Shakespeare of the Upper West Side

by Tom George Hammond

Lyricism is language without all the scaffolding; it’s a test of how meaning can purify as more words are taken away.  To be lyrical is to be economical, in isolating an image or a notion into a short phrase that must capture as much as a whole paragraph of prose.  It’s also an economy of words in that the best modern lyricists rarely reach for the divine or the orotund, preferring that shelf of plainer words that can idle quite happily in everyday expression.  The effect of this economy is that the writer is forced to cut to the quick, and in doing so may chance upon a line or two of staggering clarity.  Sondheim was the expert of this effect.

The odd thing about language, or rather, our response to language, is that the highest compliment to pay one linguistic genre is the likening to another.  So, the best journalism verges on the novelistic, while the best novels flow almost like poetry, and poetry is as close as language can come to music (although music is just a language we chose to never fully understand).  Sondheim wrote so well that it feels wrong to class him within one medium.  His songs are treated with the reverence of soliloquies, and as one reviewer noted, his musicals often feel like serious plays with songs; there are many writers who happily call him a dramatist.  His crafting of a musical soliloquy has invited an equivalence to Shakespeare, although perhaps that comparison is most apt in terms of a stunning prolificacy – few can rival his run of work through the 1970s – and his clear understanding of the purpose of theatre, what makes it distinct from other mediums, and how it should function for an audience.  

Where cinema glimpses, theatre interrogates.  Dramatists often have a few favoured areas of study – with Pinter, there is the replayed circumstance of a fragile domestic setting facing the terror of what’s ouside – with Sondheim, even as he traversed countless genres, inspirations and narrative forms, there are the brutal moments in which a character must confront the facts of their life, their loneliness or their failure, or the failures of their character or philosophy.  The audience witnesses a spotlight turned inwards, and then something guttural, and often wrenchingly honest, spilling out.  It is here that Sondheim’s lyrical dexterity spins this introspection into something more beguiling.  Company’s “Being Alive”, for instance, is a finely drawn revelation for our protagonist, and also an immensely moving examination of how the lonely see love.  Is there a more refined portrait of adult love than Robert imploring; 

Somebody sit in my chair

And ruin my sleep 

For he is asking for something beyond romantic connection; there is the greater understanding that love is not just the feeling in and of itself, but a thing of habits changing, comfortable routines interfered with, as one life has to accommodate the new varieties of another.  Sondheim’s language is greater in its simplicity, and all that its simplicity is able to suggest.

The most dazzling things are often found in the smallest details.  In Sunday in the Park with George, the creative process is distilled into the making of a hat;

Starting on a hat, finishing a hat,

Look, I made a hat

Where there never was a hat

It is reminiscent of Hamlet channeling his grief into a preoccupation with his mother’s shoes; obsession, in whatever form, always circles around the little things.  And there is something sweetly funny about the line “Look, I made a hat”.  The song unspools the odd business of creativity, of tunneling away and letting hours vanish, all to service empty pages or a blank canvas.  But then, afterwards what strikes is the childlike pleasure of passing round a crayon drawing, a tiny miracle that might only please the artist.  “Look, I made a hat”.  “Look, I wrote a song”.  Look, this paper once had nothing on it, but now there are notes and words, arranged in an interesting order.  Sondheim was a self-confessed procrastinator, and there is no greater joy for a procrastinator than the brief moment in which one breaks through all the unrecorded ideas, and finally gets something written down.

The other Finishing the Hat, Sondheim’s memoir and self-critique, illuminated the sharp eye of a master craftsman.  Highlights include his sifting of poetry from lyricism – how poetry feels overfilled and over-emphasized when put to music – and answering the mystery as to why he never wrote the book to his own musicals.  But throughout, despite the extended, rambling subtitle, Sondheim maintains an exacting precision in his own analysis.  His self-criticism is not wily or nebulous (a habit of other authors, who want to keep their insights hazy to infer on them a little dusting of genius).  Quite the opposite with Sondheim, who insisted there was just – like with all things – a craft to understand and then perfect.  Another invaluable glimpse of this approach is found in a BBC documentary, operating behind the scenes of the first London production of Sweeney Todd.  Sitting by a piano, Sondheim never strays from frankness as he details every bit of inspiration, everything he borrowed, every emotional response he wanted to achieve; to steal a phrase from Graham Greene, it is the process taken neat.

Such precise compositions were best performed instead of sung.  “Send in the Clowns” may have become a crooner’s favourite, after Sinatra had a hit with his cover in 1973, but it was written specifically for Glynis John, a less capable vocalist who played Desiree in the original production of A Little Night Music.  Judi Dench, a talk-singer in the Rex Harrison tradition, would also make the song her own and win rave reviews at the National Theatre in 1996.  It is such an affecting composition that it can thrive with smaller or more stilted voices; showtunes usually push to the back of the auditorium, but here is an example of one that invites the audience to lean in closer.  Sondheim wrote numbers to be twisted and played with, requiring performers who could trace the various voltas and emotional switches, the sad jokes, the stark pain, the lines that barely require singing at all.  One of his greatest collaborators was of unpredictable voice; Elaine Stritch was once a powerhouse vocalist to rival Ethel Merman, but by 1970 and the opening of Company, her voice was stained by whiskey and cigarettes.  She was no less remarkable as a performer, but her delivery was croaky and ersatz, some notes would be struck, others knowingly glanced over.  This could sink another musical, but it was the making of Company.  In D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of the Original Cast Recording, we witness Stritch behind the microphone, performing “The Ladies Who Lunch” as if in a trance, wringing every drop of waspish acidity from the dishcloth.  She had a particular fondness for two songs from Follies – despite never appearing in the musical herself; “Broadway Baby” and “I’m Still Here”.  With the latter, it is difficult to imagine a more song more perfectly tailored to performer;

First, you’re another 

 sloe-eyed vamp 

Then someone’s mother 

Then you’re camp 

Then you career from career to career

She pours her life into the song, and what emerges is revelatory.

There remains so much about Sondheim’s work to be discovered.  His shows often needed time to breathe; the first production was merely the first throw of the dice.  Sweeney Todd was a flop in the West End when it premiered in 1980, but it was triumphantly revived for the National Theatre in 1993.  Something wonderful can happen when big, complicated works are staged in chamber – Macbeth seems to always play best in smaller venues – and the Cottseloe production of Sweeney Todd helped to magnify the work’s dark magic.  Similarly, the initially disastrous Merrily We Roll Along had a major revival in the bijou environs of the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2012.  A musical once dismissed as being incomprehensible was rendered with bracing lucidity by Maria Friedman, a performer turned director with a particular gift for pace and engaging transitions.  The joy of Merrily is that it is the closest Sondheim came to writing a traditionally peppy, escapist all-American musical.  There are the uplifting strands of friendships being reunited, husband returning to wife, cynicism turning to hope, a weary profit-chaser refinding his passion for music; but we see these things only because the plot is happening in reverse.  It is perhaps the only musical where the audience hears the reprise before the original song. However some of Sondheim’s works play best in the arena.  Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies turned the National Theatre’s Olivier Stage into an Italian opera house; it was a properly epic production that created a portal to the halcyon world of the Ziegfeld Broadway revues.  Cooke’s own innovation was allowing the past to witness the present, where previously there had only been a one-way mirror.  He was aided by Imelda Staunton as Sally Durant, whose rendition of “Losing My Mind” might be the definitive: 

Staunton doesn’t flinch from the title’s promise; instead of singing the final notes, she lets them drag into a snarl.  It is like watching someone disappear.  Cooke’s production enchanted because it clarified, a once troubled thing was finally resolved.  And that is the promise of Sondheim’s work; it is all there, packed into the score, waiting to be found in every line.  He never waited at the discretion of good taste, nor framed himself in the mould of any of his contemporaries.  He just created, and everything that he created is built to last.