Arts - Autumn 2007

Good Thing Going

Stephen Sondheim only looks better with time

By Wendy Smith | September 1, 2007

 

Fifty years ago this fall, when the young lyricist for West Side Story made his Broadway debut, only one New York critic even bothered to mention his name. Since then, however, Stephen Sondheim has more than made up for the deficit in accolades. He had his first star-studded tribute concert in March 1973, a few weeks before his 43rd birthday—not so premature, really, for someone who’d recently reinvented the American musical. Company (1970) and Follies (1971) had garnered Sondheim back-to-back Tony Awards for best composer and best lyricist. The next year he won a third Tony for A Little Night Music, a rare, unqualified Sondheim commercial hit. For all the recognition accorded his brilliance—a Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park with George, still more Tonys for Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and Passion—conventional wisdom for three decades had it that Sondheim’s work wouldn’t attract a broad popular audience because his lyrics were too intellectual, his music too difficult, his characters too unpleasant, his worldview too cynical.

Recent New York revivals of three Sondheim pieces have tempered some of these notions. John Doyle’s sleek, stark production of Company in 2006, spearheaded by Raúl Esparza’s seething portrayal of the protagonist Bobby, rebutted the cliché that Sondheim’s work is cold. The year before, Doyle’s stripped-to-the-bone version of Sweeney Todd pulled in closer to the characters and their despair, suggesting a vision that was less cynical than mournful. Assassins, which so repulsed sensibilities in 1991 (with its depiction of presidential killers driven by an all-American lust for fame) that it became the first Sondheim show not to play on Broadway, got its due in 2004, when Joe Mantello’s fun-house staging underscored its even greater pertinence in the age of Jerry Springer and reality TV. Today, critics and audiences seem to be more attuned to Sondheim’s essential qualities as an artist.

In the ’50s, Broadway was a bit bewildered by someone who’d studied with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt and chosen, as Sondheim described it to biographer Meryl Secrest, to go “into the popular arts armed with all [Babbitt’s] serious artillery.” He realized this would be an arduous path, he told Secrest, early in the original run of West Side Story. While standing in the aisle one evening, Sondheim said, he saw a man rise from his seat not two minutes into the show, coat in hand, and head for the exit. “I had the whole picture. He’s a tired businessman on his way home to Westchester, and he thinks, I’m going to stop and see a musical. The curtain goes up and six ballet-dancing juvenile delinquents in color-coordinated sneakers go, ‘Da da-da da da,’ with their fingers snapping. And he thinks, ‘What—? My God!’ . . . I can’t blame him. I can’t blame him! But that’s when I knew my career was in trouble.”

He was indulging in hindsight. West Side Story did indeed provide something of a blueprint for Sondheim’s subsequent career, but not precisely the one he suggested to Secrest. Everyone involved knew it was a commercially risky project: a dark tale of ethnic gang rivalry with political undertones and a tragic ending, an audacious blend of dance, dialogue, and song that took the musical play concept pioneered by Rodgers and Hammerstein to a new, arguably more challenging level. But composer Leonard Bernstein and director / choreographer Jerome Robbins had enjoyed Broadway hits before, together in On the Town, separately with Wonderful Town (Bernstein), High Button Shoes and The King and I (to name only two of Robbins’s many choreography credits). Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for West Side Story, had already written two successful plays, Home of the Brave and The Time of the Cuckoo. Few of these productions had been sure things, but all had found a niche in the commercial theater. They hoped West Side Story would do the same.

The musical received good but not great reviews and no major awards; it had a respectable but not record-shattering run. Sondheim’s friend Harold Prince, who produced West Side Story, took the unusual step of bringing it back to Broadway after the national tour, persuading Bernstein to conduct the reopening night and the critics to re-review it. “This time around [April 1960],” Prince writes in his memoir, Contradictions, “the book was special, Sondheim was credited, and the show had its place in history. Further, they implied they had felt that way about it the first time around. But they hadn’t.” This scenario would become all too familiar to Sondheim and Prince toward the end) of their historic six-show collaboration, when they took sardonic amusement in critics who unfavorably compared the current offering with previous works that had received decidedly mixed reviews. When you’re an innovator in the high-stakes world of Broadway musicals, waiting around for the press and public to catch up with you can be an annoying and expensive proposition.


In 1957, however, they viewed themselves as “the natural inheritors of the theater we were entering,” Prince recalls in Contradictions. Both men were closely attached to powerful mentors, giants of the Broadway stage who had played major roles in transforming the American musical from a rickety array of “songs and fun . . . jokes and pretty girls,” as historian Martin Gottfried puts it, into a polished art form still designed primarily to entertain, but without insulting the audience’s intelligence.

It was Oscar Hammerstein, a family friend, who persuaded a reluctant Sondheim to temporarily shelve his ambitions as a composer and to take the job of lyricist for West Side Story. (He would do it only once more, for Gypsy in 1959.) For more than a decade, Hammerstein had been instructing Sondheim in the craft of writing show tunes, firmly discouraging early attempts to emulate the bucolic imagery of Oklahoma! and Carousel. “You don’t believe any of that,” Hammerstein told Sondheim. A song should sincerely express the writer’s own feelings and experiences, he explained; “listeners were not fooled [by] false sentimentality.” Sondheim would honor that credo with a vengeance in the years to come.

Although Prince wanted to direct, he began his career as producer of The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, and Fiorello!, all directed by George Abbott, the man who professionalized the ramshackle musical comedy genre by insisting that scripts make sense and lead naturally to the songs and dances. Abbott had little interest in the Hammerstein brand of musical drama, the sort that Prince would come to direct. Yet Prince retained his respect for “The Abbott Touch” as he defined it in Contradictions: “Dancing characters dance, doors are slammed only when characters out of emotion would slam them, and there is no such thing as a funny reading of a line.”

A Broadway musical might be fanciful or fluffy, but it must also be emotionally truthful, Abbott and Hammerstein believed, and they instilled that conviction in their protégés. A generation younger, beginning their first collaboration at the end of the 1960s, Sondheim and Prince were inclined to explore darker emotions and grittier ideas. They assumed that the Broadway musical could accommodate their aspirations.

Indeed, when Company opened in April 1970, enthusiasts like 19-year-old Ted Chapin, who the next year talked himself into a gofer job on Follies and later wrote a memoir about his experiences, concluded that “the American musical theater had been set on the path to the future.” Company seemed very new. It had no traditional plot line, having been reworked from a series of one-act plays by George Furth into an exploration of marriage centered around a 35th birthday party (or perhaps four different parties) thrown for Bobby by the five couples who were his closest friends. The dramatic action was in the songs—mini-plays that variously established a character’s history, delineated an emotional dilemma, sardonically commented on the events at hand, or sometimes tentatively pointed a way forward. Furth was the first of many playwrights to discover that what little attention his script got was mostly confined to comments on how lacking it was in comparison to Sondheim’s lyrics. How could mere prose compete with the sheer gusto of verses like “The hobbies you pursue together / Savings you accrue together / Looks you misconstrue together,” or the pitiless existential economy of “everybody dies”? The music supported each blistering word, whether it was show-biz brassy for “What Would We Do Without You?”; a demented update of the patter song for “Getting Married Today”; or the nearly operatic finale, “Being Alive.” Together, words and music painted with ferocious honesty feelings that were previously off-limits for a Broadway musical: the yearning to belong, the paralyzing fear of committing to another person; the frustrations and compromises inherent in any relationship; desperate loneliness, agonizing ambivalence. Sondheim knew these feelings intimately; Company was his first complete artistic statement.

Prince’s astute directing, Michael Bennett’s dazzling choreography, and Boris Aronson’s gleaming set made crucial contributions, but revivals like Doyle’s demonstrate that Company’s essence doesn’t depend on the original staging. Follies, by contrast, probably will never again have its themes so perfectly embodied as they were in the opulent production that Prince, Bennett, Aronson, and costume designer Florence Klotz gave it in 1971. Its cost—$800,000—would be millions today. Disney, for example, spent millions to set up the Mary Poppins production currently on Broadway. But Disney certainly wouldn’t spend that much on a musical like Follies, starring a quartet of middle-aged performers going on about lost glory, dreams turned to dust, and—heaven help us—“the death of the musical,” as Frank Rich (then a student, now a New York Times columnist) put it in a review for The Harvard Crimson. Sondheim’s score made cogent use of older forms of popular music to convey the characters’ nostalgia and regrets; bitter songs like “Could I Leave You?” and world-weary ones like “I’m Still Here” affirmed his status as the lyricist of adult complexities. Follies was a bold departure for every member of the creative team, none of whom had any notion that they were “in essence presenting their own funeral,” as Rich asserted in his closing sentence.


Artistically, nothing could have been further from the truth. The masterpiece of Sondheim’s work with Prince, Sweeney Todd, lay eight years ahead. He would go on with other collaborators to plumb such deeply felt subjects as the joy of creation in Sunday in the Park with George and the overwhelming force of love in Passion. Pragmatically speaking, Frank Rich had a point. “I am happy I did Follies,” Prince wrote in Contradictions. “I could not do it again because I could not in conscience raise the money.” Running the show was so costly ($80,000 a week) that, even though Follies played for more than a year, it lost its entire $800,000 initial investment. As a producer, Prince accepted the constraints of the commercial theater. He would continue to balance artistic imperatives against fiscal reality through four more shows with Sondheim. Two were hits, one a disappointment, and the fourth an outright flop, which would have been a reasonable record two decades earlier. But by the time the failure of Merrily We Roll Along ended the Sondheim/Prince partnership in 1981, Broadway’s ballooning costs, higher ticket prices, and shrinking audiences required a new approach to developing a musical.

Meanwhile, A Little Night Music was done the old-fashioned way: rehearsals in New York and out-of-town tryouts in Boston, during which Sondheim always seemed to come up with some of his best songs, in this case “A Weekend in the Country.” Though he claimed to hate rehearsals, the composer admitted that he found it easier to write a song when he knew who was going to sing it and what its function was to be in the play. (Typing up the lyrics for “I’m Still Here,” written during the Boston previews of Follies, Ted Chapin realized that Sondheim had closely observed Yvonne De Carlo, taken what he’d learned about her personality and past, and used it to craft a song that deepened both her character and the play’s underlying motif.) A Little Night Music’s creators seemed to regard the production as something of a comedown, perhaps because the libretto’s caustic view of the war between the sexes was softened by actors in turn-of-the-century clothing singing Sondheim’s most luscious score, all in variations of three-quarter time. “Night Music was about having a hit,” Prince wrote later, and it was a hit—so in 1976 they veered to another path with Pacific Overtures, “the most bizarre and unusual musical ever to be seen in a commercial setting,” Sondheim said.

Telling the story of the West’s invasion of Japan through Japanese eyes and employing Kabuki staging, with a score in which Japanese tonalities gradually became Westernized until the last song sounds a little like a car commercial, Pacific Overtures demands a lot from a Broadway audience. More than any show they’d done so far, it was about ideas rather than character and seemed to buttress the claim that Sondheim’s work is chilly and overly intellectual. And yet, when the York Theatre Company in Manhattan staged a Pacific Overtures revival in 1984, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report captured the composer on camera in a warmer mode, observing a rehearsal of “Someone in a Tree.” This lovely song, which layered the memories of two characters (played as young and old men by four actors) into a single, shifting narrative about memory and history, had always been a favorite of Sondheim’s, who usually pointed to its “developed” composition as the reason for his pride. When you see the tender smile on his face as he watches the run-through, you realize there’s more to it. “We are each an individual part of the picture,” he remarks, his voice full of emotion. The York production made it easier to see the show’s delicacy and lyricism, though it was in a tiny theater and had only 20 performances. Enough people cared about what Sondheim and Prince were trying to do in 1976 to keep the original production of Pacific Overtures afloat for 193 performances at the vast (albeit seldom full) Winter Garden Theatre. It wasn’t nearly enough; like Follies, the show lost its entire investment.


Sondheim roared back in 1979 with Sweeney Todd, a Grand Guignol spectacle that took the negatives attached to his work—too dark, no likable characters, no hummable tunes—and turned them into assets. He made a murderous barber and the Cockney entrepreneur who baked his victims into meat pies desperately human. He used his sly humor to seduce the audience into complicity with cannibalism in “A Little Priest”; he wrote one of his most gorgeous ballads, “Pretty Women,” as a duet to be sung by Sweeney and the villainous Judge Turpin as the barber prepared to cut his unwitting customer’s throat. Eugene Lee’s elaborate sets and Prince’s epic staging gave the original production a scale that wasn’t at all what Sondheim had had in mind but probably contributed to the production’s popular success: you certainly felt you were getting a lot for your money, watching 28 actors running around all that scenery. Recent productions have improved upon the supporting cast, and several actors have given the character of Sweeney Todd inter­estingly different shadings from those of Len Cariou’s titanic performance. But no one, not even the excellent Patti Lupone in Doyle’s revival, has topped Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett. A tattered kewpie doll who just wanted to make a living and make her man happy, she triumphantly incarnated Sondheim’s matter-of-fact acceptance of life’s cruelty—and made the audience love it.

Sweeney was the show that most perfectly balanced Sondheim’s desire always to be trying something new with his grudging understanding that if he wanted to work in the commercial theater he needed to bring the audience along with him. It ran for 558 performances, fewer than either Company or Night Music, but its Victorian vengefulness didn’t seem to jar people as much as Company’s Vietnam-era alienation, and its mordant wit struck a more original note than Night Music’s autumnal ruefulness. It’s probably Sondheim’s most revived work, and it’s found favor in the world of classical music as well as on Broadway; New York City Opera maintains it in repertory, and concert productions have successfully mixed Broadway and opera voices, backed by such orchestras as the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. With its roots in the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein, its offshoots popping up everywhere from opera halls to subscription houses, Sweeney stood at a crossroads for the American musical.

It was, for example, the first Sondheim show not to have out-of-town tryouts. In the eight years since Follies’ vast array of costumes, scenery, and equipment had been trucked north to Boston in 1971, that Broadway tradition had become prohibitively expensive. The lack of tryouts didn’t matter for Sweeney, which was in good shape by the time it began previewing in New York, but it may well have been disastrous for Merrily We Roll Along. Making a modern musical out of George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 play was a tricky proposition. Its chronology was reversed, beginning with a successful playwright (a composer in the musical) at the peak of his fame and moving backward in time to show how he has betrayed his ideals and his friends. Not exactly ingratiating subject matter—it had been one of Kaufman and Hart’s rare failures—but after Sweeney, Sondheim and Prince might be forgiven if they thought they could make just about anything work. The real problem, everyone acknowledged in retrospect, was Prince’s decision to cast the production with very young actors who were appropriate for the closing but didn’t have the experience to equip them for the more important (and more numerous) scenes depicting adult disenchantment. Perhaps, if they’d had a chance to sweat it out in Boston or New Haven, they would have found a way to make this concept work; Sondheim described the New York previews as “exhilarating . . . every day there were new changes.” But those changes were being made under merciless press scrutiny. Instead of vague rumors floating down from the hinterlands about Merrily We Roll Along being in trouble, New Yorkers could open the Daily News and learn in Liz Smith’s column that 140 people had walked out at intermission the night before, describing it as “terrible” and “tacky.” And while out-of-town audiences prided themselves on their ability to spot a promising show still in rough shape, Broadway was less forgiving. When it officially opened on November 16, 1981, critics agreed that the book was a shambles and the casting a mistake; Merrily We Roll Along closed after 16 performances.

Sondheim had given Merrily one of his most engaging and accessible scores, which only emphasized how much times had changed. In the heyday of “mindless musicals,” as Prince scornfully characterized them, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter wrote pop songs that were played on the radio and sold on record. They were loosely tailored to character or situation, so it was easy for a singer to pluck out the best ones for a nightclub performance or a big-band tour. Even as songs began to be more carefully integrated with plot in the wake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in 1943, Broadway music still sounded much the same as pop music and was still sold to the same broad audience. If Merrily We Roll Along had opened 30 years earlier, the achingly beautiful “Not a Day Goes By” and the regretful “Good Thing Going” would have been hit songs that pulled people into the theater. Indeed, Carly Simon recorded the former and Frank Sinatra the lat­ter before the show even opened, but those were not the kind of recordings you heard on Top 40 radio in 1981. Rock ’n’ roll—which had recently emerged at the time Sondheim did West Side Story in 1957—coexisted with show tunes and traditional pop material into the 1960s, but it had long since become the dominant style in American music.


Sondheim was a theater composer, not a songwriter, but the schism that had appeared between those job descriptions was part of a larger trend that was unhealthy for the American musical. Ever since the late 1950s, Sondheim and others on Broadway who considered themselves the heirs of Rodgers and Hammerstein had worked to extend the legacy of South Pacific and The King and I. They pushed the musical onto more dangerous ground: deeper studies of less obviously sympathetic characters, challenging scripts that would not let the audience off the hook with a comic subplot or a happy ending, music without Big Tunes, staging without Big Numbers. Only in hindsight can we see that the cultural changes that allowed them to do this would eventually destroy the economic conditions that made it possible.

Broadway in the ’70s was running on the dwindling cultural and economic capital amassed during the decades when a broad spectrum of New Yorkers routinely went to the theater, and much of the rest of the nation could reasonably expect to see a hit musical on a national tour that later might turn up at their local movie theater. The film versions were seldom as good as the stage productions, but they kept theater connected to mainstream America. West Side Story and Gypsy were made into movies, but what studio executive in his right mind would buy the film rights to Company, Follies, or Sweeney Todd? (A movie version of Sweeney with Johnny Depp as the demon barber opens this December, but director Tim Burton makes his own rules, and the transition to film took 28 years.) The movie musical was entering artistic senescence just as the Broadway musical was being revitalized by a new generation. Bob Fosse’s razzle-dazzle 1972 film Cabaret, directed onstage by Prince in 1966, was the exception that proved the rule, and Fosse was a theater man and a contemporary of Sondheim. The young directors who were blasting new energy into film scored their movies with rock ’n’ roll, not show tunes.

With the disappearance of regular movie sales and the slow death of the national tour, the Broadway musical was thrown back on its own shaky resources: an in-town audience that got smaller with every bump in ticket prices and tourists increasingly intimidated by New York’s rising crime rate and the municipal government’s financial meltdown in 1975. “Another Hundred People” from Company lovingly eulogized this city where people “find each other in the crowded streets and the guarded parks, / By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees with the battered barks, / And they walk together past the postered walls with the crude remarks.” It wasn’t a place a lot of people wanted to visit to take in a show. So Sondheim followed the path blazed decades earlier by serious playwrights to off-Broadway. Sunday in the Park with George was first presented in a series of workshop performances at Playwrights Horizons in 1983. From then on, all his productions would begin in the New York not-for-profit theaters.

It was a saner environment. The audiences at Playwrights and Lincoln Center, like tryout audiences of yore, understood that they were seeing works in progress. Everything cost less. The scale was smaller, which could be a good thing: artistic director André Bishop thought that the rapturous moment that closes act one of Sunday in the Park, when the actors freeze, a picture frame drops, and we see that Seurat has finally completed A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, never had the same magic in a Broadway house as it did at Playwrights, where the proportions of the staged painting were close to life-size. But grand scale had been integral to the original productions of Company, with the characters’ isolation emphasized by Boris Aronson’s glass-and-steel Manhattan abstraction; Follies, where the cast enacted a tale of shattered dreams in the echoing shell of a ruined theater; and Sweeney, framed by an enormous factory (complete with shrieking whistle) incarnating the Industrial Revolution that ground up people as relentlessly as did Mrs. Lovett. Change means loss as well as gain.


You know it when you compare the original productions of Company and Sweeney Todd with their sterling 21st-century revivals. In 2006, Doyle repositioned Company’s “Marry Me a Little”—an important song cut in 1970 because it manifestly couldn’t close the show—to the end of act one, where it perfectly captured Bobby’s mistaken concept of marriage: “We won’t have to give up a thing, / We’ll stay who we are.” Without it, “Being Alive,” Bobby’s final song, didn’t make much sense, and it is evident in Dean Jones’s singing on the original cast soundtrack. When Raúl Esparza sat down at the piano, playing music for the first time in a production where every character mans an instrument, “Being Alive” became the wrenching affirmation of the commitment that Sondheim always wanted it to be. Doyle’s interpretation captured the loneliness and terror that beat at Company’s heart.

It missed most of the fun, however. Three actresses tooting saxophones while trying to sing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” were labored compared with the buoyant Andrews Sisters–style trio in the original. Without the big Broadway orchestration and Michael Bennett’s fabulous tap routine, “What Would We Do Without You?” lost its exuberance and became sadder—truer to Sondheim’s intent, maybe, but eliminating one of the few moments in which Bobby’s married friends were actually a pleasure to be with (always a problem with the script). When Elaine Stritch sang “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a sneering, self-loathing song was bearable, even thrilling, because her whiskey-drenched, cigarette-stained rendition recalled generations of Broadway divas. Barbara Walsh gave the lyric every syllable of its meaning in a chilling, honorable effort; as Doyle staged it, the audience wasn’t even allowed to relieve the agony by clapping at the end. Sondheim and Arthur Laurents had tried to do the same thing five decades earlier with “Rose’s Turn” in Gypsy, feeling that this psycho­drama-in-song would be trivialized by applause. When Hammerstein saw the show in Philadelphia, he told them: “The audience is so anxious to applaud [Ethel Merman] that they are not listening to the scene that follows. . . . I know it’s dishonest, but please, fellows, put a big ending on that number if you want the rest of the play to play.”

Perhaps we don’t need to be placated like that anymore. Certainly Doyle’s Sweeney Todd assumed that we were grown-up enough to discern our kinship with its tortured protagonists unassisted by the operatic trappings that had made the original production so exciting but had slightly blunted its edge. Doyle was more faithful to Sondheim’s idea that the show would be scariest if it were intimate. The red liquid that Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris (as Sweeney) poured from bucket to bucket downstage center made palpable their characters’ bloody deeds. In the original production, the murders were distanced from us in the cavernous Uris Theatre, where Sweeney slit throats atop a platform and the bodies slid through a trap door. Our pleasure in an ingenious theatrical contraption made the horror less immediate. Doyle’s production had a quieter kind of theatricality; musically, it was less stirring and more unsparing. Again, the humor was dampened. “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” a riotous break from the bleakness in 1979, was so low-key as to be almost inaudible. With Lupone eschewing Lansbury’s Cockney verve, Mrs. Lovett was nearly as grim a figure as Sweeney. Her death wasn’t as shocking because she too seemed doomed from the start.

The nonprofits served Sondheim well, giving him the freedom to create Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion, and Bounce (still unseen on Broadway) in the late ’80s and ’90s. He was wise to move on when the commercial theater could no longer nurture his work. (Broadway producers remain happy to transfer shows that have been pounded into shape elsewhere.) He kept growing as an artist; 75th birthday tributes on both coasts in 2005 gave testament to the scope and depth of his achievement. Revivals have made it clear how well his work endures and how it thrives in radically different treatments. It’s wonderful that a more decentralized American theater provides opportunities for the misunderstood Merrily We Roll Along to get a production in which the reverse chronology underscored the poign­ancy of the characters’ shattered idealism and Sondheim’s songs became more heart-rending with each step backward in time. As one of a six-show rotating repertory in the Kennedy Center’s 2002 Sondheim Celebration, Merrily was considered a success and ran for 16 performances, the same number it received as a flop on Broadway.


Shorter runs and diminished expectations are the inevitable result of what happened to Broadway, and to America, while Sondheim, Prince, and their collaborators were taking the musical into new territory. Sondheim’s shows since then have continued to explore that territory; and as long as musical theater exists, his entire repertory will continue to be fruitfully restaged and reexamined. His musicals won’t have, they couldn’t have, the electric tension that put true believers on the edges of their seats from 1970 to 1981, as theatrical innovation and show-biz tradition collided, canoodled, and, in the astonishing best of the Sondheim-Prince productions, declared that the Broadway musical could do it all. A musical about marriage? About the death of the musical? About imperialism? About cannibalism? Why not! Ted Chapin nailed it with the title to his Follies memoir: Everything Was Possible.

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