One of my great regrets where theatre is concerned, although I still hope to live to see it remedied, is that I’ve seen relatively few of Stephen Sondheim’s works on stage. I’ve seen Sweeney Todd twice, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Assassins and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, so that’s not bad. But I’ve never happened to be in the vicinity of any production of Company (although supposedly there’s a Toronto staging on the way), A Little Night Music or Follies. I have the cast recordings of all these, among others, as well as many other albums where Sondheim songs are covered, so I have it pretty well covered in many respects, but he’s always felt to me like a mountain with much distance left to climb.
Sondheim became even more awesome in my eyes after I read his two recent volumes of collected lyrics; they seriously altered my sense of the nature and quality of songwriting. Since reading the books, in which Sondheim unsparingly dissects and evaluates his own work and that of other songwriters (although only dead ones, out of consideration), I’ve been even more allergic than I was before to strained phrasing and forced rhymes and other contrivances. His fastidiousness in this regard sometimes seems like a curse of sorts. Although the works I mentioned above are all famous and esteemed, none of them ever came close to the enormous popular successes of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Les Miserables or the like, and you regularly come across the notion (even if it’s only being cited so as to debunk it) that Sondheim doesn’t write catchy or easily grasped songs. Indeed, some of his songs are so melodically and lyrically challenging that only the most technically accomplished performers can pull them off. But others are as sweet and sparse and pure as anyone’s ever written.
The perceived absence of “hummability” may be in part a function of how the songs, taken in isolation, never give up all their secrets. “Send in the Clowns”, to cite one of the most famous, can be generally understood by anyone as a proud expression of mixed emotions, but no one would write it quite that way as a stand-alone work. Let a Sondheim song into your mind, and with it comes a rush of complex ripples and patterns, of interconnected stories, unfinished conversations, looming dangers. The resonances are all the richer for the astounding variety of his concepts and settings – from fairy tales, to Georges Seurat, to a musical built around presidential assassinations, for God’s sake; thinking over his work, you constantly have to reorient yourself, to transcend limits. There’s a wonderful sense of growth and fluidity to his body of work, a sense which deepens further after reading the books – he lays out his false starts, songs that got cut from the shows, others that got rewritten later on; it’s like staring into alternate universes with their own alternative Sondheims. Listening to his work is expansive and mind-enhancing, where so many other contemporary musicals merely provide dully soothing confirmation.
Six by Sondheim
Sondheim himself, knowingly or not, perfectly stokes his own legend. He’s a lover of mysteries and puzzles, and co-wrote (with Anthony Perkins!) the accomplished 1973 mystery The Last of Sheila. In past decades, you’d read about him being solitary and emotionally isolated; this was in part just old-time code for being gay (he now says he first fell in love at the age of 60), but it fed a sense of labyrinthine unknowability. Sometimes he’s had his finger eerily on the pulse of a particular moment – Company, about the ups and downs of marriage, is a prime example – at other times he’s gone into thematic territory no one else would ever have dreamed of exploring. He is, quite simply, someone you could explore and contemplate almost indefinitely.
The fine documentary Six by Sondheim, currently showing on HBO, captures this abundance very well. As the title suggests, the director James Lapine, a frequent collaborator, structures the film around six of Sondheim’s most prominent songs, chosen to reflect different aspects of his craft and artistic personality. The nature of the showcase varies from one to the next: for “Being Alive” from Company, thrilling footage of the original cast in the recording studio; for “Send in the Clowns”, a compilation of past performances by everyone from Sinatra to Streisand to Judi Dench; for “I’m Still Here,” that legendary anthem to a veteran female trooper’s fortitude, a new performance by the male and not particularly old Jarvis Cocker (it works). Although I read somewhere that the variety of approaches may represent budgetary constraints (the original plan having been to create a new performance for each of the six), it actually works perfectly, balancing commemoration and renewal.
Around these pillars, Lapine crams in a remarkable amount of Sondheim himself, culled from more than fifty years of interviews and documentaries, right up to the present (my main criticism is that it isn’t longer, always a good sign). The inevitable wear and tear on him is less striking than the remarkable constancy of his voice, his self-awareness, his precision in diagnosing his own achievements (as crisp in person as it was on the page). The hard work involved in making something appear effortless is a show business cliché by now, but I’ve never seen the truth of it conveyed as well as it is here: you get the feeling that if asked, Sondheim could explain the motivation underlying every note and rhyme in each of his songs (“Send in the Clowns,” for instance, was written in very short stanzas, with lots of room for breaths, to accommodate the limitations of the original Little Night Music cast member Glynis Johns). In one of the many archival highlights, he coaches a performer through one of the songs from Sweeney Todd, masterfully shaping the young man’s sense of the material – it’s almost as thrilling as listening to the song itself.
Another of the new performances, of “Opening Doors” from Merrily we Roll Along (which he describes as his most autobiographical song), features Sondheim himself, delivering the “self-criticism” he put into the mouth of a Broadway impresario type: “There’s not a tune you can hum, there’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum.” The irony, for Sondheim lovers, is that this itself comes with a tune as alluring as anything in more ostensibly crowd-pleasing shows. Still, his appearance in the role suggests he’s at peace with the road he’s traveled. One hopes so, because it’s clear from the documentary that it hasn’t always been easy to be Stephen Sondheim. For me, he’s an almost holy figure, someone whose own creative toil alleviates the spiritual poverty of the world.