by Matthew Gurewitsch
Stephen Sondheim writes lyrics the way physicists split atoms, a feat once deemed impossible. As conceived by the ancients, the atom (ἄτομος) was the tiniest of billiard balls, absolutely indivisible: That was the meaning of the word. But as quantum mechanics has since shown, the "atom" is a system of fiendish complexity. Attack with sufficient energy, and it doesn't just split but shivers and shudders into a whole microcosmos of particles dancing to a mad, methodical music of their own. These particles have gradually been integrated into what physicists call the Standard Model, an early draft of their Holy Grail: a Grand Unifying Theory to explain the inmost workings of the mind of God. Comprehend the atom, and you've got the whole world in your hands.
The atoms Sondheim has spent a career splitting are words, and the microcosmos that has come spilling out encompasses the emotional life of his characters in all their contradictions. The tool he has always wielded in the operation is Occam's (or Ockham's) razor, sliding its keen edge neatly between "this" and "that," between "you" and "me," between "me now" and "me some other time." For an illustration, look no further than "Send In the Clowns," from A Little Night Music:
And so on. The tag line, as has often been explained, is a reference to the circus. You send in the clowns when someone falls off a trapeze or a tightrope or gets mauled by a lion. It's damage control in the face of total disaster.
"Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem," the fourteenth-century English logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham (or Occam) decreed, or so it is said: "Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity." (Though broadly consistent with his teachings, the formulation does not appear in this form in his extant writings, nor is the idea original with him.)
Ockham's topic here, though not spelled out, is cause and effect, and as commonly interpreted, the maxim lays the cornerstone for reductionism. But let us not overlook the qualifying phrase, "beyond necessity." True enough, some complexities may indeed be traced back to a single cause. Thus "The Pardoner's Tale" of Chaucer purports to illustrate the dubious proposition that greed is the root of all evil. Are larger realities ever so simple? Seeking the cause of war or economic collapse or climate change, we are apt to find not one necessary cause, not two or three, but no end of causes. The inner lives of Sondheim's characters are likewise multi-determined.
Amy, the jabbering bride in Company who's not getting married today, spins furiously in place, seeming to go nowhere, even as she hurtles through an entire inner galaxy of emotion. Elaine Stritch, who first played the role of Joanne in the same show, has referred to her signature number "The Ladies Who Lunch," as "a play in three acts." Like glum disciples of Baudelaire, the advocate of universal intoxication, the targets of Joanne's venom seek relief from the dull the ache of existence. Baudelaire recommended anaesthetics like wine, poetry, and virtue. The ladies who lunch socialize, improve their minds, play Martha Stewart, and so on, yet cannot suppress the dread knowledge: "Everybody dies." Many effects, one cause: Occam's razor, in its simplest form.
Beyond Strunk and White: The Elements of Style
"Something's better than nothing, yes!/But nothing's better than more, more, more." Sondheim has always been a man in love with words, with paradox; this particular lulu articulates a whole giddy Weltanschauung. Aptly enough, it was first sung by that quintessential material girl Madonna, in Warren Beatty's movie Dick Tracy, to which Sondheim contributed five songs.
Of course, Sondheim is also ever handy with a pun ("Nothing with gods, nothing with fate," sings Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, "Weighty affairs will just have to wait.") His rhymes of all kinds—terminal, internal, self-perpetuating—are just about flawless. So prodigious is he in this department that he can afford to throw some snazzy pearls away. In "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow," from Follies, he rhymes "soul-stirring" with "bolstering" more or less in passing. In "In The Movies," from the early Saturday Night, he keeps the fun going like a passacaglia, to the tune of a funeral march:
But the space he most truly lives in is bounded in the nutshell of what linguists call a minimal pair, two terms which vary in a single phonological feature, often a very subtle one. ("In Cairo you find bizarre bazaars," Solange LaFitte notes in Follies.) The pragmatic Petra of the lush operetta A Little Night Music crochets love's progress from May to December into a daisy chain of minimal pairs, extended by an alliterative link or two: "It's a very short road/From the pinch and the punch,/To the paunch and the pouch/And the pension." (The pouch?)
In Sondheim, infinitesimal differences prove infinitely elastic. The rhymes and chimes dart like starshine on dark water, reflections of cosmic movement overhead. Just as Sondheim quizzes the English language phoneme by phoneme for symmetries, correspondences, and antitheses, he uses these same elements—symmetries, correspondences, antitheses beginning at the level of phoneme but extending clear up to that of the master plan—as the building blocks for constructing lyrics, songs, indeed entire scores. "We're the same," says Fosca in Passion, "We are different," by which she means that she and the man she's ensnaring in her fantasy world are soulmates within a closed society of boors. In virtually any respect one cares to name, the structural principle of Sondheim's work is complementary dichotomy.
Thus his characters are forever defining terms, defining themselves, defining alternate existences. In A Little Night Music, the lawyer Frederik Egerman considers his postprandial alternatives—ravishing his wife or taking a nap—in an explicit A/B comparison. In the same show, the aforementioned Petra floats three options: "I shall marry the miller's son," she sings in the opening stanza of her big song. The second stanza proposes another path through life ("Or I shall marry the businessman"), and the third another ("Or I shall marry the Prince of Wales").
I can think of no other poet (nor of any other dramatist) who has peopled as large a universe using so minimal a bag of tricks—in fact, just the one. In his lyrics, that is. In his music, Sondheim is a chameleon. Follies amounts to a tour d'horizon of classic show-tune styles of the 1930s and 40s. Assassins embraces gospel, bluegrass, country and Western, the marching-band idiom of "Hail to the Chief" and John Philip Sousa, and bubble-gum music. In works like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sunday In the Park With George, and Passion, Sondheim has shown a mastery of musical architecture on the grand scale, developing small motifs into organic structures that spread majestically over the canvas. In his soundtrack for the film Stavisky, he revived the spirit of Ravel. As a melodist, Sondheim has his tics, in particular a liking for flurries of short phrases ending on the same note. But the signature of versatility is one most often written, as in this case, in nigh-invisible ink.
Among Sondheim's hallmarks as a lyricist are an impatience with convention, yet a countervailing devotion to classical form; a preference for hyperarticulate, high-strung personalities, very occasionally offset by an innocent or simpleton; a didactic streak for which he makes not the least apology; and perhaps most pronounced of all, a deep ambivalence about more or less everything. Here, from Company, is the first part of a long answer a bachelor receives when he asks a friend if he's ever sorry he married:
The melody is nothing much: wistful, a little hazy, repetitive, the range so narrow that the actor hardly needs to sing at all. The cadence is close to speech: one note per syllable, no syllable long-sustained. Mostly, the music serves to slow thought down, to give the words time to sink in. As the song continues, two other husbands chime in, confirming the sentiments of the first. "Good things get better, bad get worse," one says, then instantly corrects himself: "Wait, I think I meant that in reverse." Is it still musical comedy when it hurts this much?
The Career: A Bird's-Eye View
Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born in New York City on March 22, 1930. While in high school, he wrote a musical that his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II did him the favor of eviscerating. Thus forearmed, the budding genius arrived on Broadway in 1957 as the lyricist of West Side Story, music (need you ask?) by Leonard Bernstein. In 1959, he signed on reluctantly as the lyricist of Gypsy, music (need you ask?) by Jule Styne. (Ethel Merman had put her foot down. She wanted a composer with a track record.) For the vaudevillian farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in 1962, his credit finally read "music and lyrics." But for many Sondheim fans, the true breakthrough came in 1964, with the Anyone Can Whistle. Part Brechtian parable, part screwball comedy, the show starred Angela Lansbury, the future Mrs. Lovett of the original Sweeney Todd. Not that there was much cause for celebration when the show closed after nine performances. Rebounding from that debacle, Sondheim took one last job as a lyricist-for-hire, teaming up with a dysfunctional Richard Rodgers on the ill-starred Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965).
Since then, Sondheim has consistently served in the dual capacity of lyricist-composer, producing the string of experimental musicals on which his cult is founded. Of these, three look like durable pieces of commercially viable musical theater: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music (1973), and the operatic Gothic horror show Sweeney Todd (1979). The rest are encumbered by books that are virtually plotless or otherwise deficient. Here are thumbnails of the ones not yet described, as viewed through the eyes of an imaginary, wary investor:
The Song and the Book: A Question of Context
Though the books of the shows mattered very much to Sondheim, they may not matter much to you, not really. Not, that is, if what you care about is the songs. Of course, there are experts who disagree. Thus, in the second edition of Art Isn't Easy: The Theater of Stephen Sondheim (1992), Joanne Gordon makes what she believes to be a crucial distinction between Sondheim's practice and that of his predecessors: "Although the songs and dances in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical relate to character and text," she writes, "they have an active life outside the theater. Many of their tunes are standards in the world of popular music. Sondheim's music and lyrics rarely possess this independent life. They are so intimately linked to text and so intricately woven into the fabric of the entire work that they cannot easily stand alone. Other than 'Send In the Clowns,' Sondheim has not written a 'hit' tune."
Gordon is right to say that, virtually without exception, the words are tailored to the specific book. You could no sooner drop "In Praise of Women" (A Little Night Music) into Sweeney Todd than you could move "Or sai chi l'onore" (Don Giovanni) into The Magic Flute. Yet once the songwriter has done his work, more often than not the book self-destructs. One thinks of Wittgenstein. "My propositions are elucidatory in this way," he wrote, in the home stretch of his classic Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. "He who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)" Sondheim's ladder, so to speak, is the book of a show. Once he has made it to the top, he may throw it away; or a gifted performer can, without cheating the listener in at all. Hence the tradition (already firmly established by 1990, when the first edition of Gordon's book appeared) of Sondheim evenings: cabaret, concerts, gilt-edged galas chockablock with Sondheim songs sung out of context. Frequently, these tributes work are wholly satisfying on their own terms. Yet apart from the Big Three, only the edgy Assassins (more scenic cantata or performance piece than a musical in any conventional sense) seems built to last. As theater, the other shows seem to collapse anew with each revival.
For a crash course in Sondheim's songs as songs, there is no better starting point than the four-CD compilation Stephen Sondheim: The Story So Far…, released in 2008 by Masterworks Broadway (a division of Sony BMG Music Entertainment). Folded into a sampler from all the shows are nine tracks previously unreleased, seven of them in the composer-lyricist's gravelly baritone. Sondheim himself served as one of two executive producers for the project, which effectively lends every track his imprimatur. But what were the selection criteria? Certainly the album is neither the "Best of…" round-up it might have been nor an anthology of "The Unknown…" That pretty much leaves the uniquely illuminating option of "Personal Favorites."
Here's is Sondheim's note on "They Ask Me Why I Believe In You," a stale marshmallow from his private sound archive: "The mother of one of my school chums, Elaine Carrington (who was the inventor of the form known as soap opera), commissioned this when I was twenty-six for a half-hour television script she'd written called I Believe In You. I recall nothing about the script except that it seemed to be mostly about cooking and that it never got made." What Sondheim says of the abortive TV project I would say of his shows. Though I've seen all but Road Show in multiple productions, few have left any coherent impression.
Certain songs, however, have etched themselves into my memory indelibly. Even if many of Sondheim's musicals are much less than the sum of their parts, the essence of each lives on in a song or two or three: "The Ballad of Booth" and "Another National Anthem" (Assassins), "Children Will Listen" (Into the Woods), "Every Day a Little Death" (A Little Night Music), "Children and Art" (Sunday In the Park With George), to name a few. Indeed, the songs transcend the shows. If "To be or not to be..." is unthinkable without Hamlet and "Celeste Aida" without Aida—these Great Moments being much the greater in context—Sondheim songs often function as well or even better on their own. When Maria Friedman sings "Finishing the Hat," from Sunday In the Park With George, you know more about the vulnerabilities and isolation of the creative artist than after sitting through all of Sunday In the Park With George, which deals with precisely these things.
The Secret Romantic
Tell me, where is fancy bred? Or in the heart, or in the head? Like Tom Stoppard, Sondheim gets slammed a lot for being cerebral. But the intellectual dazzle blinds people to the quality of heart.
Yet even in the plebian farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he glances at the Human Comedy with an affectionate and understanding eye. This, recall, is the show propelled by such slapstick numbers as "That Dirty Old Man" and "Everybody Ought To Have a Maid", not to mention that celestial curtain-raiser, "Comedy Tonight." But then there's "Impossible," a double soliloquy for Senex, the stock Old Man of New Comedy, and his son Hero, the clueless jeune premier. Both have fallen hard for the yummy bimbo, Philia—a setup made to order for Sondheim's looking-glass dichotomies, which he develops first at the level of the couplet, then at the level of the stanza:
And so on. Setting out from(literally) identical points of departure, father and son watch each other like hawks, each masking his insecurities by patronizing the other. In a second stanza, they face the hard truth: Maybe Philia does want the other guy. Once again, they're off and running. Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait… From self-deluding self-assurance to clear-eyed panic in two easy stanzas: such poignant disillusionment.
For a more intricate exercise in emotional counterpoint, try parsing "Now/Soon/Later," from A Little Night Music, the interwoven soliloquies of the aforementioned Frederik Egerman, a pillar of his community; Anne, his still virginal second wife; and Henrik, his equally virginal son from his first marriage, an uptight divinity student. All three are in the throes of private erotic frustration. Egerman holds the opening adverb—"Now"—for emphasis, then gallops off agitato, forgoing dalliance with his wife for dreams of his mistress Desirée, who is back in town. Anne takes flight in arching phrases that express the sexual desire she feels, but not for her husband; her signature adverb—"Soon"—indicates that she is, in fact, ready now. So is Henrik, his blood boiling at the sexless role forced on him by society and his inhibitions. Underscoring the misery of pleasures deferred ("Later"), he accompanies himself on the cello, playing a gloomy Schubertian strain curiously reminiscent of "Der greise Kopf," the song in Winterreise in which the heartbroken wanderer likens the frost on his head to the grizzled hair of an old man. If intended, the echo is apt: Henrik, too, is foreseeing old age and death.
Sondheim's Sondheim: Close Readings
Among the most intriguing novelties in The Story So Far… is the list song "Don't Laugh" from the legendary flop Hot Spot (1963). The show starred the captivating Judy Holliday as Sally, a new recruit to the Peace Corps; as far as Broadway was concerned, this was her last hurrah. Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard) and Martin Charnin were the songwriters of record. But when the show went into previews out of town, the producers and director felt the need for a new opening number and appealed to Sondheim for help. "'Don't Laugh' is the result," he writes. "Marty and I wrote the lyrics to the verse; I wrote the music. Mary wrote the music to the choruses; I wrote the lyrics." This is how it begins:
Sally had plenty of other instances of her encyclopedic ineptitude to offer, each a perfect illustration of the world of difference between "this" and "that," between the scrap and the velvet, between lightning and the lightning bug. But if the arc in "Impossible" moved towards panic, this time it moves towards self-confidence. By the end of the number Sally is singing, as it were, a different tune:
Can-do anthems from the throats of the insecure are a staple, not to say a cliché, of the Broadway musical, and Sally's triumphant finish was doubtless meant to be taken with a shovelful of salt. The next two hours were to bring the test of her mettle, or what would have been the point? (The prologue of the Brechtian Sweeney Todd spells out these dramaturgical considerations, establishing the hero-villain's character, modus operandi, and a general atmosphere of menace, even as the cat is left clawing in the bag: "What happened then—well, that's the play,/And he wouldn't want us to give it away,/Not Sweeney/Not Sweeney Todd,/The demon barber of Fleet Street.")
Examined in terms of the gross anatomy of a Broadway musical, "Don't Laugh" shows how capably the youthful Sondheim could structure a song to set a plot in motion. The Sondheim DNA is manifest in every turn of thought, most poignantly at the midpoint of the song, where it takes a new turn:
This looks—does it not?—like a gaffe followed by a correction. Colloquially, as often as not, "to do good" means to do well, but not here. The error is only apparent, whereas the apparent correction nails the distinction clearly. Sally is joining the Peace Corps, remember, an organization dedicated to doing good, which is to say good works. If she succeeds at this, she will, in fact, be doing well: that is, giving a good account of herself. And because this prospect is, in her own mind, most doubtful ("Don't laugh—," twice), her eagerness tugs at the heartstrings a little—just enough.
Discriminating anxiously between shades of meaning—often by extended trial and error—is a habit common to most if not all of Sondheim's characters, which strongly suggests that the tic is his own. It accounts, I think, for a mannerism some listeners find grating: an often relentless repetition, whether of words or rhymes, often within the context of staccato lines that are very short. Take the passage following the murder of Sweeney Todd's first victim, a blackmailer. Mrs. Lovett, purveyor of the worst pies in London, has her bright idea for disposing of the body. Soon that phrase ("the worst pies in London") will be taking on a brand-new meaning, and business will be through the roof:
Why the rhymes and repetitions? In this case—and there are many like it—because the thought is stuck like a phonograph needle skipping on scratched vinyl. (The snag may be within the speaker's mind, as in "Has…/Had…/Has…," or between one person and another, as in "When you get it,/If you get it—.") Reinforcing the effect, the melody gets stuck too, pinging on one pitch like a service bell under the bossy finger of an impatient customer.
Poetics in Performance
Sometimes, though, repetition is essentially musical, an aspect of rhythm. In "This Week, Americans," from Do I Hear a Waltz?, another rarity taken up in The Story So Far… Here, one Signora Fioria, proprietress of a Venetian pensione, describes her clientele nationality by nationality. (Apparently they arrive in waves.) Her favorites—in fact, the only ones she likes—are Americans. The rest she tartly skewers, much in the vein of Shakespeare's Portia (another Venetian), dashing off character sketches of her suitors from all over the map. The signora's stereotypes are pitch-perfect, nowhere more so than here:
"Tea"/"teeth," "good"/"rotten," "eggs"/"legs"—phonetically, numerically, metaphorically, the minimal pairs pile up with a nonchalance that takes the breath away, to say nothing of that glancing echo of Gertrude Stein (rows and rows and Rose?). There's no semantic necessity for "the English" past the second line, but the reminders keep the meter tripping along, as Rodgers understood. Besides, they add a note of cheek. And it is pleasant, in the dark days of the 21st century, to recall a time when Americans were heroes to the world. But what surely won the song a place in Sondheim's personal anthology is the performance by Carol Bruce, a performer's performer whose star glittered brilliantly for a time on Broadway and in London. Perhaps Bruce's accent is more Gallic than Italian; no matter. The crisp diction, the clean intonation, the sleek, witty phrasing: it all adds up to real singing. To these ears, it's perfection.
"Lyric writing, at best, is a limited art," Sondheim has said. "Once the basic idea has been set, it's like working out a crossword puzzle. But composing music is genuinely creative. And it's much more fun." On the printed page, many of his lyrics scarcely exist as poetry at all—an opinion some will think "This Week, Americans" bears out only too clearly. But lyrics exist for one reason only: to summon up poetry from the wellspring of the performer's associations. In this sense, Sondheim's lyrics are sometimes have more in common with a verse form—a sonnet, a haiku—than with a poem in the conventional meaning of the word. Pursuing the same metaphor, the music might be said to convey imagery and a theme. But the true poem is the song in performance.
The Uncommon Touch
Will Sondheim ever win over the general public? His cult, which began just as he was moving beyond commercial entertainment (that is, after the boffo Funny Thing), grows apace, but is that the same thing as popularity? Not on the same planet as Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Performers deify Sondheim, yet few serve him well. It's not surprising. In their book scenes, many of the characters he writes for are ciphers. Yet Sondheim crafts their songs like an actor mining Chekhov, and the performer must carry the process further. Singers who only sing cannot do so. Of course Sondheim is a master at accommodating limited vocal capabilities, but much of his music demands real chops—and all of it demands musicality, without which words and music will never fuse seamlessly, as they must. It's a tall order. Art isn't easy.
As many who sing his songs point out, exaggerating but slightly, neither his lyrics nor his melodies ever repeat in exactly the same way. Everything shifts a little. Everything's tricky. Simply memorizing the material keeps even the most seasoned artists on Broadway and cabaret on their toes. Alas, the original-cast albums, whether from Broadway or London, are lousy with wretched interpreters: ingénues whose sopranos cut like Toledo blades, croaking juveniles, tone-deaf roués, prima donnas in extremis. Revivals are commonly just as spotty. In the cabaret setting, the standards are often much, much higher.
Sondheim isn't Bellini. He isn't Bach or Schubert. Some of his music benefits from classy conservatory technique, but not much requires it, and his best-known song was written for an actress who had to talk her way through it. Quite a few of those who perform him best are highly idiosyncratic vocalists. Angela Lansbury, sublime in the original Anyone Can Whistle, sashayed right past the soft spot in the middle of her single-malt mezzo-soprano. As the pathologically ambivalent Robert in a recent revival of Company, Raúl Esparza, a miraculous though sometimes gruff vocalist, caressed his phrases like a cellist laying his bow across the strings—Henrik Egerman, perhaps.
And where better to end than with Company, where the the principle of the complementary opposites "this" and "that" operates on the highest plane? "This" is Robert's song "Marry Me a Little," which begins this way:
He isn't ready, of course, and never will be. With every statement, Occam's slashing razor separates the Robert who craves love from the Robert who cannot take it. But this mass of contradiction—"this"—is only half the story. The other half—"that"—comes in the finale, "Being Alive," which expresses quite different wishes:
From "Marry Me a Little" and "Being Alive"—each song complete in itself—Sondheim fuses something greater, more revealing. "This" and "that" become a whole Occam's razor cannot divide.
In Sondheim's songs, the terms may keep shifting, but contradiction is forever. Company begins with a surprise birthday party: a premise straight from a sitcom. Yet it plays for stakes of life and death, perhaps masking a tale of suicide. And who, in that scenario, is the caustic Joanne ("Everybody dies!") but the Grim Reaper in disguise?
"Having just a vision's no solution, /Everything depends on execution," Sondheim writes in "Putting It Together." Alas so. Company is a hopeless show that never works on the stage. "Knock, knock," Bobby's three exasperated girlfriends warble, "is anybody there?" Not in the Bobby of the book. Yet in his songs, Bobby—nobody though he is—captures you and won't let go. So, in their songs, do George of Sunday in the Park, Clara, Fosca and Giorgio of Passion, Booth in Assassins, and the figure in Into the Woods known only as the Witch. The names may be written on water, but the songs endure.