STEPHEN SONDHEIM: AN APPRECIATION By Peter Filichia
What a metaphor, huh?
Take a look at the history of the Tony Awards for Best Original Score. There have been fourteen years when the category wasn’t even offered, and fifty-eight when it was.
Do the math, and you’ll see that makes for seventy-two of the Tonys’ seventy-three seasons.
So what happened the other season?
In fact, it was the 1970-71 semester when Tony’s powers-that-be (wisely) decided to give a separate award for Best Music and Best Lyrics.
Who won for Best Music? Stephen Sondheim for COMPANY.
Who won for Best Lyrics? Stephen Sondheim for COMPANY.
Sondheim had enjoyed many distinctions during his ninety solid years on this earth (which we’re celebrating this week): eight Tony Awards (no songwriter has done better), just as many Grammys and almost twice as many (fifteen) Drama Desk Awards. Add to these a Pulitzer Prize, a Laurence Olivier Award and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Only one person can claim that both a major Broadway and London theater is currently named for him: Stephen Sondheim.
Yet the most metaphorical tidbit is that the one and only season that the Tonys gave two awards for one score, Sondheim – who’s (at least) twice as good as the vast majority of songwriters – was the recipient.
COMPANY was not a box-office smash and comparatively few of its 705 performances were sold out. But COMPANY was a tough sell. It billed itself as “a musical comedy,” but way down deep it didn’t believe it.
This was a hard look at marriage; in the show’s second song where a musical almost always has the main character telling you what he or she wants out of life, here was a woman admitting to at least three marriages and perhaps even four.
And she wasn’t the main character. He was Bobby, who wouldn’t really tell us what was on his mind until the sixth song. Before that, Sondheim had him ask a pointed and personal question: “Harry – are you ever sorry you got married?” What it led to is a phrase that many musical theater fans have borrowed ever since to express their ambivalence on a multitude of matters: “Sorry – Grateful.”
COMPANY has influenced many musical theater songwriters. One example out of dozens: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, in their GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER, wrote a song called “Eliot/Sylvia” that clearly takes its cue from Sondheim’s “Barcelona.”
One could say, though, that the person most greatly influenced by COMPANY was Stephen Sondheim himself. This trailblazing success occurred a long six years after he’d written both music and lyrics for his eccentric and daring ANYONE CAN WHISTLE – and had seen it close after nine performances. The following year he was back on Broadway, represented by lyrics only with a somewhat conventional musical: DO I HEAR A WALTZ? – mostly to pay a favor from mentor Oscar Hammerstein II who, while approaching death, urged his star pupil to work with his legendary collaborator Richard Rodgers.
Despite excellent work from everyone involved – a listen to the original cast album conclusively proves that – the show lacked the passion and excitement that Sondheim wanted from musical theater.
After DO I HEAR A WALTZ? ran only seven months, Sondheim could be said to have gone into, to paraphrase a Jerry Herman lyric, his personal haze. He started, quit, restarted and quit again a musical version of a Brecht play (book by John Guare, music by Leonard Bernstein, and to star Zero Mostel). All that the public saw during a five-year period was an hour-long TV musical EVENING PRIMROSE for which Sondheim was only required to write four songs.
The first, tellingly enough, has as its main lyric, “If you can find me, I’m here.” That seemed to be the case with Sondheim. If Broadway could find him, he was there, still in his thirties, ready, willing and eager to work.
Old friend Harold Prince – who’d produced A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM with a Sondheim score — was willing to have him do just that, leading to an historical eleven-year collaboration that started with COMPANY. Now that Sondheim had tried something so daringly different and found success with the people who mattered most to him, he was emboldened to try something new every time.
FOLLIES in 1971 also dared to question and doubt marriage, but from the opposite end of the spectrum: two couples who have been together for nearly thirty years have had severe marital troubles for some time. This scenario was even more threatening than COMPANY to married theatergoers; if they’d been frustrated at hearing Bobby catalogue the possible pitfalls of marriage, FOLLIES showed them the quicksand in which couples get stuck after they’ve taken the plunge. Seeing dull, loveless and antagonistic wedlock (emphasis on the second syllable) was perhaps too analogous to their own unions and caused FOLLIES not to have the success it richly deserved.
Sondheim wrote bitter-pill songs but softened them with his use of pastiche. He mirrored what had been heard in revues that Florenz Ziegfeld, George White and Earl Carroll delivered in the earlier part of the twentieth century. In all Broadway history, FOLLIES has best opening number (“Beautiful Girls”), the best production number (“Who’s That Woman?”), the best song written out-of-town (“I’m Still Here”) and the best logo (from David Edward Byrd, who – fun fact – turned thirty on the day that FOLLIES opened on Broadway).
Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC which followed in 1973 also showed how inane people can be when they insist on loving those who are wrong for them. Desiree is with Carl-Magnus, who’s cheating on Charlotte, who’s chosen to accept it; Fredrik married the decades-younger Anne, a girl-woman so scared of sex that she hasn’t allowed it: “Soon – I want to!” she says while not wanting it at all. Fredrik’s son Henrik feels he’ll never be loved, but that won’t prove true, either.
Unlike the others, NIGHT MUSIC ameliorated marital matters with a happy ending that audiences could believe: Fredrik and Desiree, lovers of long ago, finally reconcile and marry after their romantic misadventures.
And yet, the show that’s been occasionally billed as “The ‘Send in the Clowns’ musical” was still pretty adventurous. This adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT wasn’t the first musical based on a foreign film, but giving Broadway a Swedish locale and characters with such surnames as Egerman and Armfeldt wasn’t automatically audience-friendly. A score that used variables on three-quarter time could have turned out monotonous, but Sondheim ensured that it didn’t.
He was back to an audaciously adventurous musical with PACIFIC OVERTURES. The idea started with John Weidman, a recent Harvard graduate still in his late twenties. Never mind that his biggest credit was co-authoring A HIT AND A MYTH, that university’s 1967 Hasty Pudding Show. Sondheim, perhaps following the lead of George Abbott (the official director of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED)who was famous for giving young people a chance, took Weidman’s unproduced play about America’s long and tortured history with Japan. The chance to do something never before attempted – making a Broadway score out of Japanese musical conventions – was an irresistible challenge for Sondheim. The result was a musical that truly deserves to be called sui generis.
What could he do to top that? Nothing but his masterpiece. By now, Sondheim had become so respected – nay, revered – that anything was possible, which he proved.
Leonard Bernstein was the first to predict it, stating that Sondheim was “going to write an opera that will knock your eyes out.” More to the point, it knocked our ears out, and not just because it and its cast recording start with a shrill whistle. SWEENEY TODD represents Sondheim’s apotheosis.
Here he had to compromise by dropping one of the three songs called “Johanna”; a judge sang it while flagellating himself. Sondheim was smart, though, to insist on having it included on the original cast album although it had been long gone from the production. As Frank Rich once noted, “time and second hearings always tell with a Sondheim score.” Try to find a SWEENEY TODD production now that doesn’t use it.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG must be the most acclaimed sixteen-performance musical of all time. (No doubt that ANYA, DUDE and SO LONG, 174th STREET don’t qualify for the title). Musical theater aficionados will argue forever about the flaws of this 1981 musical that seems increasingly better as the years go on, but even back then Sondheim was appreciated and came away with the show’s only Tony nomination. Not a day has gone by that the original cast album hasn’t been available; it’s even since led to two other (more modest) recordings.
My, did Sondheim rebound with SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE in 1984. This got the Pulitzer Prize but lost the Best Musical Tony to LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Given that the former is the more artsy award and the latter the more commercial, the voters’ decisions seem correct.
His most beloved work followed in 1987: INTO THE WOODS. You’ve seen it, haven’t you? If you haven’t a production is waiting just around the corner (when things get back to normal). But even here the mash-up of fairy tale characters is distinctly Sondheim; there may be plenty of laughs in Act One, but Act Two is the “be careful what you wish for” section that involves the deaths of more than one important character. And STILL it gets done.
Wasn’t ASSASSINS the most dangerous choice of all? Who could picture Lee Harvey Oswald singin’ and dancin’? Yet Sondheim and Weidman proved ‘tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.
PASSION, ROAD SHOW and THE FROGS aren’t among Sondheim’s most beloved. One can’t hit a home run every time at bat. But, oh, were we lucky that Stephen Joshua Sondheim came into the world on March 22, 1930.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.