The Year of Words: Day 329 - Stephen Sondheim

Welcome to a rapidly adapted day in the year of words.. Adapted as today, I'm feeling the absence of a friend whom I've never met, but has been ever present in my life since the age of about 18.

So the majority of this post will unashamedly kvell over a phat musician, lyricist, composer and artist. I'd known and forgotten kvell until it was recently reintroduced mainly by Randy Rainbow (remember him?). However, I'm more than happy to kvell over the already much missed Stephen Sondheim.

So, apologies in advance for the longer than usual post, but hopefully you'll learn something new about a true genius of musical theatre. If not, you'll at least know why I rate him so highly, how he has influenced others and hear some great music to boot. What else are you doing to top that?

I don't know when I first became aware of Stephen Sondheim. His music has always seemed to form part of my life. I do remember realising I wasn't typical when Mr Skinner (first year senior school music teacher) asked which composers we liked and why. I replied Sondheim and Bernstein but Sondheim's lyrics are better. - The tumbleweed rolled slowly through the music room at Ridgeway. (Just me then?) While I would now include Mozart and most of the classical/romantic composers, Chopin, Joplin and many others, neither of those choices have shifted out of my top three.

Mozart is pretty much untouchable for me (I'm with Puccini - Mozart isn't a composer, Mozart is the music). However, Sondheim isn't far behind him for me and is in a league of his own in terms of lyrics and honesty both in lyrics and musically. So what made him so good?

Oscar Hammerstein II

Those who know their late 20th century musical composers will realise this isn't Stephen Sondheim. However without this man, Sondheim wouldn't be the artist he was.

Oscar Hammerstein II was creator of musicals including ‘Oklahoma!,’ ‘South Pacific,’ ‘Carousel,’ ‘The King and I’ and ‘The Sound of Music.’ He knew a thing or six about a good tune and a good musical.

Sondheim was a schoolmate of Oscar Hammerstein's son, Following the death of Sondheim's father, Hammerstein gradually took on a surrogate father role and passed on what he knew. His importance can't be underestimated in my view and his influence shines through much of Sondheim's work. Never more obviously (for me) than in a comparison drawn by Barbra Streisand - who can also sing a bit in my opinion.

This song was the first song that ever stopped me and made me re-listen to the lyrics on repeat. As a frustrated lyricist myself (another life - maybe next time), I love intelligent, witty, funny and complex lyrics. They're not for everyone - they require active listening and only work when they are honest. However, if like me you are a fan of a beautifully crafted, intelligent and always multi-layered lyric that fit the music to perfection, you're a natural for Sondheim.

Of course there are plenty of other lyricists who hit paydirt. Two immediately spring to mind.:

One of them is Don Mclean and his hauntingly beautiful and bittersweet Starry Starry Night.

It still has perhaps the nearest thing to a perfect lyric for me 'but I could have told you Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you'

That line is one of the few lines that will start the water works going with its perfection as indeed it just has. If you listen to it (and please do listen the these great performances) you'll hear how it fits the melody and emotional arc to perfection. He cited Sondheim as one of his strongest influences.

Another admirer pops up in an entirely different musical style this time Billy Bragg in his pomp. (Here I've opted for the Kirsty MacColl cover as - well, it's Kirsty MacColl and in my view it's just that bit better).

This has the deliciously clever and tortured lyric 'Once upon a time at home, I sat beside the telephone, waiting for someone to pull me through, when at last it didn't ring, I knew it wasn't you.' In contrast to the tear that Vincent will provoke this always makes me smile. That convoluted double negative is just so well crafted and thrown away as if it is nothing - which is most certainly is not.

Two examples of intelligent, complex and often discounted lyrics that always have a bittersweet feel. They acknowledge that life is both dark and light and have an honesty that marks Sondheim out from the competition.

Back to Oscar Hammerstein and his influence. This 'mash-up' of two songs eventually performed and importantly acted by Barbra Steisand marries two composers and musicals.

The first 'You've got to be carefully taught' is a song I know well. I sang it as Joseph Cable in South Pacific. It calls for a break in the cycle of racial hatred passed from father to son wrapped up in a nasty, bitter, desperate song. It rarely gets applause (for any performer) which speaking personally is unnerving - it's brief, bitter and shaming. It shames most audiences into silence.

To juxtapose that with Sondheim's lyric for Children Will Listen is genius. These songs written thirty years apart seek the same thing and show for me a direct line from Oscar Hammerstein to Sondheim. Having sung both of these songs on stage, they both demand you feel and inhabit the words. It isn't enough to sing them glibly, you have to find the honesty in the lyric which is why I chose this version to include in this post. Nobody does that quite like Ms Streisand.

Most people start slowly and build up to their best work. Sondheim said he did the same too - but I'd say he undersold himself considerably.

Before composing for a musical, he took a jobbing gig as a lyricist. This was for an experimental piece of work by Leonard Bernstein. Someone had a very off-broadway idea of turning Romeo and Juliet into a musical and transporting it from Italy to New York. That turned into West Side Story.

Sondheim was a perfectionist crticising his own lyrics saying 'So Pretty' sounded more like Noel Coward than a street girl from Puerto Rico. He described 'There's a place for us' as really rather embarrassing and not something he counted as good work.

He did however like the Jet Song as his insistence on the lyrics being true to the characters speaking them won through. . That is true of all his work. There's only a song if there needs to be one and it will be honest to the character.

Having been lucky enough to play Riff in the late 80s in Reading I know just how tricky and empowering this song is. It's one of the best parts I was ever lucky enough to play. Both Riff and Cable in South Pacific get killed off in the second act. I did occasionally make it to curtain call alive.

Here Riff is played by the amazing Russ Tamblyn. I must have watched his performances in this and other musicals hundreds of times. More of a dancer and physical performer than a singer, but nobody else gets close to Riff for me. In great part the music builds the character and for that we must thank the writer.

Unsatisfied with the Oscar winning first engagement, Sondheim looked to compose as well as handle the lyrics. His vehicle was Gypsy starring Ethel Merman (on stage). She didn't want him initially but his numbers soon won her over.

I saw Emelda Staunton in Gypsy at the Savoy theatre and loved her performance, but for me nobody sings and lives this part quite like Bette Midler so it's her version you'll see next.

What Sondheim does here with a woman on the edge of a breakdown is something so musically clever and original, I don't think I can think of another example.

The lyrics are superb as always, but emotionally, the musical score is about four to six bars ahead of the lyrics. So - the worry, anxiety and growing disconnect starts in the music before it's shown by the performer, It's subtly building a sense of being out of place, uncertain and yet until its pointed out you don't really know why it's so unnerving. Brilliant.

Again, it's playing with that space between hope and sorrow, exhilaration and despair. To handle that consistently well is the mark of true genius for me and why I can watch and listen to Sondheim all day (Follies aside).

If you've reached this far in the kvell-fest, hang in there you've nearly made it. A couple of examples remain as to why we're poorer without this musical powerhouse.

Sondheim always considered the actor but never pandered to them. He faded into the background so they could shine and make his music shine, but he never made it an easy ride.

There are many candidates for the fastest song with the hardest lyrics, but I think this would give any modern major general a run for his money. For my money Katie Finneran performs this head and shoulders above any other female performer who has tackled it. I make an equal commendation for Jonathan Bailey who sang equally well in the gender reversed production of Company I saw in the West End in 2018.

What is often missed today is how challenging an experimental Company was in the 1970s when Sondheim dared to question the nature of marriage, divorce and relationships in general. It also marked the creation of a new type of musical which wasn't a story told in a linear start to finish, but dipped in and out of simultaneous and sometimes competing narratives and plots. Sondheim really was instrumental in re-shaping musical theatre in the second half of the twentieth century.

Company and Intro the Woods remain (I think) my favourite Sondheim productions with a fervent wish to see both performed again in the future. Fingers well and truly crossed here.

Of course, you may know of his work through a song that above all others pushed him into the limelight.

Send in the clowns was an emergency fill in song he penned in an afternoon when it became clear the leading lady of the show couldn't sustain long notes so needed lots of short sentences to get through the number. That wasn't possible, so the number had to change. Here performed by Bernadette Peters, it's not a bad outcome for something written from start to finish in a couple of hours.

Finally, I mentioned Into the Woods and can't miss out my favourite moment from that production - To Grandmother's House.

Most people who know me will tell you I'm a very tough audience and everything is about the detail in a production. This story shows how Sondheim took a similarly tough approach.

Originally, in this black comedy around the idea of nursery rhymes, fairy tales and trips into the woods, little red riding hood was going to be a pretty good egg. Pretty, well behaved and with no real flaws. Sondheim wrote her very differently to make her more true to life. He made her conniving, a thief and a glutton.

This was so well established the tricky to rhyme basket was paired with ask it which worked - because it was true to the character. No other modern composer comes close to that level of detail in my view.

While writing what may be an overly long piece for most tastes. I turn to see it's been snowing. Oddly, a lyric jumps straight at me. 'I remember snow, Soft as feathers, Sharp as thumb tacks, Coming down like lint' I'll leave you to work out who may have written that.

Having reached the age of 91 there is a huge cannon of amazing work left behind and I know it will continue to provide a significant part of the soundtrack to my life. For those of you (if there are any) who want to know a little more and have 15 minutes to spare, this interview by the New York Times would be a good use of that time.


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