Highlights: On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide
Boy, is it ever! It's also occasionally dense where it should be light, and vice versa, and some weird choices were made. Some chapters were deep dives into how the music aligns with the show (Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Passion) that provided genuinely interesting insights, and some were almost by rote recitations of the history of the original source material; i.e., Sweeney Todd. Interesting asides, but not exactly worth the price of admission. Still, anyone who loves Sondheim is an ally I'll gladly call my own.
On his early mentor Oscar Hammerstein's experimental show Allegro:
Young Steve, assisting on the production, was one of those inspired by its meta-theatricality. "Content dictates form" is a favorite Sondheim maxim, and Allegro's whirlwind staging—with subtexts bubbling up from the unconscious amid a hubbub of ever-changing optics—was made necessary by Allegro's subject matter, which can be summed up as It all goes by so fast. Too fast, really, for us to think things through and make the right decisions.
This notion haunts many of Sondheim's own shows: should I marry?—because partnering is so hazardous. Or: should we Westernize or maintain our natural Asican culture? In Sondheim's world, we define our lives by our choices.
On the concept of the "concept musical":
In a traditional musical, the lawyer or actress might have had a nostalgic solo reviewing their affair—or perhaps a duet in which each tells a different story about the same events. It takes a concept musical to slip in a "Remember?," liquidating the very notion of romance, of our ability to comprehend it. Instead of learning only what the characters know about themselves, we learn much more: what the authors know about the world.
And that is the concept musical in a nutshell: It doesn't simply tell the story: it dissects the story. Thus, the public gets two Sondheim shows in one—what happened and what it means, complete with startling theatrical gestures and the characters' occasionally revealing that they know they're in a play.
On his longtime partnership with producer/director Hal Prince:
Prince is more instinctive, improvisational naïve, in Friedrich Schiller's famous terminology, rather than sentimental. That is, Prince is at one with nature (or as much nature as contemporary Manhattan offers) and creates out of an unexamined urge rather than an articulated purpose. Sondheim, on the contrary, is the sentimental artist, seeking to reconnect with nature. In other words, Prince works within the world as he "feels" it. Sondheim examines the world from the outside, to claim a place in it. Prince is the smooth, Sondheim the rough.
On splitting lyric-writing duties with Leonard Bernstein for West Side Story:
At romantic numbers, however, Bernstein could not tell attar from deoderant, and Sondheim ended up writing so much of West Side Story's lyrics that Bernstein let his partner take full billing credit for them. As Steve loves to tell us, Bernstein even offered to give up his royalty percentage, but a grateful Sondheim thought that might be too much to want. One thing Sondheim has never been intent on is money; rather, he navigates around loyalty and talent. So Sondheim took the credit without the bank, and thus gave up ninety-five years' (under the pre-1978 copyright law and the so-called "Sonny Bono amendment") worth of extra revenue.
My favorite bit from the Gypsy chapter:
Merman did have to expand her normal playing space from a face-front, stand-and-deliver caricature to accommodate a more organic participation in the action, but Rose was the part of a lifetime, worth the trouble.
Jule Styne composed Merman's hullaballoo of a voice into the music, and Laurents and Sondheim wrote book and lyrics around her aggressive self-confidence.
West Side Story was a staging triumph. But Gypsy was a writing triumph.
To close Act One, when the cute daughter has abandoned her and the other one is all that's left, the authors provisioned the titanic Merman again, in "Everything's Coming Up Roses." The script describes the number as "violently joyous," and, once more, Sondheim fills the air with the images that Rose thinks of as exciting, though to us they're clichés—"curtain up" and "Santa Claus." It's the Little Golden Book version of success, or, for a later time, Barney the Dinosaur's version. We'll make popcorn and stay up till seven o'clock! The odd confluence of Rose's name and the use of "roses" in the lyric confused Jerome Robbins when he first heard it. "Everything's coming up Rose's what?" he famously asked.
Thus Follies' songs keep the ear accustomed to shifts in the timescape from the present to the past and back again, for the entire show is built upon the juxtaposition of what we were and what we are, asking, How did we become so unsatisfied?
This confrontation of past and present adds yet another layer to Follies' pile-up of memes. The present is haunted, the four leads are haunted, show biz is haunted, America is haunted, and Follies is haunted: by the recollection of bygone days.
On—at last!—A Little Night Music:
But Desirée occupies the pivotal role, though she has relatively little to sing, even in a form, operetta, that was always known above all for vocal splendor. Egerman at first seems to be the work's protagonist, for the action starts by concentrating on his odd little household of the wife who won't sleep with him and the son seething with unspoken frustrations. However, once Egerman and his old flame Desirée meet up, she takes over the show's driveline.
...Originally, however, the part was hard to cast. Prince wanted someone at once worldly, vulnerable, somewhat European in flavor, and in possession of a good sense of the irony that lives at the heart of light comedy. It came down to Glynis Johns and Tammy Grimes. Prince ended in choosing Johns, apparently because she projected a "softness-inside-a-hard-shell" feeling that Prince thought perfect for Desirée: and Johns was. That feeling, presumably, is what Sondheim tapped into when he wrote "Send in the Clowns" for her during rehearsals.
This is famously Sondheim's outstanding song hit. Mark Eden Horowitz's Sondheim On Music lists some four hundred separate recordings, by Rosemary Clooney, the Lettermen, Liberace (as a piano solo), and the University of Utah A Capella Choir, for starters. Of them all, Sondheim prefers Johns' rendition. I still remember, the first time I saw the show, when Johns got to the first interesting chord—it's G Flat with a major seventh—on "You in mid-air," an appreciative little gasp ran through the house. There was, too, that so very operetta-esque moment, for Desirée has failed to land her lawyer, and the song expresses the exquisite pain of having one's valentine returned unopened.
In all, A Little Night Music is the first Sondheim show that brings the musical organization of opera to Broadway in an overt way, and thus a break within the Sondheim-Prince canon. Bit by bit, the show is creeping into the opera-house repertory, but the point is not that opera singers can take all the parts. Rather, it is that the music acts as the work's sole animating force. Listen to the numbers alone and you can follow the plot; this is not true of Company or Follies.