A Beginner’s Guide To Stephen Sondheim

October 27, 2010 | By | COMMENTS

Stephen Sondheim turned 80 this year and there were numerous concerts, tributes, a Broadway show (“Sondheim on Sondheim”), and a recently published, self-annotated book of lyrics (reviewed here by Paul Simon) celebrating the man New York Magazine once called “God.” But for many, and I used to include myself in this category, the work of Stephen Sondheim is difficult to access; unless you go to the theater very often or you grew up watching primetime PBS, you probably haven’t had the chance to savor or experience the work of the man many consider to be musical theater’s greatest living artist. So here’s my attempt to make it easy for you, to provide you with a little roadmap so that one day you can become a bonafide Sondheim-worshipper, as I’ve become today.

First things first: you probably know a lot of Sondheim’s work already. Specifically, his work as a lyricist. For example, he wrote the lyrics to “West Side Story” & “Gypsy.” When Cole Porter was at the end of his life and hospitalized (he’d had his second leg amputated), Ethel Merman invited Sondheim to visit him in the hospital. Sondheim played the following song (music by Jules Styne) for Porter:

When it got to this part…
Wherever I go, I know he goes
Wherever I go, I know she goes
No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos

…Porter gasped. Sondheim later wrote: “He hadn’t seen it coming. He didn’t know there was going to be a fourth rhyme! And when you realize that Cole Porter loved to use foreign words in his own lyrics–it’s a real Cole Porter rhyme! To this day–I’m not kidding–it is my proudest moment of lyric writing.” [Source.]
To appreciate Sondheim, you have to have an appreciation for language. The man loves words and, interestingly enough, puzzles; like Vladimir Nabokov (who spent much of his free time dreaming up chess scenarios), Sondheim is a supreme craftsman. And you can detect the care he puts into his craft when you examine his lyrics which are almost always flawless.
Sondheim the Broadway lyricist graduated to Sondheim the Broadway composer/lyricist with the show, “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.” That show is perhaps the most accessible, in terms of subject matter, and for many it might be the easiest way to begin your Sondheim education:

That song, “Comedy Tonight,” was actually a last-minute addition to the show during try-outs. The show was doing really poorly and, as Sondheim recalls: “The first thing Jerry [choreographer Jerome Robbins] did when he came in was to tell us to change the opening number, to tell the audience what the evening is about because the show is perfectly terrific but they don’t know what it’s about until it’s too late….” The song Sondheim came up with is now a Broadway staple.
“Ok,” you’re probably thinking, “this is all well and good, but these songs, so far, are big bouncy Broadway songs. Is that what Sondheim’s known for? I thought he was supposed to be a dark genius or something?”
We’re getting there!
The following seven shows (listed from the most accessible to the most challenging, in my opinion) comprise what I consider to be The Essential Stephen Sondheim Canon: “Company,” “Into The Woods,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Assassins,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd,” & “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Each of these shows is like a like a great novel; some are imposing, tricky to get into, but once you do get into them–if you do your share of the work (reading the text carefully)–you will be greatly rewarded.
Going forward, I suggest that you purchase the soundtracks of the shows in question. Even if you can see a production near you, it behooves you to familiarize yourself with the work first. As Nabokov says about novels, “One cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” This is especially true of Sondheim shows; they’re best appreciated the more you experience them.
The show that I think you should familiarize yourself with first is “Company.” It’s a simple premise: this guy Bobby is single and all his friends are coupled. The show is a meditation on relationships; it probes, in a very profound way, the existential question of singledom. The opening refrain–“Bobby, Bobby, Bobby Baby Bobby Bubby”–lures you in with its rhythmic persistence. And the songs that make up the show are both clever and moving (“The Little Things You Do Together” features the lyric: “It’s things like using force together / shouting till you’re hoarse together / getting a divorce together / that make perfect relationships.”)
The show builds to the climactic moment when Bobby confronts his empty existence with this classic Sondheim song, performed here (from the wonderful D.A. Pennebaker documentary, “Company,” about the making of the cast album) by Dean Jones:

[Note: you can see Sondheim at work in the clip above as he asks the producer for more “rhythmic looseness” in the orchestration.]
The next show, “Into The Woods,” is one that you can and should rent on DVD from Netflix. A collaboration with the librettist James Lapine, the show takes a bunch of fairy tales–Cinderella, Jack & The Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood–and scrambles them all up. Act One is light and clever; Act Two, though, is where things get intense and emotional.
The song “No One Is Alone” never ceases to choke me up. At that point in the show, both Jack & Little Red have been orphaned and their surrogate parents, a baker and Cinderella, console them:

The song is especially poignant if you know that Sondheim himself was raised by a mother so cruel and unloving that, hours before she went in for heart surgery, she wrote Sondheim a note that said: “The only regret I have in life is giving you birth.”
Return to the lyric: “People make mistakes / fathers, mothers / people make mistakes / holding to their own / thinking they’re alone.”
Some feel that the second act of “Into The Woods” is a mess, but for me, it’s profoundly moving. And it offers a perfect blend of Sondheim’s wit, wisdom and emotional insight.
If “Into The Woods” chokes me up, “Merrily We Roll Along,” jabs me in the gut.
The show, which bombed on Broadway, isn’t one that I’ve ever seen in production. But the music–which is captured beautifully on the Original Broadway Cast Recording–is among Sondheim’s best. Anthony Tommasini, music critic for The New York Times, says, “I think my desert island Sondheim show is ‘Merrily We Roll Along.” In the following video (skip to 2:14), Tommasini explains why it’s such a musical achievement:

Don’t worry if you found that video a little too academic. The show has an immediately accesible conceit: an accomplished but jaded songwriter speaks at a graduation ceremony and tries to “tell it like it is”; advising the students that “compromise is how you survive” and “all that you’re intending to happen ain’t gonna happen the way you think it’s gonna happen.” How did he get so sour? So jaded? The show then flashes back and tells the story of his career, how he fell apart from his best friends and collaborators and, ultimately–at the end of the show (which is really the beginning)–what he was like when he was just starting out.
The song that plays at the end of the show (the beginning of his story) always gets me; it’s called “Our Time”:

It’s so hopeful and innocent and naively optimistic about the future. The poignancy comes from the fact that we know Frank’s future; he’s going to achieve great financial success but lose his friends; he winds up embittered and alone. But here, everything’s possible. Sondheim brilliantly captures that window of time in our lives where we really, truly believe things are going to happen for us. I remember listening to this, driving in my car, just before I was going to move to New York; the world was my oyster and I felt invincible. But because of the show’s structure, I knew that couldn’t really be true; which is what makes the song such a complicated pleasure.
“Assassins” isn’t quite as moving or as emotionally raw as the previously mentioned shows, but it’s one of my favorites because it’s just so odd. Known for pushing the boundaries of musical theater, Sondheim, along with book writer John Weidman, constructs an entire show about…you got it…the men who assassinated various presidents in U.S. history.
What seems like a gimmick takes on depth in the way that the show is built: it leads to an ultimate confrontation between John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, who, in the play’s climax, sits atop the book depository in Dallas and weighs the merits of killing the president as the voices of past assassins cajole him.
If this all sounds a bit out there, the lyrics are insightful and deeply grounded. The opening number, “Everybody’s Got The Right To Be Happy,” reveals the warped psychology involved in doing what these men (and two women) either did or attempted to do:

Notice the disparity between the music and the subject matter: the playfulness belies its seriousness. Sondheim embraces contradiction, which is why the show’s one love song–“I Am Unworthy Of Your Love”–is sung by John Hinckley, Jr. (who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan) to Jodie Foster (who he was obsessed with) and by Squeaky Fromme (who tried to kill Gerald Ford) to the man she was obsessed with, Charles Manson. It’s a fry cry from “Oklahoma.”
“Follies,” is for many, one of Sondheim’s crowning achievements. Some consider it his elegy for musical theater itself.
The idea is that a bunch of follies girls, back from the Ziegfield days, reunite at their theater years later the night before it’s going to be demolished. In attendance are two couples who used to be the best of friends: Ben & Phyllis, Sally & Buddy. Their marriages, while impressive on the surface, have rotted on the inside. This song, sung by Phyllis (performed here by Lee Remick) in the second act as she considers leaving her husband, is Sondheim at his most biting:

The show itself, which I saw in revival with Blythe Danner, is wonderfully theatrical and surprisingly moving. It also features some of Sondheim’s best known songs: “Broadway Baby,” “Losing My Mind,” and “In Buddy’s Eyes” (which Barbara Cook made legendary.)
I recommend renting “Follies in Concert” on DVD (that’s what the above clip is from) which features Mandy Patinkin, Barbara Cook, Carole Burnett and many others as they perform the show live at Lincoln Center.
We’re down now to the final two, and I think they’re two of Sondheim’s absolute best…
“Sweeney Todd” is probably the one you’re most familiar with, since it was a Tim Burton movie that came out a few years ago. I have to give Mr. Burton credit: the movie was a faithful, loving adaptation of one of the greatest and scariest stage shows of all time. When Sondheim wrote “Sweeney,” that’s what he’d set out to do: to make you leap out of your chair in fright.
For those who don’t know, Sweeney Todd is about a victimized barber whose wife and child were abducted by the evil Judge Turpin as he himself was sent off to a faraway prison. The show takes place upon his return to London, as he plans to get his revenge on the Judge. The show is thickly plotted and there are many surprises in store (Sondheim carefully uses underscoring to foreshadow some of what’s to come) but even a show this grisly–which, I’m sure you know, involves people being baked into meat pies–has beautiful moments, most notably the triumphantly passionate ballad “Johanna,” performed here by that preeminent Sondheim interpreter, Bernadette Peters:

At the end of Act One, once Sweeney’s decided to kill just for the sake of killing, his landlady, Mrs. Lovett (played here in a legendary performance by Angela Lansbury) gives him an idea of what to do with the bodies. This song, despite its savagery, is one of Sondheim’s funniest:

At last we come to what I consider to be Sondheim’s greatest show and, also, his most difficult: “Sunday In The Park With George.”
If you agree that Sondheim is a great artist (and, after watching all of those clips, I hope you will), then “Sunday” is Sondheim’s most autobiographical work: it’s a show about the sacrifices necessary and the joys inherent in making great art.
The show (the original production of which you can and should rent on DVD) concerns the painter George Seurat as he constructs his master work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” His love interest, Dot, is neglected as George focuses with wild intensity on his work; it’s not a coincidence that the new book of Sondheim lyrics is called “Finishing The Hat.” This song, which comes in the middle of Act One after Dot’s left George for a baker, fully captures the focus and passion required to be a George Seurat or a Stephen Sondheim.
[Note: the following clip, performed by the amazingly talented Daniel Evans (who I saw twice in the recent Broadway revival) skips in the most terrible way. That said, it’s the best version of this song on YouTube. If you’ve never heard it before, do yourself a favor and download it fully on iTunes.]

The end of Act One of “Sunday” is too powerful to spoil in a blog post. Suffice it to say that when I took Craig to see it, I wasn’t sure how he’d respond. When the lights came up at intermission he had tears in his eyes.
Act Two, which takes place years in the future, concerns George’s grandson who’s struggling to make art of his own. At the end of the act, he’s in a deep crisis and the ghost of his great-grandmother, Dot from the first act, comes to console him with the following song, a true masterpiece, “Move On’:

The advice to artists is invaluable:
“Stop worrying if your vision is new / let others make that decision, they usually do.”
“Anything you do / let it come from you / then it will be new.”
And, most importantly, “Move on.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned to this song in my life. Any time a project of mine has failed (and many of them have), I listen to this; and when Craig was despairing once in his own career, I was surprised one day to watch him pull my “Sunday” DVD off the shelf and insert it into the DVD player. By the end, he’d taken the song to heart: he felt better.
And I hope, for those of you who made it this far, some of these works will reach you in a similar way. Great art opens us up, helps us understand ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise. The work of Stephen Sondheim is like an emotional scalpel: it hurts as it cuts, but ultimately, it heals.
Enriched and ennobled, we move on.

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