Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Remembering Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, New York, July 10, 1961. (Photo: Richard Avedon)

Stephen Sondheim was ninety-one when he died on the day after Thanksgiving, yet it was a shock. Unreasonably, I thought he would live forever. For nearly three decades he’d been the sole surviving legendary songwriter from the golden age of musical theatre (Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe left us in 1986 and 1988 respectively; Irving Berlin in 1989; Jule Styne in 1994) – for he was still in his twenties when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story and with Styne on Gypsy. He was all of thirty-five when he worked with Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz? (Arthur Laurents, who departed ten years ago, wrote the books for all three shows.) Sondheim hadn’t written a new musical since Road Show in 2003, though he was toiling for years on an adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s two final movies. But there were countless major revivals of his work – Company, with a female Bobby, is on Broadway at present – and he generally showed up for them. Revue after revue was constructed around his songs, and every milestone birthday prompted a star-studded event, all of them except his Covid-shrouded ninetieth televised on PBS. Movies were still being made of his musicals; still more are promised, even though none of them has been any good. (I haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, which is about to be released.) Sondheim was continually, tirelessly present, so who could ever imagine him gone?

Because of the plethora of revivals and revues, I’ve written thousands of words about Sondheim, most of it for Critics at Large. And since I don’t want to repeat myself, this will not be an analysis of his individual shows – or of his effect on the American musical theatre, though I think it’s been a more complicated one than most of his admirers would say. I’d rather make this a reminiscence, since my acquaintance with his work coincided with my own growth from a kid obsessed with musicals to a young man studying theatre and retaining his love of them. Before I was ten I knew that Sondheim had written the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, and I heard the songs over and over through my childhood and early adolescence, but my first personal Sondheim discoveries were two of his most obscure. My mother took me to see Do I Hear a Waltz? in New York when I was fourteen; I bought the album immediately and played it over and over again; I couldn’t understand why the show wasn’t better known. (Encores! staged a mediocre production of it five years ago, but I still insist that the musical is underappreciated, though the collaboration with Rodgers was an unhappy one and Sondheim himself had no fondness for his own contributions.) Two years later I encountered his score for the hour-long television musical Evening Primrose, an adaptation of a John Collier story that appeared on an anthology series called ABC Stage 67 when I was sixteen. I fell in love with the two ballads – both sung by Charmian Carr, one as a duet with the star, Anthony Perkins – that have been for a long time now perennials in college voice classes: “I Remember” and “Take Me to the World.” They seemed to me not only dazzlingly literate, impossibly clever – especially the first, in which a young woman who has been trapped since childhood in a department store recalls her memories of the outside world in similes that compare it to the synthetic elements that have formed her world since – but also melodically beautiful. Sondheim’s only previous work as his own composer had been Saturday Night, his debut musical, which wouldn’t get produced for many more years; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was a tremendous hit but for which he received little credit, though his score is wonderful; and Anyone Can Whistle, which closed in a week and a half. Evening Primrose surfaced before he was recognized as musically as well as lyrically gifted.

When I was attending university in Boston, I saw, on their out-of-town tryouts, the two musicals that marked Sondheim’s emergence as fully a composer-lyricist drawn to challenging material that veered sharply away from the late golden-era shows he’d cut his teeth on. Both were conceptual: Company (1970) focused on marriage and Follies (1971) on the iron grip of the past. They felt startlingly new to me and their mix of longing and cynicism captivated me utterly, in a way that had as much to do with my age and the era as with anything else. (I also fell for the pastiche style of Follies’ score.) I never cared for the books, by George Furth and James Goldman respectively, and by the time I’d entered my thirties I had finally grown tired of Sondheim’s post-Noel Coward side, the withering sophistication and bullseye aim of songs like “The Little Things You Do Together” and “Could I Leave You?” Company is heavy-handed, though the production Lonny Price staged in 2011 at the New York Philharmonic leavened it considerably with good spirits (and Neil Patrick Harris’s starring performance). Follies is a spectacular failure with a brilliant score that has been elevated to legend, largely because the original Broadway production, directed by Harold Prince, was amazing to look at and much of the acting was so moving (especially by John McMartin as Ben Stone). I saw it twice – of course I had to find out what changes Sondheim had made to the score by the time it opened in New York, when Yvonne De Carlo was singing “I’m Still Here” instead of “Can That Boy Fox Trot!” And I’ve seen at least half a dozen revivals, always hoping against hope that someone could fix that second act. No one has, though the Encores! version in 2007, which had a fantastic quartet of leading actors – Donna Murphy, Victoria Clark, Victor Garber and Michael McGrath – sailed through the first act, Goldman’s leaden ironies included, with magical deftness. (Casey Nicolaw directed and choreographed it.)

Mandy Patinkin and the cast in the "Sunday" number from Sunday in the Park with George (1984).

Much as I love Sondheim, I can’t love his work whole. Some of it gripes my ass. The long, layered opening of Into the Woods is a tour de force but I can’t stand the rest of it: the altered Bruno Bettelheim symbolic-fairy-tale narrative, with its seventies-eighties therapy clichés, the homiletic lyrics. I’d never dreamed Sondheim could be as sappy and preachy as his old teacher Oscar Hammerstein was for Richard Rodgers, but “Children Will Listen” really is just as insufferable as South Pacific’s “Carefully Taught.” I find Assassins smug, ugly and loathsome, and not one word of it feels authentic. Except for the ethereal “Send in the Clowns” and the whirligig first-act finale, “A Weekend in the Country,” A Little Night Music transforms its source, Ingmar Bergman’s high comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, from inspired artifice into starch. Despite the insistence of aficionados and theatre critics that it’s an unjustly maligned masterpiece, Merrily We Roll Along is a dud with three good songs, though Encores! staged it superbly in 2012, with James Lapine at the helm. (The best thing about Merrily We Roll Along is the documentary about it, Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, directed by Lonny Price, who had been one of the stars of the ill-fated original version.) But Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George (especially now that someone – Sarna Lapine, whose abovementioned uncle, James Lapine, wrote the book – has figured out how to play the elusive second act) and the underappreciated Passion are marvelous. And Pacific Overtures, Sondheim and John Weidman’s improbable sort-of-kabuki vaudeville about the opening of Japan to trade in the mid-nineteenth century is, to my mind, the best of all of them, one of the half-dozen greatest musicals in the canon. That puts it in the same category as Gypsy.

The original Broadway productions of some of these shows were visually exquisite (Follies, Pacific Overtures, Sunday in the Park). But as luminescent as were the origami ship in Pacific Overtures and the reconstruction of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte in Sunday in the Park, my most cherished theatergoing memories are always of actors, and they include many performances by Sondheim interpreters. Here are my favorites:

John McMartin’s “The Road You Didn’t Take” in Follies, which he repeated, with fresh vigor, nearly forty years later, eighty himself, for Sondheim’s eightieth birthday tribute.

The first public hearing of “Send in the Clowns,” by the ineffable Glynis Johns (1973).

The duet “Poems,” with its shimmering Jonathan Tunick orchestration – employing a blend of western and Japanese instruments – sung by Isao Sato and Sab Shimono of the all-Asian cast of Pacific Overtures (1976).

Angela Lansbury’s uproarious music-hall rendition of “The Worst Pies in London” in Sweeney Todd (1979).

“Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” the first-act curtain of Gypsy, sung with frightening force by Tyne Daly to a stunned Jonathan Hadary and Crista Moore in Arthur Laurents’s 1989 Broadway revival.

“I Read,” sung by Donna Murphy – giving one of the few bona fide examples of great expressionistic acting in my experience – in Passion (1994).

And, saving the best for last: “Sunday,” the ensemble first-act finale of Sunday in the Park with George (1984), with its ethereal harmonies. The Sondheim eightieth-birthday concert ended, unforgettably, with dozens of alumni of his shows filling the stage and the aisles of the auditorium in the Library of Congress to reprise it. For my money, he never wrote a more magnificent song.

Postscript: Though the subject of this eulogy of sorts is obviously Stephen Sondheim, I should like to dedicate it to my beloved friend Josh Zavin, who died last summer. Josh and I were college roommates; I took him to see Company for his nineteenth birthday, and we attended dozens of musicals, including Sondheim’s, through half a century. He adored the man’s work. When Sondheim died, I caught myself moving toward the phone to call Josh – so this is for him.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.



  1. steve I enjoyed this thoroughly. Despite denying you take on the shows with any particularity, you have many particular and instructive things to say about each show, while getting in worthwhile comments on their genesis and observations about individual songs and staging styles. Above all, you treat the form with the same respect Sondheim did and if you don't get in comments on every single one of his works it is only tribute to how overwhelmingly prolific and singular he was. Who was the ultimate Sondheim performer, in your book. You and I overlap more than you know. During that junior year at Brandeis I was studying at the O'Neill Memorial Theatre Center in Conn. and one day all 20 of us piled onto a Greyhound bus and rode into Manhattan for a private showing of "Company"—which must've been not long after you saw it in Boston. Of course it wasn't really "private," but we did have Hal Prince stop by the balcony and address us before the show--a privilege you would have been old and experienced to have but for which I was too young. I was not too young for"Another Hundred People," though, which I found electrifying. "A City of Strangers." I must've been ready for that song as a 20 year old, since I can still remember the chills it sent up my spine.
    Yoou devotion to your craft as a critic is similar to Sondheim's devotion to his musical craft, and you have surely added to many people's experience of his work. I'm glad you are not a stranger in my life.