Sunday, January 23, 2022

Farewell to Stephen Sondheim

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No artist since George Balanchine has so fully dominated an artwork type as Sondheim has his.

Photograph from Hulton Archive / Corbis / Getty

Stephen Sondheim made his final public look on the first preview of the revival of “Company,” his 1970 traditional, final Monday evening, the fifteenth of November. Ninety-one, and a bit slowed however not visibly ailing, Sondheim was greeted by the Broadway viewers, as he took his seat, within the left orchestra, with an emotional depth that was tidal in its ferocity and length. The emotion was doubled, maybe tripled, by the reduction at Broadway’s returning to life in any respect—it was, with out exception, probably the most overwhelming tribute that I’ve ever skilled within the theatre. Now that second is sealed as historical past, since Sondheim would die lower than two weeks later, on Friday the twenty-sixth, at his home in Connecticut.

No artist since George Balanchine had so fully dominated an artwork type as Sondheim had his. It was a fact of which he was ruefully conscious, writing, in a music known as, caustically, “God,” “Still you have to have something to believe in / Some things you appropriate / Emulate / Overrate / Might as well be Stephen.” A era of musical-theatre artists have been outlined by their relationship to him—some to some extent virtually self-destructive, measuring themselves in opposition to the Druid of Turtle Bay in ways in which he didn’t precisely welcome however couldn’t precisely forestall. Adam Guettel, the sensible composer of “The Light in the Piazza”—and, as Richard Rodgers’s grandson, hardly harmless of dominant theatrical figures—remembers having Sondheim come to see an early efficiency of the present in 2007, and the way everybody’s eyes fixated on the again of Sondheim’s head, simply to attempt to discern, by its actions, the oracular verdict. (It was, Guettel remembers, a contented and nimble neck, till a second-act violation of the fourth wall offended Sondheim’s sense of story decorum, and all hell broke free across the collar.)

Yet his was a late-arriving legend, onerous gained from a resistant Broadway business tradition; not like Balanchine’s artwork type, Sondheim’s counted box-office, and labelled hits and flops irrevocably. Sondheim was maybe extra conscious of the business uncertainties of his personal work than his worshippers fairly knew or wished. (Once, in dialog, he asserted to me the reality {that a} musical’s future is decided by its first ten minutes, which lay out the night’s guidelines for the viewers. Well, I requested impertinently, what about “Follies,” whose first ten minutes are notably knotty? “Yes,” he snapped again, not fully good-naturedly. “And ‘Follies’ has never made a penny back to any of its investors.”)

The lineaments of Sondheim’s ascent are a part of musical-theatre legend: how he was rescued from a troubled childhood—his mom as soon as wrote him a cheerily confidential letter saying that she regretted ever having given start to him—by the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, a close to neighbor in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, who taught him the skilled rudiments of musical-theatre building and the human prospects of a hotter coronary heart. Relegated by his apparent dexterity to be a mere lyricist, Sondheim had to struggle to be taken critically as a composer. It was a tough climb, assisted, as all such are, by perseverance, and the occasional orneriness of those that refuse to be good on the expense of their very own expertise.

When this author first encountered Sondheim’s work at size—exterior the inevitable collision with the lyrics to “West Side Story,” at which he normally winced (“I feel pretty and witty and bright,” sung by a Puerto Rican teen-ager?)—it was within the 1977 London revue “Side by Side by Sondheim.” Sondheim was a cult style, introduced ahead by English discernment in opposition to the run of American favor. Before “Sweeney Todd” or “Into the Woods,” Sondheim’s fame rested on the equivocal success of “Company,” the art-house shine of “Follies,” and the right romantic roundelay of “A Little Night Music.”

Yet the revue was one of many nice revelations of a lifetime—and never for the “sophistication” alone, the dazzling informal linguistic virtuosity, exemplified by throwaways, such because the bridge of “Uptown Downtown,” a few girl divided between her two identities: “She sits at the Ritz with her splits of Mumm’s / And starts to pine for a stein with her village chums, / But with a Schlitz in her mitts down at Fitzroy’s Bar, / She thinks of the Ritz, oh it’s so schizo.” No, even that virtuosity couldn’t obscure the extra necessary aspect of Sondheim, the depth and marvel and empathy of his articulate passions. Though he wrote few mating calls of the type that dominate pop songwriting, no songwriter—not Rodgers, not Schubert—has ever written so many nice songs of longing and wanting, from “Too Many Mornings,” in “Follies,” the music of a person rediscovering a decades-lost love, to “Loving You,” from “Passion,” the anthem of a psycho stalker made humanly believable. Sondheim was accused by some critics of being merely “sour,” and nothing dates so quick as sourness—if that had been what Sondheim counted on, he would have handed into historical past together with different cynics. Wits who stay famed for wit, from Oscar Wilde to Dorothy Parker, are not often cynical; simply the alternative, they arrive to us shining with religion and hope, however are too good to fake that it’s been rewarded. Sondheim, equally, was by no means actually bitter. He was, as a substitute, persistently bittersweet, like the most effective, and darkest, darkish chocolate.

Sondheim might be ferociously ornery with performers, and God is aware of with critics. He as soon as wrote a memorable no-thank-you notice a few singer who was too unsubtle for his songs: “She screws up the lyrics royally, she even sings the wrong tune. . . . You call it sprightly for her not to change her tune. I call it lazy and selfish. . . . I told you I’m being candid. Actually I’m being kind.” He famous in an e-mail that one other singer “was so off-pitch that in order to keep my cool in public I had to pretend to myself that I was at some peaceful blue Fiji lagoon, the sun setting and squads of flamingos gracefully flapping around.” (John Mulaney captured that Sondheimian face in a hilarious impersonation in a “Documentary Now!” parody.) In a world gone vanilla-bland, there was one thing bracing about his orneriness, and it was meaningfully various by the care and attentiveness—tons of of e-mails, numerous notes, onerous and gentle—to performers he thought worthy of his work, or simply worthy in their very own. Toward the tip of his life, notably, he appeared to have overwhelmed down his demons, and his exchanges with youthful performers and composers, and even, sometimes, with these horrible critics, have been appreciative and humorous, with ornery a mere bracing savory taste among the many sweets.

His legacy is one which might be debated and argued over so long as folks care about musical theatre. John Lahr, for years the theatre critic of this journal, was one of many few to provide heresy concerning the Church of Sondheim: “Sondheim spoke to the disenchantment of the times,” he wrote, “and his approach turned him not so much into a celebrity as a theology.” It is attainable to worship Sondheim simply shy of idolatry and never tip over. There is a half-silenced college of thought that just about needs Sondheim had been adopted by Larry Hart moderately than Oscar Hammerstein—he by no means fairly outgrew the older man’s style for greeting-card uplift and fortifying sentiments. Songs like “Children Will Listen” and “No One Is Alone,” nevertheless transferring when effectively sung, could come to be seen because the “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” of our time. (That is just not meant as reward.) The first act of “Sunday in the Park with George,” achieved with James Lapine, often is the single neatest thing in American musical theatre; the second act, regardless of strenuous efforts, is sort of unsalvageable. And, like Balanchine’s edicts of abstraction, Sondheim’s “No!”s—no off rhymes, no songs for their very own sake, no mere lists, no self-conscious wit of the Porter-Hart type—have been each empowering and limiting. Empowering as a result of they gave form and excessive seriousness to an artwork type too usually patronized; limiting as a result of they reshaped musical theatre to a narrowly particular rule and will have squeezed a few of the pleasure and juice out of it in doing so.



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