Stephen Sondheim wanted to explore a new world every time
INA TOWN HOUSE in midtown Manhattan, in a room with a grand piano, the lights were often on all night. The man who was sitting there looked like an intense and nervous concern. He leaned back in his chair, craned his neck to question the ceiling, leaned dangerously to the side, arched his arm above his head, forcing his words to the music and his music to the lyrics.
Doing both things, writing the lyrics and composing, was rare and tricky. The music was fun, abstract, and in him; the lyrics were a sweat, even though he initially considered himself a playwright. Combining them didn’t require inspiration, like a girl chirping over her shoulder, but patient work. He had to let the lyrics rest lightly on the melody line, bubbling and rising, while making sure that the music made them shine and sometimes explode. As he worked he was painfully aware of his mistake in “West Side Story” (in 1957, when he was starting out, and the music was Lenny Bernstein’s, not his), to put the indefinite article on the note. highest of a sentence in “Somewhere,” or not noticing how long a purple line might embarrass him afterward. (Forever, actually.) Less is more, keep it simple, he kept telling himself. Rhymes and clever puns were his strong suit, but why were “love” and “life” so nearly impossible to rhyme with anything? For Stephen Sondheim, working in the English language he loved was very, very difficult.
It wasn’t in his nature either. He was instinctively a mathematician, distracted while still in school by the great lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, his best friend’s father, who taught him almost everything he knew. Mathematics was reserved for the puzzles and enigmatic crosswords he invented where slowly, link by link, the solution appeared. On the other hand, the 15 musicals he wrote for the American scene, works that propelled him in the company of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Noël Coward, are studies in disconnection. While he could place his characters in seemingly jovial parties or reunions, deep emotional cracks soon reappeared.
Both in “Company” (his landmark work in 1970) and in “Follies” (1971), marriages collapse, but new commitments are too difficult. “Into the Woods”, a revisit of classic fairy tales, explored the love-hate relationship between parents and children, a relationship he himself had well known. “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984) explored the competing claims, on painter Georges Seurat and George, his struggling artist great-grandson, of the human love that everyone wanted and the art that they had to do.
These conflicts meant that Sondheim’s twin roles, lyricist and composer, often played out against each other. Despair could hide under the joke, and wickedness under the sweetness. In “Follies” he wrote the bitterly witty “May I leave you?” (“Could I bury my rage / with a boy half your age / in the grass? / Bet your ass!”) Like a big waltz; in his cartoonish semi-opera “Sweeney Todd” (1979), the demon barber sang the sweet, joyful “Pretty Women” as he prepared to slit a client’s throat. Often, too, a Sondheim musical would fracture time itself, punctuating the action with flashbacks, as in “Company”, or completely reversing the timeline (“Merrily We Roll Along”, a disaster). The linear musicals American audiences had come to expect, ending with a great chorus and a dazzling man and girl together, became in his hands messy slices of life in which nothing had been resolved, nor ever could. being.
The public therefore tended to leave the theater perplexed. Many have come out. They found him too intellectual, the subjects uncomfortable, and nothing humorous in the fluid, conversational scores. With the exception of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962), his first foray into Broadway in either case, his runs were short. His name might be twisted into the pleasant anagram, “He wrote demon hits”. But his only one (as big as it was) was “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music,” a song written mostly as simple questions and again about disconnection. (“Isn’t that rich? / Are we a pair? Me finally on the ground / You in the air?”) He treated the 32 bar torch songs, again very difficult to write, as comments – act plays to advance the plot. If there was a plot.
He didn’t mind the lack of popularity. He had never wanted to be corporate or commercial; he hated it all. His only desire was to experiment, to get nervous in new territory, and not to do the same thing twice. Among the topics he embarked on was the emergence of Japan (in “Pacific Overtures”, made as a piece of kabuki theater) and the assassination or attempted assassination of US presidents in “Assassins,” staged at a fun fair. Vaudeville and pastiche were strewn about, spicing his work with irony, and he wrote in sharp hostile tones just to question himself. “Maverick” was a word he feasted on.
He also saw himself as an outsider: an only child who got the best grades in school, Jewish, gay, shy. His first musical experience was the Rodgers and Hammerstein Carousel at age 15, when the sight of the wicked outcast Jigger being ostracized by the townspeople made him cry. He enjoyed collaborating on musicals, especially with producer Hal Prince and writer James Lapine, as he hadn’t found such a sense of family anywhere else. Until he was 61, he lived alone. The work was hard until the end, and his main concern was that it continues to be done, in schools, communities, anywhere. Done and done and done.
His only attempt at memory was a two-volume analysis of all his musicals. So we wondered which of them held the key to him. “Society”, perhaps, where the stranger Bobby humorously observes the marriages of his friends in an attempt to find happiness for himself? Or “Into the Woods”, with its strong echoes from the analyst couches on which he had spent so many hours? Or “Sunday in the Park with George”, where in the last act George is advised in the nocturnal park by the ghost of his great-grandmother:
Stop worrying where you’re going / move on
If you can know where you are going /
You’re gone, keep moving …
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the title “Continue to move forward”