Me And Mr S: A Sondheim Appreciation


I’ll never list my favourite Stephen Sondheim songs. The composer-lyricist suggested that writers should never turn out lists because once the idea is established everything else is repetition. His dictums, rules and ideas were set out in two huge volumes of works, ‘Finishing The Hat’ and ‘Look, I Made A Hat’. I’ve trusted many of them, especially, ‘Less is more, content dictates form and God is in the details.’

Since the 1970s London had a special relationship with Mr Sondheim. His shows sold out here wherever they’ve been performed around the country, and his reviews and masterclasses on writing were sought-after events. I was often surprised in London venues to pass him seated in the rear of the stalls, just in for the show. I think there’s an appreciation of the rhythm in his language that appeals to a literary mentality here.

On the double album ‘Sondheim On Sondheim’ he spoke about his life and the way it impacted on his music. If you know nothing at all about Sondheim but simply like the way words fit together, listen to ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, a success-to-failure story told temporally backwards. The angular, contrapuntal underscoring you hear used to get knocked out of Sondheim’s music by producers anxious not to jar audience’s ears. ‘Merrily’ is crushingly cruel because its structure of jaded failures becoming young hopefuls lets you see where they’re headed. But the characters have to age 20 years, and neither young nor veteran casts could handle it. Maria Friedman’s British revamp cured the problems and was praised by Mr Sondheim as the best he’d seen, but the last I heard it didn’t get to the US. It was very bleak – at one point a character has acid thrown in her face – but has a superb score.

In 1970, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim had a show called ‘Company’ open on Broadway which caught the tone of the times. The hippy era was ending, the swingers had swung and commitment loomed. ‘Company’ was a comedy presented in a fugue state, taking place between an intake of breath and its exhalation, as the hero Bobby blew out 35 candles on his birthday cake and wondered why he was still alone and disconnected.

Bobby was single, a blank, a sounding board for his friends and their married foibles. He saw their messy lives and felt excluded, but couldn’t fix himself to care or commit. ‘Company’ was accessible yet still experimental, with no formal plot and blackout scenes. There’s drink and dope and sex, and it’s all very ‘now’. 

Nearly half a century ago.

I saw the original production at Her Majesty’s with Larry Kert, Donna McKechnie and Elaine Stritch, and Boris Aaronson’s startling chrome and glass elevator set. It was the time of the three-day week and rolling blackouts. The second half was hit by a power cut and performed with torches. It was my first Sondheim, which for a writer with little interest in lyrics up until then, was a game-changer. If you’re the kind of person who hears music in their head, you find it easier to write.

Time was not kind to ‘Company’. It was a modest hit and became a staple, then a warhorse. It became irrelevant. What it needed was an overhaul.

Enter director Marianne Elliott of ‘War Horse’ and ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’. She felt the show needed major changes and rewrites. Sondheim had to be persuaded to allow them, but he admired Elliot.

What kick-started ‘Company’ back to life was a gender-swap. Bobby became female – Bobbi, and crazy Amy, who’s ‘not getting married today’, is now a male couple. Nothing feels shoe-horned in, everything is organic and natural. With new instrumental links that set the sound of a ticking clock over Bobbi’s biological one, there’s a fresh urgency to her search for commitment.

I went with a female friend who felt she had just seen her life staged. It’s no gimmick; everything works. This is perhaps how the play should always be seen. Sadly, and typically for the composer’s luck, the New York production was cancelled due to the pandemic. I would imagine that the politicised nature of vaccination in the states – NYC being a largely democrat city – will keep their theatres empty longer.

Some of Mr Sondheim’s finest work came from his most difficult scores. ‘Assassins’, his most overtly political show, was accused of being treasonous. The story of America’s presidential killers has the cast pointing guns into the audience. Here’s the NY Times’ Frank Rich on the subject:

‘WHEN I’ve watched Broadway audiences rise up to cheer even the most idiotic flops over the past decade, I’ve often wondered: what would it take for them not to give a standing ovation? At last I’ve found an answer: the fear of terrorists lurking somewhere beyond the lobby. That is the unnerving sensation that keeps people seated during the ovation for ‘Assassins.”

Just as demanding is the story of the end of Japan’s isolation in ‘Pacific Overtures’. In London the English National Opera – back when it was good – had an amazing run of productions including this, which started in the feudal ‘floating island’ and ended with the rise of modern westernised Japan.

But his three greatest scores are ‘Sweeney Todd’, ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ and ‘Into The Woods’. I went to the opening of Sweeney in New York and managed to fall down steps on the way there, limping torn and bloodied into the theatre just in time for curtain up.

Tim Burton admitted that he’d messed up the film version of Sweeney (which I’ve seen upward of 20 times in theatres and opera houses) but it did elicit the funniest response to his work. Seated in a cinema in Camden Town for the film version, I watched as a pile of blokes rocked up. When Johnny Depp opened his mouth one exclaimed, ‘Fuck me, it’s a musical!’ and they all fled, hard lads brought down by some singing.




14 comments on “Me And Mr S: A Sondheim Appreciation”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin The Elliott ‘Company’ is in previews in NY with a scheduled opening now for 9 Dec. However, with a new precautionary emergency order in place because of the omicron variant, it remains to be seen if that schedule will hold. A revival of ‘Assassins’ is also playing off-Broadway. Sondheim saw and praised both before his passing and I suppose they could be viewed as a kind of fitting ‘eulogy.’

    As a longtime fan, I’m looking forward to seeing what Steven Spielberg does with his ’60th anniversary’ ‘West Side Story,’ when it’s released next month and also praised by Sondheim. It will, of course, be referred to as Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story,’ but will always be Leonard Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s for me. Fortunately Sondheim overcame his initial reluctance to do the lyrics, considering himself a composer and not just a lyricist. In fact, he was a playwright — a writer of memorable very short plays set to music.

  2. Stephen Winer says:

    We saw that production of COMPANY here in NY two days before he died. It’s wonderful and Katrina Link and Patti LuPone are amazing. The original production was my first Sondheim show and I vowed I’d see everything else he wrote and I got pretty close to it.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    To critic Frank Rich’s point you quote about the seeming irresistibility of the standing ovation — having been to a recent in-person performance after two years, I was struck by the fact that the audience appeared to have forgotten that it, rather than the play, is the ‘thing,’ Hamlet’s assertion notwithstanding. When they bounced us from the stage at the Drury Lane or made us sit on benches in the pit at the Comédie Française, theater may have taken a great leap forward, but we — the performing audience — took a step back — our repertoire reduced to the cough, applause, the standing ovation, late entrance and the immediate (if not sooner) exit.

    And while the standing ovation is the most pyrotechnical device in the quiver of the modern-day audience, it is the most difficult to bring off successfully since it requires the cooperation, forced or otherwise, of other members of the audience. Too many are rendered ineffective by impatience. You must literally, ‘look before you leap.’ Proper position is a must. Ideally, you and your performing colleagues should be at the ends of the same row. Watch carefully out of the corner of your eye until all or most of the people in the row have jumped to their feet and are turned toward you ready to rush out. In New York and often in London, this will occur immediately upon the fall of the curtain…or before. Then, and only then, are you to leap to your feet and begin applauding wildly. Should any of your row-mates have the audacity to push past you, a withering stare accompanied by a hissed ‘Philistine!’ will usually do the trick.

    Booing and hissing require a presence and self-confidence not yet to be found in the modern performing audience-at-large. And. in any event, the accomplished concertgoer can do better. Like the woman in New York’s Carnegie Hall during a performance of minimalist Steve Reich’s ‘Four Organs’, scored for a rock organ quartet and maracas, which essentially plays the same chord for 20 minutes. She reportedly sprinted down the center aisle and banged her head on the stage, screaming, ‘Stop. Stop. I confess!’ /s

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    Which of his filmed musicals is the best? I’m not really one for musicals, about time I dipped my toe in. I do have an unwatched copy of Sweeney Todd somewhere.

    It will give me something to do as I self isolate, mine and my wife’s CPR tests came back positive so I have Covid, I don’t feel too bad (sore throat, muscles and headache, more like mild flu.) as I have been double jabbed. My nine year old daughter tested negative, I’m not surprised.


  5. Debra Matheney says:

    The deaths of Arthur Miller and Edward Albee were devastating to American theater and this theater goer and now Mr. Sondheim’s death ended musical comedy for me as his were the only ones I could tolerate. I have seen several versions of Sweeney Todd, including the Angela Lansbury/George Hearn one which cannot be beat. I heard Sondheim interviewed about Todd, and he argued for the comedy of it over the gore. I think it’s a very funny play as well as an indictment of the Industrial Revolution, with which Sondheim did not agree. I saw Potemkin in Sunday in the Park with George, wonderful about the creative process. But Into the Woods is my favorite. The movie version is pretty good, Wayne. I even liked the Depp version of Sweeney, even though he and Bonham-Carter can’t sing. Try all three and take care.

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Wayne Mook Wayne: First of all — very sorry to hear that you and yours have come down with the virus. Hopefully with your two jabs (get the booster when you can) you’ll both have a mild case. Your daughter might also be offered the vaccine shortly with the omicron variant now afoot, as opposed to having to wait for next Spring.

    Anyway, as far as available Sondheim musicals — without knowing which streaming services you have or whether you have a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which might allow you access to services in Canada and the US, here’s the present choices: ‘Into the Woods’ which is one of his very best, intertwines the plots of several Grimm fairy tales(Apple TV, Amazon Prime); ‘Sunday in the Park With George,’ another one of his best, loosely based on the life of French painter Georges Seurat (Apple TV); the there’s the film adaptations of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ (YouTube, Apple TV, Amazon Prime & Google Play), ‘West Side Story’ (1961) for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics (Sky Atlantic, Apple TV, Google Play, Amazon ) and likewise for Gypsy (1962) (YouTube, Apple TV, Amazon and Google Play). Finally, if you just want a ‘sample’ of the man’s genius, there’s ‘Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration’ streaming on YouTube.

  7. Roger Allen says:

    A very different Sweeney Todd – close to the old Victorian melodrama with no nonsense about explanatory backstories – was made in the 1930s by Tod Slaughter (what else could the man do with a real surname like that than be a melodramatic actor?) who’d acted him on stage quite often as well.

  8. Paul+C says:

    Tod Slaughter (real forename Norman) was born here in Newcastle and local horror fans campaigned for a blue plaque but the council sniffily refused. Shame. My favourite blue plaque is one in London stating that Ho Chi Minh worked in the kitchens of this hotel. Wow

  9. Bob Low says:

    I remember going to see Tim Burton’s film version of Sweeney Todd on its release. As I recall, it had an ’18’ certificate, which is comparatively rare these days, even for horror films, and is usually an indication of fairly extreme material. The hard lads in Camden obviously thought they’d be in for an evening of graphic throat cutting, spraying arterial blood and cannibalism, so it’s all the more amusing that they were scared off by a spot of singing. It was pretty gory, but I liked it , and my wife enjoyed the music, bum notes and all.

  10. Paul+C says:

    Nice one, Bob – a group of hard cases left the cinema in fury near me when they realised that the WWI film A Very Long Engagement was in French with subtitles. They demanded their money back and kicked up a row when only given a voucher for another film. No doubt they expected lots of blood and gore too………..

  11. Wayne Mook says:

    I have seen West Side Story and did enjoy it. I do have a copy of Sweeney Todd and shall try that. I have heard mixed reviews of ‘Into the Woods’ but shall try to seek it out too.

    Todd Slaughter is splendid, as someone once said if the Victorians had made films they would be like this. I shall polish them off.

    Thanks for all the suggestions.

    The Virus is steadily get worse more like a medium to heavy flu. I also lost my sense of taste so will not be ordering any of the M&S crisps and snacks for a while.


  12. Stu-I-Am says:

    Even accounting for the usual post-screening high from a good film, the buzz after the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s re-do of ‘West Side Story’ in NY Monday night (29 Nov) seems to be exceptionally strong and especially considering the more than a little skepticism before about his ability to improve on the classic. He apparently has, or more appropriately, ‘reimagined’ it successfully, and both the film and its lead actors are now in the Oscar conversations. It is scheduled to open in theatres in the UK, US and Canada on 10 Dec and a day or two earlier in Europe and by the end of the month elsewhere. Let’s hope the pandemic-induced postponed opening doesn’t happen again.

  13. Jan says:

    I saw “Into the Woods”in Canizzarro Park (Likely a Dodgy spelling) one summer evening. It was an amateur production but the Wimbledon operatic soc must definitely have a few bob cos they had employed professional singers for the big main parts. I really enjoyed it and like “Camelot” it’s well suited to outdoor evening productions as the themes of the story become more twisted and serious it’s literally gets a treat.

    I think fairytales are a fantastically interesting topic and what Sondheim did was clever and insightful but there was more there he could have played with deeper themes he left alone. Although it was smashing it was an opportunity missed he turned it into sort of a party trick and it could have done more, been more.

  14. Paul+C says:

    I like Angela Carter’s baroque reinvention of fairy tales in her collection of short stories ‘The Bloody Chamber.’ I never tire of reading her novel ‘Nights at the Circus’ – what a wonderful writer she was. Her early death at just 52 robbed us of many more dazzling books…….

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