An iconoclast on Broadway

Acclaimed for transforming the face of the American musical, he has also been condemned for pessimistic lyrics and unhummable tunes. Simon Fanshawe on a champion of commercial theatre, back in London to revive one of his shows that was panned 20 years ago

There is something intimidating about Stephen Sondheim. It’s not him. It’s his reputation. “Possibly the greatest lyricist ever,” says Cameron Mackintosh, who made his first real money in the theatre from the 1976 revue, Side By Side By Sondheim, and who produced the London revival of Follies in 1987. “For me there is no other,” enthuses the actress Julia McKenzie, his most brilliant interpreter in Britain. “But when I meet him, often my syntax breaks down.” Frank Rich, known as “The Butcher of Broadway” during his 14-year tenure as the New York Times theatre critic, and by no means a consistent admirer of Sondheim, wrote “he has changed the texture of the musical as radically as Oscar Hammerstein, and may yet leave our theatre profoundly altered”. What goes before Sondheim is an extraordinary string of shows, in particular those from the 70s – Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd.

In person the promise is of a man whose theatrical analysis of emotion is so forensic, and whose lyrics are so intricate and accurate, that he is not just too clever by half, but by three-quarters. He is also known as a master of the perfectly placed rejoinder. It was Sondheim who, in a dress rehearsal that was running way over time, replied to an exasperated actor demanding to know whom he had to screw to get out of the bloody show, “the same person you screwed to get into it”.

His friend the playwright Peter Nichols says, “he is as sharp as a tack and very witty”, but face to face Sondheim presents a rather kindly, untidy figure. Mackintosh says: “Yes, he’s always been shambolic but he smartens up well.” Now 70, hehas a friendly, almost Santa Claus-like face and a bellow of a laugh.

“I am the best laugher.” he says. “If you write a comedy, hire me to sit in the audience. Although I tend to guffaw, which is not always great.” He once went to the theatre with Harold Prince, his collaborator as both producer and director on-and-off for over 40 years, and Prince’s wife, Judy, to see an off-Broadway play called Ulysses in Traction by Albert Interado. “It was about this group of LA university students putting on an insanely pretentious play during the riots. It didn’t get very good reviews but we were fans of the writer so we went. And we thought it was screamingly funny. People in the audience were hushing us.” In the interval they were called into the manager’s office because there had been “complaints about our raucousness. And I said, ‘but it’s funny’, and the manager said, ‘I know. I think it’s funny, too, but the audience just doesn’t get it.'”

Sondheim also admits to being a weeper. “Listen,” he says. “I’m an old Jewish crier. I am easily moved and I love being moved. Like most people in the theatre I have a great facility for suspending disbelief. I will believe anything you tell me. I think it’s about fantasy life. I think it’s a simple as that.”

Sondheim was an only child, born to wealthy Jewish parents in New York in 1930. Herbert and Janet, known as Foxy, were in the fashion trade. Herbert was the president and Foxy the chief designer of the Sondheim-Levy Company, which had offices on West Thirty Ninth Street and produced what Sondheim’s biographer, Meryle Secrest, describes as “beautifully made clothes of marked style and taste”. Sondheim now says that with two working parents he was really “an orphan, an institutionalised child”. And one friend remembers that she always thought of him as “a child pressing his nose against the glass”.

Sondheim’s father was a benign, if distant, presence who loved to play the piano socially and brought Sondheim up not to stand out, boast or lose his temper. “I think that’s probably why I am not good at immediate responses. I am not quick to anger. I am a slow burner. My father used to think one should be moderate, be nice. Which,” he adds elliptically, “is not what most people can be in the circumstances in which we live.”

Sondheim’s mother certainly was neither moderate nor nice. “She was creepy,” he says. His father ran away with a younger woman when Stephen was 10. Foxy responded with increasing dysfunction. “She was a career woman and her man done her wrong,” says Sondheim. “And hell hath no fury… She took it out on me because she had no one else to take it out on.” On the night her husband left she woke her son, took him into her bed and cried all over him. He remembers being very uncomfortable. After the divorce she started to behave towards him in a sexually explicit and inappropriate way, he told his biographer. “I went to a show with her and she not only held my hand, but looked at me during the entire play. And she would sit across from me with her legs aspread. She would lower her blouse and that sort of stuff. But I was surprised rather than shocked.”

In the year they divorced, his parents sent him to military school, which, unexpectedly, he enjoyed enormously. “The surprise is that I loved military school, because I knew where I was going to be at 9:03 and 9:58 and 12:50 and I needed structure and it gave me that and made me feel the world was not in chaos”. There, he also learned to play the organ.

Now he shrugs off the effect of the divorce and his mother’s behaviour, although he has had many years of analysis. “Children of broken homes? There are five million per square inch. I have not lived a very bizarre life. My mother was bizarre but only by degree. The world is full of mothers and fathers like mine. It’s just my mother was an extreme case.” But he also says that she was a compulsive liar, extremely pretentious “and her values were, to put it mildly, askew. She only really cared about celebrity and money. Which I only became aware of when I started to get successful.”

Their relationship was finally and fatally damaged in the 70s when she wrote him a note before going into hospital. She was going to have a pacemaker fitted and thought she was going to die. The note said: “The night before I undergo open-heart surgery… the only regret I have in life is giving you birth.” Sondheim wrote back saying everything he’d never expressed before. He added, though, that he would support her financially. He never saw her again. When she eventually died in 1992 he did not go to her funeral.

However, she had made possible one relationship that would be a positive and lasting influence on her son. After the separation she moved from New York to Bucks County in Pennsylvania, just four miles away from a woman friend, an interior decorator, whom she had met in the city. Their sons were the same age and had become friendly. The decorator, Dorothy, was married to the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. Already musical, Sondheim became a regular visitor, part of the family, and Hammerstein became his mentor. Sondheim has often said, while cautioning that it may sound glib, that all he has ever really wanted to be was what what Oscar was – a songwriter.

While Sondheim’s father wanted him to “get a proper job and not become a feckless artist”, Hammerstein was not just a role model for a future career, he also gave Stephen Sondheim his first real work. The lyricist hired the 17-year-old as his assistant at $25 a week on Allegro, a musical he wrote with Richard Rodgers

Allegro was about a doctor who grows up in a small town, marries an ambitious woman, becomes successful in New York and ends up giving vitamin injections to the rich until his loving nurse persuades him to return to the country and be a real doctor. As a musical, it was very self-consciously experimental in tackling such a complex and dark subject as a man losing his way in life. It flopped. Sondheim says now: “It was more than a little significant that it was my first professional experience. It was seminal because I saw a lot of smart people doing something wrong. It’s not psychological, the effect. It was nothing to do with the story and me. I just got interested in experimental theatre. Perhaps if I had been an assistant on a George Abbott show (the Broadway producer of The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees), I might not have become the kind of writer I am.”

He has continued to experiment with the musical, he says, not because he is worried about being thematically monotonous, but because he doesn’t want to get bored. Harold Prince says that “he has enormous artistic resources. He has no desire to defend material. He’s always willing to throw away a song or an idea because he knows there’s always another one. He is very secure.”

But critics have lined up over the years to tell him that the different subjects and emotional territory he chooses for his shows are not the proper stuff of the musical theatre. New York critic Walter Kerr made the position bluntly clear: musicals, he said, should not deal with serious matters. Musicals are for fun. John Lahr, the writer and critic for the New Yorker magazine, is a great admirer of Sondheim’s talent but none the less argues: “You cannot debate in song. Song is a form of enchantment. And Sondheim is on record as saying that he cannot create joy. His intelligence has driven the musical into a cul-de-sac.”

Harold Prince, however, insists “it’s about the story. If Steve has changed the musical, it’s not been a conscious effort. His conscious effort is to express himself.” With the kind of coincidence that challenges astrologers, Sondheim shares the same birthday, March 22, with the populist composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, although Sondheim is 18 years older. The musical influences of their respective generations are reflected in their work. Lloyd Webber was born to pop. But Sondheim was a child of the American stage musicals of the 40s and 50s. Kern, Porter and most importantly Rodgers and Hammerstein, the creators of Oklahoma! and Carousel, are his immediate theatrical family. “I can never be as interested in pop music as pop fans are,” he says, while tactfully adding: “I’ve never said anything rotten in print about Andrew and he’s never said anything about me… Music to me is about harmony and in most pop music the harmony is not interesting because that’s not what it was about.”

Lloyd Webber maintains that “Sondheim is a very fine melodist, if he chooses to do it. But the difference between us is that he writes his own lyrics. His music is a servant to his lyrics, while I write a big tune.” Replying to accusations that he does not write hummable tunes, and to those critics who in his early days simply suggested he “should give up writing music”, Sondheim says that the easy answer “is often that what I write has to be listened to more than once”.

Despite the often expressed view that he has transformed the face of the American musical, or even that, as Peter Nichols suggests, “has extended its life well beyond what we might have expected”, Sondheim still seems to harbour the illusion that he is just a Broadway Babe writing smash tunes for a mass audience. And he is quite clear about the critical view. “Does it ever occur to me that I am developing any new kind of musical? How about this for an answer? And you may not believe it. Never!”

He cites Pacific Overtures from 1976, which deals with Japan’s emergence from isolation, beginning with the visit of the American envoy Commodore Perry to Japan in 1853. Sondheim has described it as “the most bizarre and unusual musical ever to be seen in a commercial setting, an attempt to tell a story that has no characters in it at all, that is entirely about ideas”. Yet he says with boyish enthusiasm now, “all the time we were writing Pacific Overtures, I was thinking the audience is going to love this. It’s so exotic, these wonderful costumes, the audience have never seen an entire cast of men, some of whom are in drag. It’s going to be fabulous. It never occurred to me that people might not like that, or not get it.” They didn’t. It closed after six months, having lost the entire investment of $650,000. But, like many of Sondheim’s shows which were initially panned, it went on to win awards and has been revived successfully many times.

Apart from the influence of Hammerstein, Sondheim’s inspiration and training also derived from his student years at Williams College in Massachusetts, where in 1950 he won the Hubbard Hutchinson Prize at Princeton. This gave him a two-year fellowship worth a healthy $3,000 to study music under the unlikely tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg’s disciple, the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt. With Sondheim’s conscious show-business aspirations, Babbitt, who later would publish an article called “Who Cares If You Listen”, seemed an odd choice. But Sondheim wanted to learn uncluttered composition theory and harmony. And Babbitt was oddly not only fit for the task, but also something of a frustrated show composer himself. Sondheim’s first real income came from a contact made for him by Hammerstein. At a dinner party he was introduced to the writer George Oppenheimer. The result was a collaboration over the scripts for a CBS TV series called Topper, which, Sondheim says, was about “an elegant, rich, Martini-swigging couple who die in an accident and come back to haunt a man named Cosmo Topper. And constantly screw up his life.”

After five months in Hollywood, and having completed 11 scripts, Sondheim returned to New York in 1953. There, still earning money writing TV scripts, he started to pursue single-mindedly the aim of becoming a composer and lyricist. After a number of ideas that came to nothing, he took his first real step. In 1955 he auditioned his musical and lyrical talents for a show called Saturday Night, which eventually collapsed before it ever got off the ground.

The director was Arthur Laurents, who bluntly told Sondheim that he thought his music left much to be desired but that his lyrics were wonderful. Later that year, though, he met Laurents again, this time at a party. The director had moved on to the project – with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins – which was to become the modern-day telling of the Romeo and Juliet story, originally set in the Lower East Side of New York, but eventually called West Side Story. “Laurents literally smote his forehead,” Sondheim has said, “and went ‘I never thought of you’.”

West Side Story was his first success. Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Bernstein’s music, although he was so obscure at the time that he wasn’t even mentioned in the reviews. But it earned him the beginning of his reputation, as well as the start of a handsome income – although not as great an income as it might have been.

The arrangement with Bernstein had started as a partnership, but in the end Sondheim had actually written nearly all the lyrics. The composer, seeing how glum Sondheim was about being ignored by the press, offered him the full credit on the billboards and in the programmes and added, as an afterthought, that they would of course reapportion the royalties: from his three per cent and Sondheim’s one, to two each. Sondheim replied: “Don’t be silly, I don’t care about the money,” a remark which he claims must have cost him millions of dollars.

Today, he sets relatively little store by money, saying that his tastes are modest. However, by 1987 he acknowledged that he was earning at least $1m a year.

The lyrics in West Side Story, according to Lahr, “defined the buoyancy of the culture after the war, the culture of expectation which would reward you in time.” He quotes the uplooking, optimistic urgency of the words:

Could it be?
Yes it could
Something’s coming, something
good… if I can wait
Something’s coming
I don’t know
What it is
But it is
Gonna be great

“The US was becoming the most powerful and richest country in the world,” Lahr argues. “Incomes tripled in a decade. And to define all that in song is nothing short of brilliant.”

Sondheim then worked on the Ethel Merman show, Gypsy, again just writing the lyrics, this time to the music of Jule Styne, who later wrote Funny Girl. After three years, in 1962, Sondheim had his first Broadway production for which he had written both lyrics and music, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, which is still his longest Broadway run, lasting over 750 performances. But it didn’t bring him the kind of acclaim from the critics or his peers that he wanted. He had to wait another eight years, until Company in 1970 and the decade on Broadway in which he became what Matt Wolf, the London theatre critic of Variety, calls “this belligerently non-commercial artist existing in a marketplace which he very much enjoyed”.

Wolf recalls a seminar in 1990 when Sondheim was the Cameron Mackintosh visiting professor of Contemporary Theatre at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. David Aukin, who with Richard Eyre had produced Sunday In The Park With George at the National Theatre, said to Sondheim that it was a shame that he could not have lived in Britain with the benefit of the subsidised theatre, and where he wouldn’t have been put under the dreadful commercial pressure of Broadway. “Without missing a beat,” according to Wolf, “Sondheim just said ‘But I love Broadway’.”

Sondheim these days describes Broadway as “a truly annealing experience. It’s very good not to be hyper-protected. Anyway you look at it, musicals are a commercial form of popular entertainment. They need exposure and the difficulties of commercial presentation.That makes for better work, not for lesser work.”

The shows defined what most writers see as Sondheim’s natural territory: Frank Rich called it “gimlet-eyed pessimism”, as seen in songs such as The Ladies Who Lunch, from Company, and Losing My Mind, from Follies. Company, regarded by many as his sharpest show, explored the empty and commitment-phobic life of Bobby, a bachelor in New York with wonderful married friends, all of whom are wondering why they’re married. Follies was about a theatrical reunion surrounded by the metaphorical rubble of American Vaudeville in a theatre about to be knocked down. Four of the central characters are two couples who never quite got together. What they have had to settle for in their lives is juxtaposed with the optimism of their youth. Julia McKenzie cites from it her favourite Sondheim lyric.

All that time wasted
Merely passing through,
Time I could have spent
So content
Wasting time with you.

If he has changed the face of musical theatre, he has also challenged the love song as a form, preferring to explore the dilemma of desire: that our happiness is torn between the impossibility of being with someone and the agony of being alone. In an outburst of critical disdain, Lahr calls it “boulevard nihilism”, and then adds provocatively that “his emotional range is surprisingly small. He is the Sam Beckett of the musical theatre.” But others realised that he had finally made the musical something worth talking about. When Company arrived in London, the critic Michael Ratcliffe wrote that “it was discussed with a seriousness normally extended only to new novels and plays”.

Lahr says that in much of Sondheim’s work there is a sour, disappointed misanthropy. “And that from a man who doesn’t have a relationship.” Sondheim counters, typically, without emotion but with an artist’s intellectual response. “George Bernard Shaw said that to write you needed observation, imagination and experience. And you can do without any one of them, but not two of them.”

Sondheim is often assaulted with the implication, if not the direct accusation, that he doesn’t know what he is talking about when it comes to love as he never admitted anyone to his own life until he was 61. In 1991, he met a young lyricist and composer, Peter Jones, some 35 or so years his junior. They exchanged wedding rings in 1994. Now, however, while they remain very close, they are no longer partners. “Falling in love is so much to do with luck,” says Sondheim now. “I did it very late in life. And, sure, I would like it to happen again.”

In 1981, after what Harold Prince describes as “what people obviously felt was our decade of too much”, he and Sondheim collaborated on a show, written by George Furth, called Merrily We Roll Along. It is this show that Sondheim is in London to see revived at the Donmar Warehouse, and which contains some of his most beautiful, lingering songs.

It was based on a George Kaufman/Moss Hart play that opened on Broadway in 1934 to good reviews, but which was never a hit. Prince, Furth and Sondheim topped that. Their version was not a hit, it got terrible reviews, and it closed after 16 performances. “Maybe,” says Prince, “everyone wanted us to implode.” What seemed to turn off the audience was that it was not just a story of three friends, a composer, a lyricist and a writer whose youthful idealism and friendship is soured by the great success of one of them, but that it was also told in reverse. The show goes backwards over the 24 years of their friendship to 1957, the year of the Sputnik launch, the symbol of their idealism and hope.

Sondheim paraphrases one commentator’s summary of the plot: “He said the central character is an enormously successful playwright on Broadway and is married to the most beautiful star on Broadway, the reigning diva, and the opening scene is on the opening night of his new play and the reviews come in and they’re wonderful and the rest of the play deals with how this poor son of a bitch got in such trouble!”

Much work has been done on it since, with Sondheim and Furth having the opportunity to try out several different versions and finally settling on one they liked at Leicester Haymarket in 1993. Perhaps this time round London’s critics will be unanimous in their praise.

If the project does backfire, however, Sondheim has the advantage of a phlegmatic streak. Cameron Mackintosh says of him that when things go wrong, he’s “wonderfully wry… Once I mentioned to him that I had three shows opening and then realised to my embarrassment that he had five. But he just looked at me and laughed: ‘That just means five closings.'”

This quality must also help him to negotiate the irony that, while he has won every critical plaudit and every award America has to offer, from an Oscar (for songs in the Dick Tracy movie) to countless Tonys, he has never really found a mass audience. Sondheim may well have re-invented musical theatre but, as a Broadway Babe, it seems he has honour without profit in his own own country.

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