the way Rodgers wanted it. But on “The Scrabble Album,” as it’s come to be known, we get what was really on Sondheim’s mind with a dazzling lyric.
After those two failures, many on Broadway were sure that Stephen Sondheim was all done. Words from Rose might well have spoken for him. “Finished? We’re just beginning! And there’s no stopping us this time!”
At The 1970-1971 Tony Awards, COMPANY not only won Best Musical but Sondheim also won one for Best Music and one for Best Lyrics. It’s the only time ever that the Tonys bestowed two separate awards for Best Score. How fitting it should be a year that Sondheim won them; what a metaphor that he was twice the songwriter as anyone else.
Next came FOLLIES with its incomparable opening number “Beautiful Girls.” Sondheim’s Irving Berlin-tinged melody had lyrics that only he could have written: “Beauty celestial; the best, you’ll agree” … “Faced with these Loreleis, what man could moralize?” Watching the once young and beautiful Weismann Girls walking down that somewhat shabby staircase was the essence of poignancy. While they descended the staircase, they nevertheless appeared to be ascending into heaven.
“Can That Boy Fox-Trot” was deemed a one-joke number, and, yes, it was, as we laughed when Carlotta Campion made that “F” in Fox- Trot very drawn out; we anticipated that she would say the F-word. Never mind that it had brilliant lyrics such as “But who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights’re low?” Sondheim thought he could do better.
The result was the best song ever written out-of-town: “I’m Still Here.” Oh, it’s a list song, some say. But within it, Sondheim was incisive. He had the faded star sing, “First, you’re another sloe-eyed vamp; then someone’s mother – then you’re camp.” That distilled Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man into Three Stages of Actress.
Carlotta’s calling her child “someone” revealed that she was a less-than-devoted mom. First and foremost came the career; motherhood finished second (if it even ranked that high).
“I’m almost through my memoirs” was perceptive, too. Granted, people use the singular and plural of “memoir” interchangeably, yet would one be surprised if Carlotta Campion felt that her life deserved more than one measly volume?
Despite that a musical with “Waltz” in its title was his least favorite, Sondheim certainly embraced waltzes in his next musical: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, a score that let us hear many of them or variations thereof.
The most popular of its songs was not in conventional three-quarter time, but twelve-eight: “Send in the Clowns.” It has now been recorded by more than 900 singers and gets 18,400,000 mentions on Google. Some subsequent productions of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC have advertised the show as “The ‘Send in the Clowns’ musical.”
In 1973, he wrote a few new songs for CANDIDE. Sondheim’s major contribution came in a rewrite of “Venice Gavotte.” Dorothy Parker’s “Lady frilly, lady silly, pretty lady, willy-nilly, lady lightly, lady brightly, charming lady, fly-by-nightly” might make some believe that she owned stock in a company that sold headache remedies. Sondheim turned those lines (and Richard Wilbur’s section that preceded it) into “Life is Happiness Indeed” in which Candide, his beloved Cunegonde, her brother Maximilian and their serving girl Paquette all gave their worldviews.
So, by 1974 – only four years after COMPANY – when we heard in THE FROGS, “Gods of the theater, smile on us,” we’d already realized that they had by giving us Stephen Sondheim.
PACIFIC OVERTURES had to be the most challenging of all. When Sondheim was faced with WEST SIDE STORY, he said, “I’ve never even known a Puerto-Rican!” And yet, Japan is much greater distance literally and figuratively from Puerto Rico. How he could get those foreign tones and harmonies shows talent and skill, yes, but when one imagines the umpteen hours and months of research to musicalize John Weidman’s play, the thought is staggering.
His next brilliant song was for Hollywood: “I Never Do Anything Twice” was meticulously crafted for the 1976 movie THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION. It was so mercilessly cut that you’d expect the credits to say “Film Editor: Sweeney Todd.” So little remained of the song’s true nature that director Herbert Ross might as well have thrown out the whole thing.
What’s surprising is that Ross let the amputation happen, for he and Sondheim had had a history together; Ross had choreographed ANYONE CAN WHISTLE (and received the show’s only Tony nomination), dance-doctored DO I HEAR A WALTZ? and directed Sondheim and Anthony Perkins’ great mystery film THE LAST OF SHEILA.
(Yes – it wasn’t enough that Sondheim is the greatest composer-lyricist that the theater has ever known; he had to be one of the writers of the greatest mystery movie ever.)
Bless Ned Sherrin for creating SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM that finally allowed the world to hear “I Never Do Anything Twice” in all its glory. This is the song that Cole Porter wished he’d written, for there are triple the number of double-entendres found in any of his songs.
Leonard Bernstein once predicted that Sondheim was “going to write an opera that will knock your eyes out.” Yes, and it knocked our ears out, too, and not just because of that shrill whistle that starts SWEENEY TODD. This one represents his apotheosis.
Many musicals, from THE KING AND I to ANNIE, show its characters having a great time only to see disaster follow. Sondheim, as always, reversed musical theater expectations. After Sweeney showed his darkest side in “Epiphany,” then came the funny word-game number, in which Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney minimized how they’d build their business. Both are very good at the game, locksmith notwithstanding.
Who else would dare name three different songs by the same title: But the “Johanna” that was the most controversial was Judge Turpin’s version, in which he flagellated himself, ashamed of his lust. It was dropped after the first preview when director Harold Prince feared that the audience had had enough horrors to digest without having to endure this one.
Sondheim wanted it on the recording, and the irony is that its inclusion allowed listeners to become inured to it. It’s a rare SWEENEY production that now doesn’t include it.
What’s the last great overture? The one for MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. In 40 years, there hasn’t been a better one. And you can’t have a great overture without great songs, can you?
In BEST WORST THING THAT EVER COULD HAVE HAPPENED, Lonny Price’s documentary about the original production’s few ups and many downs, we see a scene where the opening night final curtain has fallen and the cast members celebrated in a circle; to their surprise, Sondheim jumped right in and joined them. The next day, there was no joy, but MERRILY has been redeemed time and time again, with many, many casts replicating this circle of joy.
After a slew of Tonys came the Pulitzer for SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. Georges Seurat feverishly worked for all of Act One on »Un dimanche près-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte. » Just before intermission, he put the finishing touches on the painting, moving one of his subjects here, another one there and even deciding to remove another’s eyeglasses at the last moment. We then had a three-dimensional representation of the painting we all go to see at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Audiences should have inferred that once Seurat finished his painting at the end of Act One, Act Two would have to go in a different direction. And yet, then came musical theater’s best “What the hell is happening?” moment. The Island of La Grande Jatte went disappearing, making the audience either scratch their heads or delve into their Playbills to find out where and when they were going next. Matters became even stranger when a machine came on looking like R2D2 on steroids.
But here’s another musical where we had to catch up with Sondheim (this time with James Lapine). Many since have, while learning the values of both children and art.
When INTO THE WOODS opened, New York Times theater critic Frank Rich stated “Time and second hearings always tell with a Sondheim score, but this one makes the mildest first impression of all.” Well, the cliché is you never get a second chance to make a first impression, but recordings, a video and a film have proved Rich wrong. Many kids today know musical theater from many junky shows that have pandered to their baser instincts, but here’s one that entertains and challenges them at the same time.
As for their parents, which one doesn’t understand “Children can only grow from something you love to something you lose”?
“They’re making a musical out of that?!?” That’s been the response of many when they heard that such books as LOLITA and KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN were headed for the musical stage. But never did eyebrows rise higher than with ASSASSINS.
However, Musical Theater Rule Number One says that people in musicals sing when passions take over and speech will no longer do. Lord knows that these assassins had passions – so why shouldn’t they sing?
There was passion in the next one: PASSION. No wonder it appealed to Sondheim, who always, always, always wanted to do something new. How many musical theater heroines are made to look ugly? How many get their man? Always the unexpected from S. Joshua Sondheim.
SATURDAY NIGHT, his first musical, aborted when its producer died, finally came to life in England in 1997. So many people in this world came out of it saying “Why wasn’t this picked up by someone else?” Second Stage did, and we were very grateful and hardly sorry for the off-Broadway production.
In BOUNCE, he set “You’re still the best thing that ever has happened to me” to a beautiful bolt of romantic melody. Was Sondheim getting sentimental on us? Note the woman’s response to equally beautiful music: “Bullshit!” When the musical became ROAD SHOW, it became a genuine love song between two men. Again: the unexpected.
Let’s add one more from films: “More” from DICK TRACY stated “Something is better than nothing, but nothing is better than more,” making for two completely different meanings of “nothing.”
That’s really something.
And one from television: THE FABULOUS FIFTIES, a 1960 special, invited Sondheim to submit a song. With Burt Shevelove, he co-wrote “Ten Years Old,” which catalogued what had been introduced in that decade. It was set to the melody of “London Bridge (is falling down).”
“Who had heard of Salk Vaccine? Dexadrine? Mr. Clean? Who had heard of Fulton Sheen or MY FAIR LADY?”
What makes it wondrous is that the original “London Bridge” has the words “My fair lady” in the same spot.
And wouldn’t you know that the damn fools in charge of the show didn’t use it?
Sondheim always said he wasn’t popular. Well, yes and no. True, he never had a show that cracked 1,000 performances, although A FUNNY THING HAPPENED came close at 964. Even INTO THE WOODS – responsible for grammar and middle school children knowing who he is – could only muster 765. In fact, of the six musicals for which he won Best Score Tonys, four of them had a losing competitor that ran longer than Sondheim’s prize-winner.
On Broadway alone, there have been 20 revivals of his musicals, a miraculous total considering that that’s a greater total than the number of musicals for which he wrote music and/or lyrics.
But Sondheim didn’t have to die to get a theater named for him – the only person to have that honor both in the West End and on Broadway.
In GYPSY, he also gave the world an idiom. Even people who know nothing about theater have been known to say, “Everything’s coming up roses” when something nice happens to them.
In Mel Brooks’ 1983 remake of TO BE OR NOT TO BE, he named a character Sondheim. Brooks, playing a player-manager, didn’t panic when a number wasn’t ready. He just called for a replacement act:
“Sondheim! Send in the Clowns!”
There have been cartoons that have used “Send in the Clowns” as a punchline. But would we have ever expected that it would have shown up in JOKER, a grimly serious character study of a maniac?
In it, a menacing aggressor on a subway saw a man dressed as a clown who seemed to be coming home from work. The clown was minding his own business, but the street tough harassed, mocked and beat him while singing – yes! – “Send in the Clowns’” first two A sections and the B section verbatim without missing a single syllable. When low-lifes know a song from a Broadway musical to that degree, you know it’s permeated the populace.
And if you go to the Art Institute of Chicago to see a certain painting, you needn’t ask “Where’s “Un dimanche près-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte”? Just say “Where’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’?” and security guard will quickly say “Gallery 240.” (Seriously: I’ve done it three, no, four times and they have each time known what I meant.)
He was a mentor to many. Lin-Manuel Miranda admits that HAMILTON’S “The Room Where It Happens” was inspired by PACIFIC OVERTURES’ “Someone in a Tree.” Michael Greif had to be glad for Sondheim, for when Jonathan Larson thought that RENT wasn’t going well, he called his mentor to say he wanted to have his director fired. Sondheim talked him out of it.
Fans who weren’t in the business still had Sondheim connect with them. Dozens upon dozens of my Facebook friends posted their letters from Sondheim, many of which I’ve seen framed in homes.
The criticism was always “There’s not a tune you can hum.” Did people arrive late to FORUM and miss “Comedy Tonight”? As for beautiful songs, how about “Anyone Can Whistle” … “Sorry/Grateful” … “Losing My Mind” … “You Must Meet My Wife” … “Pretty Lady” … “Pretty Women” … “Good Thing Going” … “Move On” … “No One Is Alone” – all beautiful, beautiful songs.
But considering the lyrics, no wonder people missed the melodies: “When you are by your lonesome all you can do is phone some broad” … “That Puerto-Rican punk’ll go down and when he’s hollered uncle” … “Said this bum’ll be Beau Brummel” … “Someone who in fetching you your slipper will be winsome as a whippoorwill” … “Shub’s a boob and you belong to me” … “Such lovely blue Danube-y music, how can you be still?” … “Exclusive you, elusive you. Will any person ever get the juice of you?” … “Each in her style a Delilah reborn” … “And be hopelessly shattered by Saturday night” … “Ev’ry time I look and see me I’m reminded life is dreamy” … “If the tea the Shogun drank will serve to keep the Shogun tranquil” … And what about the more than four dozen clever rhymes in “A Little Priest”?
“Time and second hearings”? Thank God – the other God – for all the recordings, videos and films. They’ll allow us to have endless days and endless nights appreciating Stephen Joshua Sondheim.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.