Philippine Daily Inquirer, 06.17.2002
THE MAN Leonard Bernstein once called "the most important force in American musical theater" is finally getting the big, brash official celebration that his genius deserves.
For the next three months, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington is mounting a retrospective of six celebrated musicals by Stephen Sondheim: Sweeney Todd, Company, Sunday in the Park with George, Merrily We Roll Along, Passion, and A Little Night Music.
These revivals are by no means a complete accounting of the composer's extraordinarily prolific output over the last five decades, but they represent a good sampling of his diverse, unpredictable and fiercely original musical talent.
Make that musical and literary talents, for beginning with the bawdy Roman farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962, Sondheim has written both the music and lyrics to his plays. These days, he is distinguished not only for his harmonically intricate musical scores, but for lyrics that, in the words of the New York Times, have transformed "the once humble musical comedy form ...into something intellectually challenging and morally weighty."
There have been other Sondheim celebrations, of course, most notably the string of musical revues built around his ever-growing catalogue of songs.
Before Cameron Mackintosh hit it big with Cats, his first Broadway triumph was a small, intimate show in 1976 called Side by Side by Sondheim, featuring English performers Julia McKenzie, Millicent Martin and David Kernan. It was a compilation of Sondheim tunes from musicals he had written up to that point, staged as a cabaret concert.
The concept proved dazzlingly appropriate for the warm, intensely personal play of words and music that Sondheim unfailingly brought to his compositions.
Night after night in both New York and London, the sight of Julia Mckenzie tearing into "Broadway Baby," Sondheim's anthem of survival and determination in the cruel theater mill ("I'm just a Broadway Baby/walking off my tired feet/pounding Forty-Second Street/to be in a show..."), was met with rapturous applause.
Taken together, the songs--by turns sardonic, exultant, wistful, hilarious, sad--proved one thing: Here was a composer-lyricist of extreme adventurousness and iconoclasm, unafraid, within the dramatic framework of his multilayered works, to face life's darker corners with a wink and a shrug.
Commenting on the joys of married life in Company, he writes--to a buoyant, lilting beat:
"It's the little things you do together
Swear together, wear together
That makes perfect relationships.
The concerts you enjoy together
Neighbors you annoy together
Children you destroy together
That keep marriage intact."
Or, giving voice to an embittered wife's terror at realizing she still loves the husband she's about to divorce in Merrily We Roll Along:
"Not a day goes by
Not a blessed day
But you're still somehow part of my life
And you won't go away
And there's hell to pay
And until I die,
I'll die day after day after day..."
In 1993, a bigger revue called Putting It Together was staged on Broadway, headlined by Julie Andrews. It had new songs from new Sondheim musicals, and by this time, having amassed a slew of Tonys and other theater awards (even the Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park with George), Sondheim was fully secure in his position as the greatest figure in American musical theater in the post-Rodgers and Hammerstein years.
Yet for all the critical acclaim, Sondheim does have a weak spot: He has never had a hit musical. His shows have never generated the sort of massive advance bookings that Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables did. None of his works can be remotely classified as a mega-musical, with the sort of signature crossover hit song like Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory" that can do wonders both for the box-office and a place in global pop-music memory.
That is why a splashy coronation in the political heartland of America, as the Kennedy Center honors presumably is, would be the next best thing to awarding Sondheim the Legion of Honor--or getting knighted by the Queen of England (his shows have graced the West End)--for his enormous contributions to the modern American musical.
Sondheim's veneration by a relatively smaller class of people, mostly hardcore Broadway buffs, and his reputation for coming up with musical works that are not only witty and sophisticated, but also--and more often--dark, dissonant and staunchly unconventional, have led to charges of elitism.
Time magazine has despaired more than once over his "astringent" music, lamenting the days when Broadway musical comedy meant the broad amalgam of throwaway lines, soaring choruses, and frenetic dances that defined the likes of Guys & Dolls and, more recently, The Producers.
In contrast, Sondheim's idea of a musical comedy is Company, a show that many deemed "too New York even for New York" when it debuted in 1970. It transgressed a long list of sacred musical theater conventions: no plotline, no signature song, no happy ending, no synchronized choreography.
Company presented a commitment-phobic bachelor celebrating his 35th birthday in the company of his (mostly married) friends. Through a series of vignettes detailing his friends' various marital messes and complications, the institution of marriage itself is turned inside out, given a thorough examination.
The show was apparently ahead of its time. Its melodies were more pop than Broadway, with dashes of bossa nova and a slightly parodic air that mirrored the lyrics' often bittersweet, ironic take on their subject. At the end of the show, the bachelor acknowledges the need for human connection in some way, but sees as well its burdens:
"Somebody crowd me with love
Somebody force me to care
Somebody let me come through
I'll always be there
As frightened as you
Of being alive..."
And in perhaps the most iconic part of the show, a tart-tongued multiple divorcee lashes out at the tired, deracinated models of womanly behavior imposed by society.
Elaine Stritch achieved legendary status on Broadway spitting out the harsh, spiteful lyrics of "The Ladies Who Lunch:"
"Here's to the girls who stay smart
Aren't they a gas?
Rushing to their classes in optical art
Wishing it would pass.
Another long exhausting day
Another thousand dollars
A matinee, a Pinter play
Perhaps a piece of Mahler's--
I'll drink to that.
And one for Mahler!"
Company, the first "concept" musical, was a flop, but is now regarded as one of the landmarks of the art form, along with Show Boat, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady and A Chorus Line (the last having refined the "concept" musical to its zenith in 1975).
To brittle marriages and multiple partners, Sondheim has added a ghoulish gallery of misfits to his other musical subjects: a London barber who murders his clients and bakes them into meat pies (Sweeney Todd); an ugly dying woman who becomes obsessed with a visiting soldier (Passion); a troupe of aging showgirls visiting the ruins of the theater that once showcased their stage triumphs (Follies); a witch casting spells on Cinderella and other beloved fairy-tale characters (Into the Woods); even John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald singing a duet (Assassins).
Such unorthodox choices have, not surprisingly, limited the number of people willing to listen to Sondheim's music. Which is a pity, because while he may have a fascination for gothic subjects, he is also responsible for some of the loveliest, most exquisite melodies ever written for the theater.
And because he has never settled for cheap lines, for easy, generic sentiments, his songs acquire a richer, deeper meaning on various levels in the hands of gifted interpreters.
In the hands of the sweet-voiced Michael Ball, for instance, a song like "Losing My Mind" (from Follies) becomes a melting ballad of yearning and uncertainty:
"I dim the lights and think about you
Spend sleepless nights to think about you
You said you loved me
Or were you just being kind?
Or am I losing my mind?"
In its original form, however, the song expressed the loneliness of a suburban housewife often left on her own. So when a Broadway veteran like Barbara Cook sings it (in a stupendous concert version of Follies in 1985) and, reaching the final line, pours all her anguish into one long, lonely note--"Or am I loooooo-sing my mind?"--the effect is heartbreaking.
In fact, nothing sets off Sondheim more clearly from Lloyd Webber, the other important force in musical theater, than in the way they meld words and music together. Ever since his parting with Tim Rice, who wrote the lyrics to Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, Lloyd Webber has had to plod along with a revolving coterie of writers (Don Black and Charles Hart for Aspects of Love, the playwright Christopher Hampton for Sunset Boulevard).
For this obvious weakness Lloyd Webber compensates with his lushly extravagant musical scores, catchy melodies, and larger-than-life characters--the ingredients that have made him the most commercially successful theater composer of all time.
If Lloyd Webber is the ultimate entertainer, Sondheim is the avuncular teacher dispensing wise bon mots. One's a showman, the other's a philosopher. To a bland, platitudinous Lloyd Webber-Black-Hart line like "Love can turn your world around/And that world will last forever" (from "Love Changes Everything"), Sondheim has a better-observed equivalent: "Everything's different/Nothing's changed/Only slightly maybe rearranged..." (from "Sorry-Grateful").
Even his most famous song is an exotic wisp of music and words. "Send In The Clowns" (from A Little Night Music), while an acknowledged standard, is hardly your typical love song. It is suffused with a haunting sense of tension, wound taut by a melody that ebbs and flows while transporting the allusive lyrics right up to their last dramatic arch: "Isn't it rich/Isn't it queer/Losing my timing this late in my career..."
That penchant for sympathetic irony, that willingness to affirm the absurdity and contradictions of real life while working in a medium that emphasizes relentless entertainment and plummy optimism, are what make Sondheim unique in all musical theater. His intelligence and acute affection for the foibles of people combine to produce a humanistic, compassionate view of the human condition. Add to that his astounding verbal dexterity, a radiant articulateness, and Broadway's immeasurably the better to have a gifted gadfly bringing it to places it has never been.
His lofty perch has thus given Sondheim the moral weight to use the modern musical to engage and challenge his audiences on a broad front--admonish them about parental responsibilities ("Careful the things you say/Children will listen/Careful the things you do/Children will see--and learn"); soothe and pacify ("No one's gonna harm you/No one's gonna dare/Others can desert you/Not to worry/Whistle, I'll be there"); encourage tolerance ("Witches can be right/Giants can be good/You decide what's right..."); despair over urban blight ("It's a city of strangers/Some come to work, some to play/... Some come to stare/Some to stay/And every day, the ones who stay/Can find each other in the crowded streets..."); honor unconditional love ("Loving you is not a choice/And not much reason to rejoice/But it gives me purpose/Gives me voice"); extol daring and creativity ("Art isn't easy/Every minor detail is a major decision/Have to keep things in scale/Have to hold to your vision").
And, most poignantly, celebrate friendship:
"Most friends fade,
Or they don't make the grade
New ones are quickly made
And in a pinch--sure, they'll do
But us, old friends
What's to discuss, old friends?
Here's to us!
Who's like us?
None of these songs has made it to your daily FM radio (Lloyd Webber's most recent is "No Matter What" by Boyzone, from Whistle Down the Wind, a play that didn't make it to Broadway), but Sondheim himself doesn't mind.
"I like writing songs that take place in dramatic situations within the proscenium arch," he once said. "I'm not particularly interested in art songs or pop songs that stand on their own."
Well, aren't we grateful for it, Steve. Aren't we grateful.
[Graphic 1: www.geocities.com/JoeCable1997/index02.html]