An Introduction to Sondheim’s Life and Art
An Introduction to Sondheim’s Life and Art
Abstract and Keywords
This introductory chapter describes the life and subsequent Broadway career of American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Born into an upper-middle class family in New York, Sondheim enjoyed the privilege of private schooling, a secular worldview, and a wide cultural perspective. Growing up, Sondheim formed a strong bond with Oscar Hammerstein, who gave him the stable relationship of an appreciative “parent,” and later became his mentor. Sondheim eventually launched a career in music theatre, and later worked on play and movie scripts. By the 1960s, Sondheim began flourishing in the New York theatre world. He wrote the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum (1962) and Anyone Can Whistle (1964), in addition to West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959). Some of his most celebrated works include Company (1970), Sweeney Todd (1979), and Into the Woods (1987).
The essential fact in understanding Stephen Sondheim is that he is a classically trained composer who chose the theatre over the concert hall and Broadway over the opera house: as if Claude Debussy had written musicals. Further, because of expert verbal skills, Sondheim decided to write his own lyrics: as if Debussy had been as much a wit and poet as a musician.
Born the only child of an upper-middle-class family in New York City in 1930, Sondheim enjoyed the advantage of private schooling, a wide cultural perspective, and a secular worldview, free of the occult confusions that religion invents. The Sondheim marriage broke up when Stephen was twelve, and his mother moved with him to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia. The area had been colonized by New Yorkers in search of second homes and thus boasted a sub-population of folk connected to the arts; just a year before, in 1941, in the song “Farming,” Cole Porter poked fun at the likes of Katharine Cornell, Fanny Brice, and Clifford Odets shelling peas and driving tractors. Porter even slipped in an “encoded” line addressed to sophisticates, concerning the failure of George Raft’s cow to produce a calf: “Georgie’s bull is beautiful but he’s gay.” This was the age of the magnificent closet, when the homosexual artist had to observe a cautious etiquette, moving among straights as if one him- or herself and doing what came naturally in secret.
Some of the Bucks County weekenders so enjoyed the rustic life that they virtually lived in the country; Manhattan was their second home. One such was Oscar Hammerstein, the lyricist-librettist of smash twenties (p.2) musicals like Rose-Marie, The Desert Song, The New Moon, and, above all, Show Boat, to Jerome Kern’s music and the first of the incontestably great American musicals. By this time, 1942, Hammerstein had recently teamed up with Richard Rodgers to write Oklahoma!, the first of their pioneering series instituting story content over diversion as the musical’s first element. An enthusiast of the tennis court and the vast sunny calm of a rural morning, Hammerstein maintained an informal hostel in which the guests included his family, a few wards, and young Steve. Mrs. Sondheim had introduced her son to the Hammersteins because James Hammerstein, Oscar’s younger son (the older, Bill, was away in uniform), seemed a likely companion for Steve. Only a year younger, James would presumably share Steve’s arty interests. After all, James represented the fourth generation of a theatrical dynasty. His father was actually named Oscar Hammerstein II: the grandson of Oscar I, a cigar magnate who obsessively plowed his fortune into producing opera and vaudeville on the grand scale. Oscar II’s father and uncle had gone into show business as well.
As it happened, Steve and James were ill-suited, for the younger boy could not keep up with the precocious Sondheim, twelve years old but an accomplished chess player, an aficionado of esoteric corners of classical music, and in many other ways a bright and confident young man. It was Oscar with whom Sondheim forged a bond, for here was a being on Steve’s own level. Often folksy in his lyrics (one reason why Hammerstein preferred operetta to musical comedy was the former’s emphasis on romance over flash), Hammerstein was in real life a worldly man, given to withering sarcasm and somewhat heedless of his power to hurt. Like Sondheim, he loved games and was extremely competitive. James he found unequal in contest, unwilling to battle in the first place.
But Sondheim was keen. He taught Oscar to play chess, and in three matches the older man had become the practiced boy’s equal. Sondheim told this story to his biographer, Meryle Secrest: he executed a trap to create checkmate in just a few turns, but, as Hammerstein was about to fall into it, the older man looked at Sondheim for a bit and then made a different move, foiling the trap. “You saw what I was setting up,” Sondheim told him. “No,” said Hammerstein. “I heard your heart beating.”
Thus the bond between Steve and Oscar grew intense, as each learned from the other. Most important, Oscar gave Steve the stable relationship of an appreciative “parent.” Steve did not get along with his mother, and while he loved his father and stepmother (and got on well with his two younger half-brothers), Steve was an artist growing up in a conventionally business-minded family atmosphere. Steve’s father sold women’s clothing—but Oscar was a maker of theatre. As the cliché phrase has it, they spoke the (p.3) same language. Years later, Jamey (as he came to be called) told me, “Oscar Hammerstein was a wonderful father to everyone except his children.”
Besides music and the stage, Sondheim nurtured a love of Hollywood movies, especially the dark and thrilling kind. (Oddly, he had no use for musicals.) Anyone who writes about Sondheim makes a port of call out of a title Steve was especially fond of, Hangover Square (1945), because it is replete with references to Sondheim’s later life. For one thing, its protagonist, a classical composer of Edwardian England named George Harvey Bone (played by Laird Cregar), makes his name (like Sondheim) writing the music for popular songs—“All For You [I’ve changed my way of living]” and “So Close To Paradise.”
Bone is caught between two women; the nice one (Faye Marlowe) encourages him to write a piano concerto, but the bad one (Linda Darnell) turns him into her love slave to juice more pop tunes out of him. He even writes her a musical (and here’s another apropos reference) called Gay Love. Like Sondheim’s later anti-hero protagonist Sweeney Todd, Bone becomes a serial killer, murdering in a kind of waking coma, always set off by wildly shrill sounds, like the factory whistle that goes off when Todd cuts someone’s throat. Then, too, Bone’s concerto, when we finally hear it (as composed by Bernard Herrmann), sounds—as movie concertos were bound to, in the 1940s—like Rachmaninof, one of Sondheim’s favorite composers.
Sondheim also loves Ravel, who makes an interesting pairing with Rachmaninof. The latter was the last of the Romantics, while Ravel was one of the outstanding Neo-classicists. That is, the former represents rhapsodic melody and emotionalism while the latter stands for more intellectualized composition, tightly structured and controlled, scorning emotion-driven communication. To put it another way, the Romantic gushes with music; the Neo-classicist reins it in. A third way: Mahler versus Stravinsky. A fourth way: Sondheim himself, rich in sheer songmaking yet intent on craft and the challenge of matching music to its subject. In short: a Neo-classical Romantic.
At sixteen, Sondheim enrolled at Williams College, which, with Amherst and Wesleyan, created the “Little Three,” small men’s schools on a par with the big Ivy League universities. Williams supported a lively student theatre scene, and Sondheim acted, most notably in Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall. Sondheim played Dan, an appealing vagrant who ingratiates himself with the village tyrant, an old woman in a wheelchair who is nothing but nags, complaints, self-absorption, and irritation at the slightest suggestion that things won’t go her way. Dan captivates as well the beldam’s frumpy, repressed niece, and he does seem a charming rogue. In fact, he’s another of Sondheim’s favorite types, a psychotic serial killer. Yet it’s a glamor (p.4) role—MGM had filmed it in 1937, with Robert Montgomery opposite Rosalind Russell as the niece—written full of sneaky subterfuge cut by outbursts of passionate honesty. Once Dan enters, he owns the show. “I been around,” he says. “You’d be surprised.”
Steve must have seen the film at some point (he was only seven on its original release), and we know that he was determined to play the part. It’s tempting to note that Dan is, above all, gifted in his own unique way—and musical as well, constantly singing snatches of popular song. He also murders an irritating mother figure. Still, Dan is above all a fabulously showy role that no young artist could resist.
Elswhere at Williams, Sondheim found a music class taught by Robert Barrow so invigorating that it pushed him toward seeking a career as a composer, as opposed to a movie director (which must have been on his mind as a possibility). Still, the overwhelming influence in Sondheim’s life continued to be Oscar Hammerstein, who, in Steve’s junior year, proposed a course of informal study in the writing of musicals. Practice makes perfect: first, write a musical based on a play you admire. Then a musical based on a play with problems, so you can log experience in resolving them: a dry run for what happens when you go out of town with a musical that isn’t playing well. Then adapt a show from some non-theatrical form—that is, learn how to dramatize from a lyrical point of view. Last, write an original.
Amusingly, Hammerstein was running through the experiments himself, on the professional level; they became the first four Rodgers and Hammerstein titles:
Oklahoma! (1943), which launched the cycle, was the play with problems, based on Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs, a Broadway failure in 1931.
Carousel (1945) was the play you admire, because the adaptation hewed closely to its source, Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom, adding in an uplifting final scene.
South Pacific (1949) was the third adaptation, taken from a non-theatrical form, James Michener’s story series Tales of the South Pacific.
And Allegro (1947) was the original.
Even then, Sondheim was ambitious: the play he admired was George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s Beggar on Horseback and the one with problems was Maxwell Anderson’s High Tor—“art” plays rather than the farces and romantic comedies that had provided typical source material for musicals for some thirty years. High Tor is a verse play (and a fantasy) and Beggar on Horseback is an expressionist comedy, an oxymoron in that expressionism belonged to the visionaries of the serious progressive forms, from Eugene (p.5) O’Neill to German horror cinema. The eponymous beggar is a composer who, like Laird Cregar in Hangover Square, is trapped between the music he yearns to write and the music that “everyone” wants to hear, classical versus popular. And of course this is a very basic dilemma in American culture, where art and commercialism intermingle in a kind of panic. First staged in 1924, Beggar on Horseback remained a vital memory for many, though expressionism’s dreamy distortions appeared to lock it into its time. For years, people would approach Kaufman with “You know what play of yours should be revived?” and Kaufman would immediately snap back, “It’s dated.”*
After being graduated from Williams, Sondheim received three thousand dollars a year for two years from the Hutchinson Prize in which to pursue his musical studies, and he undertook a private course in composition with Milton Babbitt, one of the most experimental of musicians. Oddly, Babbitt and Sondheim would analyze a song by Jerome Kern as often as a movement of a Beethoven symphony. But then Babbitt, like many other “ivory tower” composers, sought financial security in creating something popular, even, say, a musical for Mary Martin. One of the genre’s two biggest stars (Ethel Merman was the other), Martin was so versatile that almost everyone offered her the top part in his show, first dibs, from My Fair Lady to Funny Girl. Again, it’s that American dilemma: if you have the skills, shouldn’t you invent something dazzling—a Porgy and Bess, for instance? It’s classical, but it’s popular, too.
So: you’re twenty-two, smarter than everybody, and ready to start. You’ve been living rent-free in your father’s New York apartment, but he isn’t offering an allowance and the Hutchinson money is spent. What next?
For Sondheim, it was scriptwriting for television’s Topper series, mostly collaborating with George Oppenheimer. A spinoff of Thorne Smith’s two Topper novels and the films they engendered, the video adaptation told of starchy banker Cosmo Topper (Leo G. Carroll), his fluttery wife (Lee Patrick), and three ghosts (Robert Sterling; his then wife, Anne Jeffreys; and their vast St. Bernard, Neil). The half-hour episodes were based less on plot than on the interaction between the soigné Sterlings and the befuddled Carroll, with his English accent and clipped mustache. Thus, the show’s writers had only to mix character ingredients as if tossing a salad. It was labor for money rather than for love, and today Topper looks quaintly (p.6) ho-hum next to its coevals, especially the daffy George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and I Love Lucy. The commercials, however, are bizarre. As so often in the 1950s, the series stars were expected to serve as spokesmen for the sponsor, Camel Cigarettes, staying more or less in character while delivering encomiums:
(as Sterling lights her up) Uum, this is going to taste so good.
(with his own cigarette) And this is going to taste even better.
Carroll is on hand for these spiels, too. Everyone smokes but the dog.
It’s an odd way to launch a career in music theatre, but we should note that Sondheim later collaborated on play and movie scripts. It’s not too early to point out that Sondheim sees his songs as “playwrighting.” That is, he is a dramatist more than a songwriter, with an acute sense of when narrative needs to spring into song: his music lies somewhere between dialogue and opera, mixing the former’s kinetic motion with the latter’s expressive power.
Back in New York after Topper, Sondheim set about establishing living quarters on his own and finding work. His first opportunity hit when he was twenty-four: Saturday Night, a smallish show about courtship rituals in Brooklyn in the late 1920s, with a book by Julius J. Epstein. One may wonder why Sondheim never considered writing an opera. But then, for all his love of classical music, he wasn’t interested in a theatrical form that depended more on lavish vocalism than on crisply dramatic communication, cast for the most part with not singing actors but singing singers. Then, too, in those days before titling was normalized, opera audiences had no idea what the characters were saying from one line to the next. What kind of theatre is that?
Unbeknown to Sondheim, Saturday Night’s producer, Lemuel Ayers, suffered from leukemia; he died suddenly while the show was still casting and raising its capitalization, and the production evaporated. There was another project, called The Last Resorts, spun off Cleveland Amory’s book of essays about the gala vacation haunts of the one per cent, from Newport to Saratoga. Amory was known for two things, pioneering animal-rights activism and writing about Society, and his books were bestsellers. So The Last Resorts was designed to take advantage of a pre-sold title, now attached to a wholly original story devised by Walter and Jean Kerr. Sondheim wrote three songs, which the Kerrs didn’t like, and the show’s producer, Harold S. (more commonly Hal) Prince, didn’t like the Kerrs’ script. So nothing came of that show, either, though Palm Beach, another of those haunts of the leisure class, would figure in Sondheim’s latest work, Road Show.
(p.7) Then Steve got a show destined to make the short list of great musicals, West Side Story (1957). This time, he was asked to write only lyrics—worse, only some of the lyrics, collaborating with Leonard Bernstein, to Bernstein’s music. This was dismaying, of course: melody centers the art, and juggling rhymes is just so much homework. However, Oscar Hammerstein advised Steve not to pass up the chance to work with top people, for besides Bernstein there was Jerome Robbins, already celebrated not only as a choreographer but also as a director. Hammerstein was well aware of what Robbins could do; hired to stage the numbers on The King and I, Robbins became the show’s virtual director when John Van Druten, of the spoken stage, proved helpless trying to command a big musical. Further, Hammerstein’s professional savvy must have told him that Robbins’ reputation was just about to break out spectacularly, and West Side Story, made of gangs, jazz, and Shakespeare, might easily be the coronation title. Last, Hammerstein, a lyricist himself, knew that great shows need great words as well as great music. The lyricist matters.
And Hammerstein was right on every point, especially that Steve would find West Side Story a veritable college in the making of musicals. But then it happened again: he was invited to write the score to Gypsy (1959), yet its star, Ethel Merman, was unwilling to take a chance on an unestablished composer. Maybe the lyricist doesn’t matter, for Merman must have thought of herself as singing entirely on the music. Starting with her debut in 1930, she had appeared in eleven shows, all boasting major composers. Not just Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin but Vincent Youmans, Ray Henderson, and Arthur Schwartz. Even Merman’s second rank was first rank. Then, on the twelfth show, Happy Hunting, in 1956, Merman accepted the unknown composer Harold Karr, and while the show ran a year with the “first months sold out” feeling of a hit, it lost money and the score did not really take off. Gypsy, Merman’s thirteenth musical, had to revert to the Merman formula: music by Famous and lyrics by whoever’s handy.
The chosen composer, Jule Styne, turned out to be a fine partner for Sondheim, a ceaselessly inventive musician and very open to new ideas. “You don’t like that tune?” he would ask, from the keyboard. “Let me try another. How about this one?” And Styne would simply start playing as if the piano itself had channeled him.
Nevertheless, Steve would have turned the show down but for, again, Hammerstein’s advice. Writing for a star like Merman, he thought, would give Steve another valuable experience. Oddly, Hammerstein himself had seldom written for a star. Yes, in the 1920s, Hammerstein’s Wildflower (with co-composers Vincent Youmans and Herbert Stothart) was built around the star of Irene, Edith Day; and Sunny (with Jerome Kern) was made on (p.8) Marilyn Miller, the biggest musical star of the age. Still, more often, performers became stars in Hammerstein’s shows—Mary Ellis and Dennis King in Rose-Marie, Helen Morgan in Show Boat, Helen Kane in Good Boy, Alfred Drake and Celeste Holm in Oklahoma!, John Raitt in Carousel.
Perhaps it was Hammerstein’s belief that Steve needed more exposure to Big Broadway, where the despots of talent turn productions into their own personal banana republic and ego eats ego for snacks. Steve was brighter than anyone, but he was sensitive and needed toughening up.
However, Sondheim was getting acquainted with The Business on his own. One of its most important (and hush-hush) jobs is Play Doctor: a colleague’s show is struggling out of town and you are invited to have a look and then outline the required fixes. It’s a gig that takes in anything from giving the creative staff a few notes to replacing the director with name billing on the poster in big letters inside a box. Jerome Robbins was notable in the field—and Hammerstein could be counted on for a trip to a matinée and a suggestion or two. Now, at the age of twenty-six, Sondheim attained the position when Bernstein’s Candide was in trouble in Boston.
At Bernstein’s insistence, Steve went up to have a look at what was soon to be the most distinguished flop in Broadway history, with, he thought, a brilliant book (by Lillian Hellman), a brilliant score (taking in a bevy of lyricists, including even Hellman and Bernstein and, for some unknown reason, Dorothy Parker), and a brilliant production (by Tyrone Guthrie). Unfortunately, each of these elements was brilliant in a different way, the book mean and funny, the score now spoofy and now plangent, and the production on the grand scale with infusions of camp. It was Western Civilization in the form of a pageant co-authored by Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, and Bugs Bunny, and Bernstein induced Sondheim to share his thoughts with Bernstein’s collaborators. As Sondheim put it in the second of his lyric collections, Look, I Made a Hat, the Candide crew “looked balefully at me, with understandable disdain—who was this kid, this latest protégé of Lenny’s?” Indeed, they probably took Steve for Bernstein’s latest romance; he had a habit of introducing his flames into his world professionally. The episode shows us how sharp Sondheim’s theatrical instincts were even without any practical Broadway experience, for Candide opened nine months before West Side Story, when the latter was still in composition. Ironically, Sondheim himself was to join the ranks of Candide’s myriad lyricists for the 1973 Brooklyn (and 1974 Broadway) revision, directed by Hal Prince in a more consistent tone of meta-theatrical clowning.
In the 1960s, making himself at home in the New York theatre world, Sondheim was at last able to present Broadway with scores entirely his own, writing music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the (p.9) Forum (1962) and Anyone Can Whistle (1964). They were different from West Side Story and Gypsy, for the former was experimental and the latter very dark, while Forum was sunny and hilarious and Whistle offbeat and mischievous. Both were musical comedies in the purest sense, Sondheim’s first since the unproduced Saturday Night. Thus they stand out in his oeuvre, for his later shows returned him to the dark and experimental. At that, Sondheim’s television musical, Evening Primrose (1967) was dark, though its plot whimsically concerned people living undetected in a department store, some of them for decades.
Sondheim’s next full score would inaugurate his series with Hal Prince, starting with Company (1970). But there were detours along the way, writing lyrics only, to Richard Rodgers’ music, for Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), then to Leonard Bernstein’s music on an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule, starting in 1968 (and ultimately never produced). Sondheim dislikes Brecht’s hectoring political statements and automatic characterizations of manipulative authority figures and their pathetic victims; when Sondheim came to write about authority figures and their victims, in Sweeney Todd, there was nothing automatic about their character development (though their actions called forth a few of those hectoring political statements).
The Brecht project seemed enticing nonetheless, even if Bernstein had already begun working with another lyricist, Jerry Leiber, a stalwart of rock and roll who with Mike Stoller wrote “Jailhouse Rock” and “[You ain’t nothin’ but a] Hound Dog,” among other definitive titles. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the history of rock without Leiber and Stoller—but what was Leiber doing in Bernstein’s company, not to mention that of John Guare (writing the book) and Jerome Robbins (directing)? The lure of working with Robbins again, and possibly coming up with something as distinguished as West Side Story, was what led Sondheim to sign on, and he ultimately wrote lyrics for eight numbers. But he found Bernstein as condescending and competitive as he had been on West Side Story, relentlessly challenging Sondheim’s lines. (Steve: “A boy like that.” Lenny: No, how about … “A boy like him”?) Worse, Bernstein was still unaware of how mawkish his instincts were in the matter of the “softer” lyric. His lack of perspective in how words sound led him to insist on calling the musical A Pray By Blecht, perhaps the most juvenile and affected title ever proposed for Broadway. It makes one think fondly of the ancient days of Whoop-De-Doo and Piff! Paff!! Pouf!!!. Sondheim found battling through Bernstein’s egomania “tedious and time-consuming and no fun at all,” and he dropped out of the project. Sooner or later, one outgrows one’s Bernstein—and when Steve wrote a few lyrics for the aforementioned Candide revision, he (p.10) insisted that he work alone with Bernstein’s music, not with Bernstein himself.
Company, produced when Sondheim was forty, at last brought him recognition as an author of important musicals. He always gives full credit to his librettists, with whom he exchanges ideas and who write dialogue that he can transform into musical passages. And it must be said that the Sondheim shows’ emphasis on literate and imaginative book writing have concentrated attention on the contributions of the librettist as never before. (This is yet another part of Oscar Hammerstein’s legacy.) Still, no one thinks of—to cite the librettists—Company as a George Furth musical, Follies (1971) as a James Goldman musical, A Little Night Music (1973) as a Hugh Wheeler musical, Pacific Overtures (1976) as a John Weidman musical, or Sweeney Todd (1979) as another Hugh Wheeler musical. These are Sondheim musicals.
They are as well the five shows that Sondheim wrote for production and direction by Hal Prince in the 1970s, a body of work that, when new, divided the theatregoing community as never before, though now all five are undisputed classics. As each of the quintet was experimental—and each experimental in a completely different way—some opinion makers felt imposed upon, forced to admire.
This led to what appeared to be a pile-on of anger at the sixth Sondheim-Prince title, Merrily We Roll Along (1981). True, the English revue Side By Side By Sondheim, seen here between Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, marked a change in the way Sondheim was perceived by some of his detractors. With three singers, a narrator, and Sondheim’s songs presented as stand-alone art, his supposedly difficult music and idea-stuffed lyrics suddenly seemed not difficult but agreeable and not idea-stuffed but stimulating. One reason that some listeners weren’t able to assimilate Sondheim’s mature style—that is, from Company on—is the way the numbers are embedded in each show’s action. Once, theatre music was “Tea For Two”: you relax and enjoy the song as pure sensuality. By the Rodgers and Hammerstein era—from the 1940s on—theatre music was Carousel ’s “Soliloquy”: you can’t relax, because the song provides compelling character information. And Sondheim took the process a step further, adding irony to the mix. In Company’s “Side By Side By Side,” the character tells us one thing (I’m so happy in my social loop) while the context of the number creates a contradiction (Is he, really?). However, released from their dramatic responsibilities, “Side By Side By Side” and the rest of the program turned out to be easy to enjoy, even relaxing.
But of course the music wasn’t meant to be heard outside its theatrical setting. It’s narrative tissue, psychologically dense because the shows are. Some musicals are revived because we love the scores: Show Boat, Finian’s (p.11) Rainbow, La Cage aux Folles. Sondheim’s shows are revived because they’re so rich in content that we never quite collect them. We need to see them again just to figure them out. Company: marriage robs you of your freedom … and your isolation. Follies: why must beautiful youth end in bitter age? A Little Night Music: half the world are fools and the other half fall in love and become fools. Pacific Overtures: a lesson in the transformations of history. Sweeney Todd: opera ennobles all its people, even a ragbag nobody who becomes a serial killer. It sounds too tidy to parse them thus, so clear to the view. And, indeed, the development of those themes and procedures is rich, with all the why?s and excepts that we experience in life.
Now for a bit of analysis. The most influential series of shows in the musical’s developments are:
The Ned Harrigan-Tony Hart Irish farces of the 1880s, emphasizing immigrant New York as a setting and a style.
The Princess Theatre shows of the late 1910s, natural rather than exotic and boasting the innovatively clever songs of Jerome Kern and P. G. Wodehouse.
The Alex Aarons-Vinton Freedley musical comedies of the 1920s, built around a star performer and a star score (usually by the Gershwins).
Twenties operetta, in which the score was completely at the story’s service.
The Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein musical play of the 1940s and 1950s, reinventing operetta with adult storylines.
The Sondheim-Prince shows of the 1970s.
Note that the consistently evolving element in the list is the power of the narrative. Aarons-Freedley musical comedy is silly, but Rodgers and Hammerstein seek out “big” characters in spiky confrontations over serious issues. And when Sondheim adds to this format the slithery conjugations of his “playwrighting” scores, the musical blends entertainment into enlightenment.
Let’s tack a bit to the academic side. The late seventeenth to early eighteenth century Italian historian Giambattista Vico, in his Scienza Nuova, saw human events as cyclic, moving from a Theocratic Age through an Aristocratic Age to a Democratic Age, thence to an upheaval ushering in the next Theocratic Age, and so on. More recently, the literary critic Harold Bloom revised Vico’s paradigm for his study of Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Kafka, and others in The Western Canon. Bloom proposed an Aristocratic Age, a Democratic Age, and then a Chaotic Age. Ours. And we can, very loosely, apply this to the history of the American musical. The first age (p.12) favors icons—Evangeline, Adonis, fairies, royalty. It is the time of Robin Hood, The Shogun, The Three Musketeers. Meanwhile, the Democratic Age has been stealing in, with feisty working-girl heroines and ambitious, up-from-nothing young lads—The Girl Friend, Babes in Arms, The Pajama Game.
And the Chaotic Age came in with Sondheim-Prince, for their offbeat subject matter creates offbeat forms, superseding the musical’s handbook as it had been developing for some hundred years and thus unsettling less adventurous spectators. Thus, Company is constructed of little one-acts, each with its own tiny storyline. In one, a married couple gets on each other’s nerves with goading little teases till the tension explodes in a mock karate battle. In another, the show’s unmarried hero enjoys a one-night stand until he realizes it might last more than one night. Company is a puzzle and these are some of its pieces; when all the pieces are assembled, they give us a narrative by other means. Yes, there is a sort of beginning (the hero is happy as a bachelor), middle (or is he?), and end (he’s finally ready for marriage), but they are not clearly demarcated. They are in My Fair Lady: the beginning (Higgins will “reclass” Eliza), the middle (she fails at Ascot but Succeeds at the Embassy Ball; they fight; she flees), the end (she returns). Or even in the plotless A Chorus Line: the beginning (“I hope I get it”), the middle (confessions), the end (“Will the following people please step forward?”). Company, however, is very free in form—or, rather, it is strict in form, but in a form that didn't exist before Company. As we’ll presently see, Sondheim-Prince is, above all, wholly original.
Innovation in a form that some people still believed was ontologically intended to provide nothing but amusement was bound to prove divisive. Sondheim often tells a story that takes us back to West Side Story, at the start of his professional experience. Standing at the back of the orchestra on the second night of the New York run, he saw a man get up and leave a few minutes into the opening, a ballet of rival gangs, before even a note had been sung. Seeing Sondheim and assuming he was connected with the production, the man told him, “Don’t ask.”
And Steve knew immediately what had happened. This was the Tired Businessman of Broadway lore; he thought he’d drop in on a musical before heading home to the suburbs. He didn’t know anything about West Side Story itself, but the poster photograph of Tony and Maria running down a Manhattan street looked happy, and this was, after all, the 1950s, when newspaper columnists touted what they called “musigirl” shows—Top Banana, Wish You Were Here, Can-Can, Ankles Aweigh, Li’l Abner. And instead this guy gets weird jazzy riffs, unsettling syncopations, teenage hoods snapping their fingers and snarling when they aren’t leaping about like angry lizards. Then came the racial aspect, as a rival gang of Latinos (p.13) challenged the white boys … and the tired businessman departed for Roslyn Heights.
And, says Sondheim, “That’s when I knew my career was in trouble.”
Of course, West Side Story was a hit. Overcapitalized at $300,000,* it made a profit (according to its co-producer, Hal Prince, in his book Contradictions) of $1,090,000. Company and A Little Night Music, says Prince, were profitable in their first runs, too, if considerably less so. But critics and public were—again, at first—ambivalent about Sondheim’s shows. Even as they realized how stimulating and original these musicals were, their inner Tired Businessman longed for that old-fashioned show business in which, whatever else happens—despair, murder, the collapse of a democracy in a feudal epoch—the public has a guiltless good time. Thus, while the fresh rehearing of “Too Many Mornings” or “The Little Things You Do Together” in Side By Side By Sondheim reintroduced theatregoers to the music’s charm, Sondheim still had to persuade the public to think more expansively about his shows as wholes.
But then, why shouldn’t they? The cultural upheaval of the American 1960s affected virtually everything—how people regarded social clichés of class, gender, and sexuality; how they dressed; what they expected from the arts. Psycho, Dr. Strangelove, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and many other films marked a breakaway from Hollywood’s entertainment models, and rock had unseated theatre songs as the national music. Sondheim-Prince offered Broadway’s equivalent of all this, albeit on its own terms, as a kind of liberation of the musical.
Sondheim felt liberated personally: more relaxed. He could be tense with fools, easily irritated; he was less so now. On the other hand, he had always been reluctant to get into the fights that punctuate the rehearsal and tryout periods of every show, especially the musical. Some love a fight—Jerome Robbins, for instance. If there wasn’t a scrap in service, he’d provoke one. Some hate a fight but will battle to defend their place in a production. But where does a legitimate argument over art end and a plain old hard-on contest begin? When Sweeney Todd premiered in London, at Drury Lane, British television ran a documentary on the piece, including “reality” footage of the rehearsals. At one point, John Aron, playing the barber Pirelli—Todd’s first victim—learned that his only musical number was to be cut in half, and, with the camera whirring away, Aron and Prince got into some good old backstage geschrei. Typically, Sondheim was nowhere to be seen during (p.14) this sequence. If a problem can’t be solved in something like a civil tone, he simply moves off the battlefield till order is restored.
Growing comfortable with success in the 1970s, Sondheim adapted to the times. Candid photos of Steve with Bernstein and Robbins during West Side Story’s gestation show the debutant smartly turned out in jacket and tie; by the 1970s, he favored casual wear. Further, Sondheim became a magnet for anyone interested in the musical, the leader of the pack. In a novel published in 1977, James Fritzhand’s Starring, five characters are seen launching careers in show business, and each is an à clef figure. Suzann Jaffe is clearly Barbra Streisand; Fritzhand gives us precisely turned counterparts for her first Broadway show, I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Its garment-center setting creates Jaffe’s credit, Seventh Avenue, and even Wholesale’s composer-lyricist, Harold Rome, as Earl Milan, is given replicas of his work: Destry Rides Again turns up as The Sheriff Was a Lady.
Of course Fritzhand would make one of his leads a young songwriter, and of course he would be modeled on Sondheim. The character is Philip Ehrlich, more Sondheimesque in his professional life—Company shows up in the book as Singles—than in his offstage identity. For instance, Fritzhand doesn’t mention the most famous personal aspect of the Sondheim life, his love of games, from anagrams and those extra-tricky British crossword puzzles to treasure hunts with all of Manhattan as the hunting field.
One thing Fritzhand did get to was Sondheim’s sexuality: Philip Ehrlich is gay. Sondheim was closeted at this time, as was his most notable predecessor as Broadway composer-lyricist, Cole Porter. Indeed, Porter even married, albeit to an older woman who did not share his love of wicked fun; a hypochondriac, Linda Lee Porter was really only happy in an iron lung. Also unlike Sondheim, Porter slipped encoded double meanings into his lyrics, as when Kiss Me, Kate’s “Too Darn Hot” cites the attraction of “a marine for his queen.” Too, Porter favored the steamier sort of musical, not just musigirl but musiboy. Jubilee, about a royal family off on a madcap vacation, included a Tarzan figure called Mowgli who made his entrance in a peekaboo bearskin and attended a costume party wearing little more than makeup and sandals as an oversized Cupid.
Sondheim’s shows through Merrily We Roll Along hadn’t a trace of gay in them, even if West Side Story’s Riff is drawn from Shakespeare’s Mercutio, arguably Romeo’s former adolescent crush. In truth, there were so few gay characters in the musical before, say, the 1980s that they stand out—at that, less as milestones than as newer incarnations of the ethnic stereotypes that thronged musicals of the very early 1900s. In 1941, Danny Kaye played a flaming magazine photographer in Lady in the Dark, openly raving over a beefcake movie star with “This one is the end—the end!” In his Times (p.15) review, Brooks Atkinson daintied his way around this flamboyant exhibit by calling Kaye “infectiously exuberant,” a euphemism if I ever heard one.
Fourteen years later, Ray Walston’s devil in Damn Yankees seemed distinctly minty by the attitudes of the era: a single man living in opulent interior decoration and up to devious manipulations with the aid of a sexy woman whom he goads into seducing a vulnerable young man—an amalgam of Truman Capote and Roy Cohn. By comparison, Applause, in 1970, seemed liberated in letting Lee Roy Reams play Lauren Bacall’s personal assistant with no more than a soupçon of swish. The tipping point arrived in 1983, with a gay honeymooning couple in Dance a Little Closer and, pièce de resistance, La Cage aux Folles, featuring gay parents who had raised a son.
Sondheim’s shows have so often dealt in period tales (especially of the nineteenth century) that they defy trendy accommodations. But the vivaciously contemporary Company eventually had to slip a bit of gay content into one scene to avoid seeming prim, even specious. A Little Night Music’s libretto bears an unmistakable gay flavor (about which more later). And Sondheim’s latest work, Road Show, has two gay principals. Still, the disparate nature of Sondheim’s shows so textures his output that one doesn’t think of them as “missing” a particular identity group. It’s not that these titles are heterocentric: it’s that they’re all different from each other, and rarified in their dramatis personae. Company is a Zeitgeist musical, sharp and hip. But the next piece, Follies, is a show-biz phantasmagoria. Then A Little Night Music is a romance, so Pacific Overtures is an epic and Sweeney Todd a thriller.
And Sunday in the Park with George (1984) is a painting—or, really, a navigation through art to discover how the creator relates to the life around him. This work launched Sondheim’s third period. The first covered his years writing lyrics only and composing musical comedies. The second was Sondheim-Prince. And now the third took Sondheim into physically smaller productions than heretofore, mainly with librettist and director James Lapine, pensive and measured where Hal Prince is impulsive and enthusiastic. In Sondheim’s aforementioned Look, I Made a Hat, he recalls realizing that his and Lapine’s “tastes [in art] were surprisingly alike.” “Surprisingly” because Lapine’s background lay in—this is Sondheim again—the “off-Broadway nonprofit theater,” and those “nurtured in that protective atmosphere think differently than we Great White Way dinosaurs who were raised in commercial theater do.”
Thus, Harold Bloom’s Chaotic Age seizes the musical, for Sondheim’s description of Lapine really means “experimental.” As the Sondheim-Prince shows were already innovative, the following set was doubly so, though (p.16) some of the directors (such as Jerry Zaks and Susan Stroman) usually work in conservative precincts. Nevertheless, three of the third-period shows—Sunday, Into the Woods (1987), and Passion (1994)—were not only directed but scripted by Lapine, making him almost as central to this group of shows as the very collaborative (though never actually libretto-writing) Prince was to the previous group.
Then, too, the Lapine aesthetic, which turns a story into a suite of variations, as if that story were a symphonic theme, appears to govern the writing style of even the non-Lapine titles. For example, Sunday is about George (Seurat) only at first. Then it tells of a different George altogether, one who is both like and unlike the first George. One is obsessed (about “finishing the hat”: fulfilling the enchantment). The other is drifting. But doesn’t obsession create a loss of place in the world? And doesn’t one drift to avoid obsession, release oneself from enchantment?
Comparably, Assassins (1990) with a libretto by not Lapine but John Weidman, considers the differences among various president-killers to unify them: variations in search of a theme. And the theme, at last, is Lee Harvey Oswald. Road Show (2008), also by Weidman, is as interested in the vanished America of its two leads, the Mizner brothers, as it is in the two siblings themselves.
This was not true of Company, Follies, or Sweeney Todd of the Prince sequence. Nor was it true of shows written by Steve’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. Those works expand. The Lapine-era titles concentrate. The Harold Bloomian Chaos inheres not in any confusion in how these shows play but in their transgressively nonconformist atmosphere, that “nonprofit theater” attitude that Sondheim spoke of earlier. Of these latest Sondheim shows, only Into the Woods observes Broadway protocols, at least in its ample dimensions. Assassins risks angry controversy in its subject matter; Passion dares the unbelievable: beauty learns to love the beast.
Ironically, the more Sondheim challenged the rules for wide commercial acceptance, the more accepted he became. He even got offers from the Coast, a certain sign that a composer has caught the American ear. Lotte Lenya once said, “If you become a legend you must have made your point somewhere,” and we can revise this to “If Hollywood is calling, you’re the Great Gatsby, Gandalf, and the Statue of Liberty.” First it was Warren Beatty, who wanted Sondheim to score his films (though Sondheim preferred to write songs and leave the underscoring to others). Then it was Barbra Streisand, who wanted to record Sondheim songs with a certain amount of hand-crafting by Sondheim, to repurpose his lyrics to suit Streisand’s ID. Thus, Sondheim had attained a position that had never existed before, that of philosopher-king of the American musical, mainly because (p.17) there was so much content in his shows. Even Oscar Hammerstein was not so exclusively eminent.
So it had to be Sondheim to denounce the American Repertory Theatre’s proposal, in 2011, to stage Porgy and Bess in a substantial revision. In a letter to the New York Times, Sondheim ripped the ART’s plan to shreds, basing his objections on comments made by the director, Diane Paulus, and the dramaturg, Suzan Lori-Parks. Sondheim’s first criticism was aimed at the billing of the production as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” because it made no mention of co-lyricist Du Bose Heyward, who thought up the novel Porgy and then, with his wife, Dorothy, wrote the play Porgy that served Gershwin as his matrix. Heyward’s was an essential Porgy and Bess credit; to leave him out was to leave George Bernard Shaw out of the credit for My Fair Lady.
In fact, the Gershwin estates have been demanding billing that eliminates Du Bose Heyward for a generation. But Sondheim’s more important objection concerned the planned changes to the work itself. “I wanted to flesh out the two main characters,” said Parks. “I think that’s what George Gershwin wanted.” Said Sondheim, “It’s reassuring that Ms. Parks has a direct pipeline to Gershwin and is just carrying out his work for him.” Sondheim’s basic point was that, in an acknowledged masterpiece like Porgy and Bess, changes of emphasis (in the staging) are acceptable, but changes of kind (in the text) are not.
This is entirely appropriate behavior for someone who spent most of the 1970s as president of the Dramatists Guild of America, which protects the rights of authors in their dealings with producers and directors. But more: this is loyalty, one of Sondheim’s salient personal qualities. Loyalty to his colleagues, to Hammerstein, to integrity of text, and to Porgy and Bess, which Sondheim regards as one of the greatest of all Broadway offerings (and which is, again, a work written for the popular stage along classical lines). And, while we’re at it, do not praise Agnes de Mille to Sondheim, because he recalls a dinner party many years ago in California at which de Mille deliberately spoke ill of Oscar Hammerstein, knowing how important he had been in Steve’s life. We should note, too, that it took Sondheim forever to break with the notoriously obnoxious Arthur Laurents, simply because they had worked together on shows that helped define Sondheim as an artist. And, despite his difficulties with Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim remained close to him on the personal level. Sharing the creation of West Side Story made the two more than colleagues: lovers, in the metaphorical sense.
Now in his eighties, Sondheim enjoys an unusual celebrity based entirely on his work, safe from tabloid gotcha!s. Many of his friends were not (p.18) aware that in the 1990s, he met a young songwriter from Colorado, Peter Jones, and embarked on a romantic liaison. It was not Sondheim’s first such involvement, but his first serious one, succeeded by a second affair, with Jeff Romley.
Before that, Sondheim’s most important relationships were those with his collaborators, liaisons of art—those whom he has learned from and, himself, instructed. Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, Hal Prince, James Lapine, and above all Oscar Hammerstein. Shortly before he died, Hammerstein gave his photograph to Sondheim, inscribing it, “For Stevie, my friend and teacher.”
(*) Beggar on Horseback made it to Broadway as a semi-musical in 1970, at Lincoln Center. The original text was retained, but Stanley Silverman and John Lahr musicalized the central dream sequence as a Ziegfeldian pageant that anticipated parts of Sondheim’s Follies.
(*) Only very elaborate musicals of the 1950s cost that much. My Fair Lady, the most lavish production of the 1950s before West Side Story, cost $360,000, and Saratoga, the most lavish production of the 1950s after West Side Story, cost $480,000. But West Side Story didn’t remotely rival their colossal sets-and-costumes bill.