Friday, January 21, 2022

How Stephen Sondheim changed musical theater forever

Stephen Sondheim used to bombard letters to the editor when the media paid little attention to the authors of his show. This feeling was more than shared mercy. Sondheim, who died on Friday at the age of 91, was separated by the recognition that writing musicals is, in fact, drama.

“I think any good musical starts with a book, a libretto, an idea, a story, a character,” he told director Richard Eyre in Talking Theater: An Interview with Theater People. “I can’t work on anything until I discuss with my colleague for weeks, and sometimes months, what history is, why music is needed, why music is internal and not decorative, and what music will do to history.”

No one can fake the shock when a ninety-year-old child drops his death coil, but the scale of Sondheim’s death seems seismic. I was asked to write posthumous assessments of Arthur Miller, August Wilson and Edward Albee – and only their legacy came close.

Sondheim deserves a spot on Mount Rushmore, as his contributions to theater are just as significant, both literally and musically. Truth be told, you can’t separate words from notes in his scores the same way you can separate form from content in his show.

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, I thought Sondheim would be an equally clever outsider, who approached songwriting as well as dramatic art. It is no exaggeration to say that Sondheim changed the nature of theatrical storytelling. Through his lyrical savvy and openness to dramatic inventions, through his clever balancing act of romanticism and anti-romanticism, he carved a space for ambivalence in a popular art form that relied heavily on sentimental simplicity.

In Finishing the Hat, the first of his excellent two-volume editions of text and commentary collections, Sondheim emphasized that “every lyric in this collection is based on the beginning, middle, or end of the climax of previous incidents.” “In Buddy’s Eyes” from Follies can seem like a pretty middle-aged love act when performed in a cabaret. But, as he explained, the number “loses most of its tone and all subtext when it detaches from the serene surface of its music, scenes and dialogues that preceded it.”

“How can we know what Sally means or what she is trying not to say without knowing Sally?” he’s writing. “It’s as if we were asked to recognize Hamlet only by his monologues, because what are solo songs if not musical monologues, encapsulated moments, even when they are addressed to other characters?”

Of course, Sondheim did not invent the “musical book”. But he was a young student of Oscar Hammerstein II, who helped the American musical take an evolutionary leap into a more integrated form, first with Jerome Kern on the 1927 musical Show Boat and then his famous collaboration with Richard Rogers. …

The only child of wealthy New York tailors, Sondheim essentially became part of Hammerstein’s agriculture after his parents divorced and he moved with his formidable socialite mother to Buck County, Pa. Sondheim viewed Hammerstein as a “surrogate father” who opened the door to theatrical songwriting. At the time, Sondheim was a precocious young classical pianist who was being trained for a concert career. Broadway was not on the cards.

Talking about the deep influence of Hammerstein, Sondheim reminded Eyre: “I showed him everything I wrote since the age of fifteen, and he took it absolutely at the level of professional work. … I think, thanks to the Oscars, I knew more about writing musicals at nineteen than most people at ninety. “

As a student of Sondheim, he made not only an impeccable example of the mastery of musical theater. He was attracted by Hammerstein, a restless innovator. While “Hammerstein is generally considered a Norman Rockwell of lyricism, down-to-earth, optimistic, sometimes ponderous bucolic,” Sondheim felt that “a comparison to Eugene O’Neill would be more appropriate” in the sense that “they are both experimental playwrights. with things that can be said deeply enough to overcome their literary limitations. ”

A crucial early experience for Sondheim was working as an assistant on Allegro, a musical experiment by Rogers and Hammerstein who sought to open up new horizons after Oklahoma! and “Carousel”. The show didn’t work out, but it changed Sondheim’s idea of ​​musical drama.

“I immediately embraced the idea of ​​telling stories in space, skipping time and using gimmicks like the Greek choir,” he said. The mystery of the musical’s failure became an obsession for him. Producer Cameron McIntosh, realizing how formative the show was in Sondheim’s development, told him, “You’ve been trying to fix Act 2 of Allegro all your life.”

Sondheim didn’t mind. In fact, he acknowledged that the experience was as important as West Side Story, the 1957 show in which he debuted on Broadway as a lyricist alongside composer Leonard Bernstein, writer Arthur Lawrence, and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

The prospect of collaborating on music with Bernstein thrilled Sondheim, but the young composer was wary of joining the team only as a lyricist. Hammerstein, once again serving as the good hand of fate, advised him not to miss the opportunity to work with such gifted professionals.

Following this landmark success, Sondheim was determined to conquer Broadway as a composer. But there was another lyric opportunity he couldn’t refuse: a musical inspired by the memoir of burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee.

Gypsy, in which Sondheim reunited with Lawrence and Robbins, was a big step forward in his approach to songwriting on Broadway. He worked closely on the dramatic movement of the musical with Laurent, who took him to the Actors Studio to show him how the actor approached the role. Sondheim also benefited from the musical versatility and the composer Jules Stein’s willingness to collaborate.

Sondheim fueled resentment that the star of the show, Ethel Merman, did not want to rely on him as a composer. But what the team achieved was nothing short of a breakout musical that opened up new possibilities for dramatic complexity through its character-centered vision.

“My approach is closest to that of an actor,” mused Sondheim in an interview with The Art of the American Musical: Conversations with the Creators. “I live in the character the way I think the actor does. Often, by the time we finish, I know the script better than the writer because, as an actor, I study every line and every word. ”

West Side Story and The Gypsy would be the crowning achievement of any theater artist, but Sondheim was just getting started. He wrote the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which became a huge hit even though his music was not featured in many of Tony’s nominations.

Sondheim’s emergence as a poet of unrivaled intelligence, coupled with what many consider to be a defiant lack of melody in his scores, made it difficult to critically assess his skills as a composer. Even after his double talent blossomed in a string of Hal Prince’s musical productions that revolutionized the Broadway musical (Company, Madness, Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd), some still considered Sondheim modern Lorenzo da Ponte in search of his Mozart.

But these conceptually daring shows featuring Prince, while not always commercially successful, filled the Broadway landscape that was no longer in use. Sondheim did not invent the concept musical, but he demonstrated with unmatched style that he can think and feel at the same time. More importantly, he showed that he could deal with emotions that were ambiguous, repressed, or even completely contradictory.

Sometimes the complexity got too complicated for the audience, as with Jolly We Roll Together, a backward musical about the artistic ambitions and compromises of three friends over a 20-year period. Disappointment with Jolly, which closed shortly after it opened on Broadway, drove Sondheim and Prince two decades apart.

But Sondheim continued to take risks, finding vitality with new employees. Most important of these was the writer and director James Lapin, whose more intimate off-Broadway imagination evoked a heady mix of mature emotions in Sondheim. Their two masterpieces, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, are as daring as any show with Prince, and are filled with glorious melancholy.

Sondheim’s work with writer John Weidman – Pacific Overtures, The Assassins, and The Road Shows – revealed a dramatic political edge. American history, with all its seething irony, has found its own songwriter – for those who prefer their hymns, riddled with sardonic criticism.

Broadway would have leaned toward Sondheim, not the other way around, even if a show like Killers had survived for more than ten years. While jukeboxes dominated the commercial scene, sensational revivals of Sondheim’s shows (including John Doyle’s The Company and Sweeney Todd, Laurent’s revival of The Gypsy with Patti Lupone, and Sam Buntrock’s delicate reimagining of Sunday at the Park with George) constantly reminded the audience of what an American musical is capable of.

Unlike Britain, where knighthoods are bestowed, in America, artists as important as Sondheim do not always get their due. But Sondheim was justly glorified. He received the President’s Medal of Honor from President Obama in 2015 and was featured in stellar birthday concerts when he turned 80 and then again (via Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic) when he turned 90 last year. Documentary films (including Lapin’s brilliant Six of Sondheim), cabarets, recordings and musicals were presented to introduce a new generation to the exceptional genius of Sondheim.

The only one, but never a solo. Sondheim’s praise from the theater community was in part a reflection of the vast network of talent he was inspired by. His career dates back to the golden age of Broadway Oscar Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein, but Sondheim was always ready to embrace the next generation, whether in the hip-hop style of the young Lin-Manuel Miranda or in a gorgeous parody of a drag parody of Randy Rainbow.

In the recently released movie Tick, Tick … Boom! Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford) is shown providing much-needed support to struggling Jonathan Larson, who will continue to write Rent. Sondheim knew from personal experience the value of an encouraging word from one change agent to another.

For the ever-young high schooler of a Broadway musical, even renaissance was an opportunity to try something new. A new film version of West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg, opens in December to update the classic for today’s audience. And right now in the Broadway preview, Marianne Elliott’s new production of Company, starring Katrina Lenk as Bobby, is making New York City buzz again.

No words can do justice to Sondheim, but his own words (from “Sunday in the Park with George”) reflect the relaxed artistic spirit that has supported Broadway, despite its timidity, into the future: “Stop worrying if your vision / new. / Let Others Make This Decision – / This is what they usually do. / You keep moving on. “

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