Caviar to the General

Independent on Sunday  26 January 1992 

Is Stephen Sondheim a genius, or a case of great songs, shame about the show? As another collaboration musical opens, Michael Arditti talks to Sondheim and his collaborators.

People who like Sondheim
Always dress in turquoise and white
Never, ever miss a first night
Memorise his shows

Some of the loudest laughter at Kit and the Widow’s recent West End revue greeted this wickedly accurate parody of Stephen Sondheim. Now its author. Kit Hesketh-Harvey, is one of the starry quintet about to open in Oxford in Putting it Together, a new compilation of his songs.

For Sondheim, it’s a return to the city where two years ago he was visiting professor of contemporary theatre, and Hesketh- Harvey one of the fortunate students, ‘the twelve disciples’, on his course … ‘I owe him an enormous debt as the most wonderful teacher. Being under his tutelage was like having one’s ears waxed.’

It’s not every Broadway song-writer who is appointed to a chair at Oxford; but Sondheim is a unique figure in the contemporary musical, a man who has single-handedly redefined the genre. As impresario Alexander H Cohen put it, ‘every time Stephen Sondheim writes a new score, Broadway gets rebuilt’.

Others claim it gets demolished. Sandy Wilson, writer of The Boyfriend, credits him with having ‘destroyed the American musical almost single-handedly. He’s turned it into a semi-operatic disquisition rather than an entertainment. It surprises me that his shows never succeed financially and yet go on being produced. No other composer would have the same opportunities. I can only assume that he has a cult following amongst wealthy upper-class people in New York.’

The flops speak for themselves. Anyone can Whistle ran a mere nine performances on Broadway and Merrily We Roll Along lasted little longer with sixteen. Follies lost $800,000 in New York and £600,000 in London. While Company closed in London after eight months, losing 75% of its investment, Sweeney Todd collapsed at the Drury Lane after four months, and Into The Woods survived for barely five.

And yet, if he has had to forego what Noel Coward described as ‘the bitter palliative of commercial success’, Sondheim has been crowned with critical laurels ever since his Broadway debut as lyric-writer on West Side Story, a job he obtained after chatting to the librettist, Arthur Laurents at a party.

An ambitious young composer, a music major from Williams College and a pupil of Milton Babitt, he was at first reluctant to confine himself to writing lyrics. But he took the advice of Oscar Hammerstein, the family friend who had been both his musical mentor and surrogate father, since the divorce of his dress manufacturer parents when he was ten.

It was Hammerstein who persuaded him to accept two similar commissions: the first, to write Gypsy for the legendary Ethel ‘When I do a show, the whole show revolves around me!’ Merman, and the second to work with his own former partner, Richard Rodgers, on Do I hear a waltz?. But the collaboration between the composer of ‘Do-re-mi’ and the lyricist of ‘Sometimes she drinks in bed; sometimes he’s homosexual’ failed to ignite.

He determined to work alone, writing music and lyrics for twelve stage musicals, ranging from adaptations of Plautus, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Aristophanes, The Frogs, to Ingmar Bergman, A Little Night Music, and The Brothers Grimm, Into the Woods. His subject matter has moved from madness, Anyone Can Whistle, through marriage, Company, to murder, Sweeney Todd. While his dramatic styles have taken in kabuki, Pacific Overtures, Broadway pastiche, Follies, and impressionism, Sunday in the Park with George.


* * *

People who like Sondheim
Sit and seethe in impotent rage
Saying he’s ahead of his age
That’s why no one goes!

Jeremy Sams, the musical director of the National Theatre’s Sunday in the Park with George and, without doubt, a person who likes Sondheim, believes that he has blown the traditional Broadway musical sky-high. ‘He’s taken the ball solo and run with it much further than anyone else. As a result of going so far, he’s left a lot of people behind.’

One of his most spectacular ‘tries’ was Sunday in the Park itself. It takes considerable chutzpah to write a Broadway musical about the pointillist painter, George Seurat, when Mr and Mrs Coach Party from Yonkers have to be prodded to see the significance of a mistress named Dot.

In Seurat, Sondheim paints a portrait of the artist as misunderstood genius. As they examine a tableau vivant of his Bathing at Asnieres, Jules, a more successful painter, and Yvonne, his wife, complain that ‘It has no presence – no passion – no life’ … ‘So drab, so cold – And so controlled – No life’. These are precisely the charges which have been levelled at the composer himself. And yet neither Seurat nor Sondheim begin to answer them. It’s as if they prefer to leave it to a more impartial judge: posterity. Impresario Cameron Mackintosh confirms that ‘he is undoubtedly comforted by history. When you have as much talent as he has and yet such things have been written about you, the only possible solace is to say that this is what has been said historically by people over the years.’

Sondheim also draws solace from his own history. He has often reminded both himself and his interviewers how even West Side Story was not a smash hit on first showing – it was the film which drew the crowds … ‘I’m a cult figure; my kind of work is caviar to the general.’

All might be well if he remained content with the cult – the fanatical few who caught Anyone can Whistle on its brief appearance and still hold reunion dinners – but, ironically, he too is ‘ just a Broadway Baby’ at heart and has assimilated its values; ‘I still gauge the success of a show by the length of its run and whether or not it makes money.’

This inevitably produces a conflict. Stephen Pimlott, who directed the National Theatre production of Sunday in the Park, considers that it was the tension between Sondheim’s artistic impulses and the Broadway tradition which bedevilled their own collaboration: ‘Sondheim is poisoned by Broadway and their whole system of musical comedy.’ And he compares him to Mozart ‘who had great success in Prague, but was obsessed with the need to conquer Vienna. Sondheim’s like that with New York.’

And, despite the myth of his artistic purity, it leads him to compromise. Pimlott notes his constant concern with the ‘button’ – the song which will spark applause. So, although he writes the ‘strange quirky music’ of his later shows, he still wants it to produce the effect of Gypsy. And both Company and Into the Woods defer to their audiences with rousing, reassuring finales, ‘Being Alive’ and ‘No one is Alone’, which are virtually interchangeable, and inappropriate to what has gone before.


* * *

Religiously they learn
All those eternal and infernal
Internal rhymes.
Though they’re quite mechanical
Chanting them laconically
Hundreds of times!

Hesketh-Harvey now has occasion to rue both his own flippancy and Sondheim’s fertility as he battles with the lyrics ‘I’ve got some real buggers’ – to the new show. One, ‘The Day off, contains a choice example of Sondheim’s wordplay:

‘There’s the puddle Where the poodle did the piddle’ … its virtuosity matched only by Mrs Lovett’s macabre recipe for ‘shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top’ and Phyllis’ Follies strip-tease ‘But no one dared to query her superior exterior.’

Sondheim loves puzzles – for 18 months he devised crosswords for New York magazine – and there are times when his lyrics seem as much solutions to technical problems as dramatic conflicts. He claims that ‘intricacy is a trap in lyric writing’; and it’s not one which he has altogether avoided. The very prominence of his rhymes makes any slip – the linking of raisins and liaisons in A Little Night Music, or the repetition of ‘I’ll get in the habit, but not in the habit’ in The Seven Percent Solution – come as such a shock.

An archetypal Sondheim lyric, ‘The little things you do together’ from Company, includes such fun pastimes as: ‘The concerts you enjoy together
Neighbours you annoy together
Children you destroy together
That make marriage a Joy’,
prompting one American critic to remark that ‘Sondheim sells the sickness, whereas the others before him sold the antidote.’

In fact that’s only half the story; after all Lorenz Hart’s verse for ‘I wish I were in love again’ ‘When love congeals, it soon reveals The faint aroma of performing seals, The double-crossing of a pair of heels; I wish I were in love again’ hardly evokes romantic bliss. But Hart’s mordancy is set against Rodgers’ upbeat melody which, while it may not sell the antidote, sugars the pill.

Hart brought a colloquialism to the Broadway musical and Hammerstein introduced character; Sondheim is heir to both. He has often denounced his own West Side Story for its lack of character, particularly Maria’s ‘I feel pretty’ . . . ‘No Puerto Rican girl would sing quite so much like Noel Coward, I fear’. And he still has a problem writing for less articulate voices; as Richard Jones, his latest London director, confirms: ‘His characters are all urban New Yorkers. No Baker’s Wife would sing a song like Imelda Staunton’s in Act Two of Into the Woods.’

Nor, if realism is the criterion, would an uneducated French girl, comparing her two lovers, a cook and a painter, use the conceit ‘Louis’ art is not hard to swallow’ or pun on how ‘he kneads me’. But then, rather than realism, the art of the genre lies in making the artificial acceptable. As Cameron Mackintosh explains: ‘I can’t understand why he hates ‘I feel pretty’. I can understand it intellectually, but it doesn’t matter a shit. The very fact that you are singing and sometimes dancing means it’s not real.’


* * *

And oh! what a shame
That the moment you feel that
The tune might begin…
Conventional wisdom has it that Sondheim is a brilliant lyricist let down by his music – or as a Broadway wag put it: ‘You come out of Company whistling nothing but the divorce act’: a criticism he rejects. Just as in Sunday in the Park he incorporates charges of alleged coldness, so in Merrily We Roll Along he makes a traditional – and, by definition, Philistine – producer comment on a new score: ‘There’s not a tune you can hum There’ s not a tune you can go bum-bum-bum-di-dum’. Meanwhile in an interview he claims: ‘I always say if you find something hummable, you’ve probably hummed it before.’

He scorns the traditional means of establishing a tune through reprises: ‘I don’t reprise because by and large the emotional situation on which a song depends doesn’t recur, so to reprise is artificial.’ In fact, as Jeremy Sams points out, the music for the second act of Sunday in the Park is virtually one long reprise; but its strength is that you don’t realise it.

Sams much admires the music: ‘It comes from a classical mainstream of Ravel, Debussy and Britten, and Steve Reich and Copeland and Bernstein, and is therefore not what you expect.’ Hesketh-Harvey agrees: ‘His music is twelve tone and demanding and very much of this century rather than the last, unlike most theatre composers, including Lloyd Webber. If you’re going to say he’ s not as fine a composer, then you have to say twentieth century composition is not as fine as nineteenth.’

Like many contemporary artists, his favoured mode is pastiche. ‘He’s an enormous magpie and loves delving into everything’. The most obvious instance is Follies, where the succession of song-styles – Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Berlin and Romberg – amounts to a potted history of Tin Pan Alley. A Little Night Music has echoes of Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Brahms, with an entire score written in 3/4 time. And his latest musical, Assassins, mixes country and western, operetta and a cod de Souza marching song.

And yet, as Cameron Mackintosh admits, ‘his songs don’t soar in the way of Porter’s and Richard Rodgers’.’ He’s very precise, both in his use of language and his composition. For Sondheim, as for Seurat, ‘every minor detail is a major decision.’ But it may be that this very precision works against him, since the one song which he dashed off overnight was ‘Send in the Clowns’.

And precision is no substitute for passion. Mackintosh continues: “There are moments in a musical when you just want your guts to explode. I don’t believe Oscar Hammerstein was any less canny than Stephen; and yet he has the ability to make you believe in a lark that is learning to pray.’

When he was dying, Hammerstein sent Sondheim a picture inscribed ‘ To my teacher’: a reference to the 1ine ‘By your pupils you’ll be taught’ from The King and I. But the pupil has thrown out his text-books, presenting the paradox of a man who claims that the opening number of Oklahoma, ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’, is the finest song ever written, and yet begins his own Sunday in the Park with ‘A trickle of sweat. The back of the head …’


* * *

People who like Sondheim
Love him with a frenzy
No one’s good as he is
But who they want to be is
Julia Mackenzie.
Julia Mackenzie is the best-known and, arguably, the best Sondheim interpreter in the country. Indeed, when Kit and the Widow sang this song in their recent television show, she stormed the stage and demanded a right of reply, rendering in return one of his most tongue-twisting lyrics ‘The Boy From …’

‘The Boy From . . . ‘ was previously sung by Millicent Martin in Side by Side by Sondheim, the seminal compilation show in which Mackenzie also appeared, along with Ned Sherrin and David Kernan. According to Kernan, deviser of the revue which grew from one-off charity gala to three year West End hit, ‘it’s apparently the most produced small show in the history of the theatre.’

Rather than accede to the constant requests to add new songs, Sondheim has devised an original format, concentrating on the shows he has written since Side By Side opened. Mackintosh insists that it’ s pure coincidence that London is presently packed with compilations to Cole Porter, Vivian Ellis, Duke Ellington and Louis Jordan: ‘It’s been in Stephen’s mind for a good five years’. While Mackenzie attests to the demand: ‘He’s not writing that much. There are a lot of people out there who are very thirsty.’

She outlines how it differs from the earlier show. ‘It’s not a cabaret style; there’s a dramatic impetus. It takes place at a party over an evening.’ And Sondheim has rewritten many of his lyrics, including ‘Instructions to the audience’, to target one of those people who like Sondheim’s most irritating traits: ‘Oh please don’t whisper low They cut that out of town; I saw the show.’

Mackenzie, a veteran of four Sondheim musicals, values him above all ‘because he writes for actors. He gives you the same amount of thinking time that you’d have in a straight play. You miss an awful lot of his intentions if you don’t mine his subtext as though it were an acting script’. She takes as an example ‘Too many mornings’ from Follies:

‘All that time wasted,
Merely passing through,
Time I could have spent
So content
Wasting time with you.’
… ‘It’s the most perfect lyric in the world: so simple, so elegant, so true.’

Another of her ‘Follies’ songs was ‘Losing my mind’; and it’s significant that her finest non-musical performance to date was as a woman on the verge of madness in Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind. For the two writers have much in common; not only do they both expose the frustrations of middle class life and, particularly, marriage, but each works in a highly popular genre, encountering stiff audience resistance when he tries to darken the mood.

And yet Sondheim has moved as far from the world of Gypsy as Ayckbourn from Relatively Speaking. Even the fairy-tale setting of Into the Woods owes more to Freud than the Brothers Grimm. And, once again, he’s the victim of his own sophistication; as Cameron Mackintosh explains: ‘The shows that have been a huge success have all centred around ordinary people – Jean Valjean, Curly, Maria, Julie in Showboat, Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. These are not the sort of people Steve’s interested in writing.’


* * *

The world loves its.
Barbarised, synthesised
Burger and ketchup noise.,
You start off with art
And end up with – God help us –
The Pet Shop Boys!
Stick Lloyd Webber’s head on a spike!
Better be like
People who like Sondheim.

Sondheim and Lloyd Webber are often seen as the opposite poles of the contemporary musical; but, according to Cameron Mackintosh, they are rather its twin geniuses: ‘Steve and Andrew are the two most important creative artists in the musical today. They seem to write from diametrically opposed corners, but they are writing for the same reason: they love it.’

Stephen Pimlott, currently responsible for the hit revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat, is well- placed to compare them. ‘Andrew’s basically a musician; his gift is a composer. Whereas Sondheim is a lyricist. Musically, I think his works are spread pretty thin. He’ll have an idea, like the Dies Irae in Sweeney Todd, and it’s eked out over the entire evening.’

Pimlott is correct in his analysis of the musical weakness of Sweeney Todd, particularly at the crucial moment of Sweeney’s ‘Epiphany’, when he shifts from private revenge to waging war on the whole human race. it needs to be Verdi; which it’s not. Nevertheless it’s Sondheim’s Sweeney and Pacific Overtures, rather than Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, which have found their way onto the operatic stage.

To many Sondheimites, it’s where he belongs. And yet no less an authority than Sir Michael Tippett, who ‘feels that musical techniques are certainly valid in the opera house, although it depends on the quality of the material’, and who himself incorporated song and dance routines into The Knot Garden, finds that the ‘music of both Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd fails to live up to its dramatic potential. I much preferred the Follies pastiche.’

And whatever the respective claims of music and lyrics, there’s a third element to musical writing – the book – which is where Sondheim’s shows consistently founder. According to Cameron Mackintosh: ‘His great curse historically is that he’s never had collaborators who’ve been the same standard. His songs are much better than the very heavy books they’ve been lumbered with.’

Part of the problem lies in his own supremacy. The very virtuosity of his lyrics leaves the librettos nowhere to go. His songs have been compared to one-act plays – which at once indicates their individual strength and collective weakness: it’s extremely hard to mesh twelve one act plays into a satisfactory two act structure.

The irony is that, despite the weight he attaches to dramatic integrity, Sondheim’s plots are as superfluous as those of Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart. As Mackintosh says: ‘He’ll leave behind one of the great song-trunks of the twentieth century, but few of the shows will be historically viable.’ Which is all the more reason to welcome Putting It Together, where his songs can be enjoyed at their best, free from their cumbersome settings.