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 theyâ€™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 thereâ€™s an appreciation of the rhythm in his language that appeals to a literary mentality here.
On the double album â€˜Sondheim On Sondheimâ€™ he spoke about his life and the way it impacted on his music.Â If you know nothing at all about Sondheim but simply like the way words fit together, listen to â€˜Merrily We Roll Alongâ€™, a success-to-failure story told temporally backwards. The angular, contrapuntal underscoring you hear used to get knocked out of Sondheimâ€™s music by producers anxious not to jar audienceâ€™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 â€˜Companyâ€™ open on Broadway which caught the tone of the times. The hippy era was ending, the swingers had swung and commitment loomed. â€˜Companyâ€™ 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 feltÂ excluded, but couldn’t fix himself to care or commit.Â â€˜Companyâ€™ was accessible yet still experimental, with no formal plot and blackout scenes. Thereâ€™s drink and dope and sex, and itâ€™s all very â€˜nowâ€™.Â
Nearly half a century ago.
I saw the original production at Her Majestyâ€™s with Larry Kert, Donna McKechnie and Elaine Stritch, and Boris Aaronsonâ€™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 â€˜Companyâ€™. It was a modest hit and became a staple, then a warhorse. It became irrelevant. What it needed was an overhaul.
Enter directorÂ Marianne Elliott of â€˜War Horseâ€™ and â€˜The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timeâ€™. She felt the show needed major changes and rewrites. Sondheim had to be persuaded to allow them, but he admired Elliot.
What kick-started â€˜Companyâ€™ back to life was a gender-swap. Bobby became female â€“ Bobbi, and crazy Amy, whoâ€™s â€˜not getting married todayâ€™, is now a male couple. Nothing feels shoe-horned in, everything is organic and natural.Â With new instrumental links that set the sound of a ticking clock over Bobbiâ€™s biological one, thereâ€™s a fresh urgency to her search for commitment.
I went with a female friend who felt she had just seen her life staged. Itâ€™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.Â 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.Â 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.