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‘To help us survive’: On Stephen Sondheim

Following his recent death, Clementine Scott reflects on the life and work of legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Right after my GCSEs, as I was gradually exiting a deeply embarrassing Hamilton phase, I saw the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story. I was at a screening in Spitalfields Market, in an industrial former warehouse – the perfect setting for that film’s gritty vision of New York City. Yet what dragged me into a new stage of musical theatre obsession was not West Side Story’s sweeping approach to filming complex choreography, or its dazzling technicolour aesthetic, but the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, who passed away last November at the age of 91.

I didn’t know how to articulate this at the time, but watching West Side Story I encountered for the first time a quality I’ve come to look for in great musical theatre: the distillation of complex emotion into song in a rounded yet deceptively simple manner. Here was a prime example of showtunes’ unique ability to bring human feeling to a higher plane, whether that feeling was an immigrant’s anxiety (‘America’) or the immediate processing of first love (both the tense euphoria of ‘Maria’ and the giddiness of ‘I Feel Pretty’). Here, too, were the exhilarating aspects of Sondheim’s lyrics which would become his hallmarks, and which I would come to love: the complex, hyperactive rhythmical structures (‘Something’s Coming’), the patter songs that manage to be both comic and profound (‘Gee, Officer Krupke’), the unexpectedly raw comedown from a soaring chorus (‘We’ll find a new way of living / We’ll find a way of forgiving’).

If Sondheim had retired after West Side Story, his legacy would still have been notable, as a 27-year-old who had written lyrics which complemented and uplifted a domineering score by the more experienced Leonard Bernstein. But there was much more to come. After again contributing lyrics to another composer’s score (Jule Styne’s Gypsy), Sondheim first wrote both lyrics and music for a musical in 1966 with A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. He then spent the next three decades composing a string of shows unprecedented both in their melodic complexity and the themes with which their lyrics dealt, ranging from the ennui of dating in the city, to collective responsibility, to the price of artistic genius.

It would be at this point in the tribute essay that I would reflect on the formative experience of seeing Sweeney Todd or Sunday In The Park With George as a pre-teen, and how that encouraged a lifelong obsession. But as the old adage goes, Sondheim wrote musical theatre ‘for adults’, and I think that until a few years ago I was simply too young for his work; my first encounter with Sondheim was a secondary school production of Into The Woods, and I wish this had immediately triggered a deep fondness for his lyrics, but it would still be a few more years before that fateful West Side Story screening. Pretentious as I was at fourteen, I was too stuck on finding Into The Woods’ fairytale motifs passé, and failed to recognise its poignant message of human responsibility for others in the community, best expressed in the sinister yet beautiful lyrics of ‘No One Is Alone’.

If Sondheim did not exclusively write for adults, then, he at least wrote for those with some experience of life, who could benefit from having the truth of their lives put to them, without any bullshit. It’s been notable in the aftermath of his death how many social media mourners used his pithier lyrics as a form of therapy (‘No One Is Alone’ and ‘Children And Art’ from Sunday have become ubiquitous as expressions of grief for Sondheim himself), and it’s this universal quality that’s made his songs so adaptable when performed in other, completely different media.

In this light, it’s fitting that a watershed moment in my gradual discovery of Sondheim was watching Marriage Story two Christmases ago, in which Adam Driver performs ‘Being Alive’ from Company as a divorced man reeling from the memory of the love described in the song (in stark contrast to Company’s perpetually single Bobby). While the context of previous events in Company’s plot – Bobby’s disillusionment with love thanks to the eccentric married couples in his life – undeniably makes the climax of ‘Being Alive’ richer, even without this context Sondheim’s lyrics are sufficient to convey the song’s message, and were enough to get me instantly hooked. The way ‘Being Alive’ ricochets from dismissal of monogamous love as a waste of time (‘someone to sit in your chair / And ruin your sleep’), to a cathartic acceptance of wanting passionate, complicated love (‘let me be used / vary my days’), to a sort of tenderness amidst the chaos (‘I’ll always be there / As frightened as you / To help us survive’) helped me rationalise as a late teen all the contradictory notions I had about the relationships I wanted, and the lyrics became mantras to which I continually refer. I even took it one step further than personal therapy, and once used ‘Being Alive’ to express how I felt to a former romantic interest – humiliating, but an experience everyone should have with the work of their hero.

Though I believe certain earlier musical theatre lyricists, particularly Sondheim’s mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, don’t always get enough credit for their work’s thematic richness, Sondheim nevertheless turned a corner by being both a lyricist and a composer, allowing his scores as well as his lyrics to reflect his characters’ complex emotions. My emotional response to ‘Send In The Clowns’ from A Little Night Music has varied widely since I first heard it, from frustration and desire for missed romantic opportunities to resolve themselves, to resigned acceptance of things just not working out. I think this emotional turbulence is in part due to Sondheim’s score: the song’s unusual metre and short phrasing give the sense of something unfinished, and Sondheim’s confinement of the vocal line within a fairly narrow range of notes leads the audience to expect a belted climax which never comes, leaving them instead with a resigned, half-whispered ‘Well, maybe next year’. The emotional richness of ‘Send In The Clowns’ stems from its simplicity, and this is also evidence of Sondheim’s respect for actors who sing, as opposed to singers who act – when Glynis Johns originated the role of Desiree in A Little Night Music in 1973, Sondheim prioritised the husky, desperate quality of her voice over undue strain on her vocal range and inability to sustain notes.

So how should we honour Sondheim’s legacy? Firstly, by celebrating his work, through the inevitable revivals next year and the new film version of West Side Story, as well as engaging with parts of the canon which we haven’t yet touched (as a classicist, it’s shameful that I haven’t got around to listening to the Plautus-influenced Forum). Furthermore, the irony is not lost on me that I’m a 21-year-old who loves musicals mostly about people in their thirties or older, so we should be open to the resonance of Sondheim’s lyrics growing and changing as we age; Sunday In The Park With George, and especially its climactic number ‘Move On’, offers a message of encouragement to all who create (even those of us who write theatre criticism!), and the more I write, the more the words ‘Anything you do / Let it come from you / Then it will be new’ serve as comfort. The more relationships and friendships we form, the more Sondheim’s words can resonate. Just as I understood ‘Send In The Clowns’ more after accepting that teenage relationships don’t always last, I hope that Company will help me navigate the woes of third-wheeling and feeling stuck as one’s friends evolve, and that Merrily We Roll Along will provide a blueprint if and when cracks show in my idealistic university friendships (it was the perfect Sondheim to have seen in my first term at Oxford for this reason).

But what do I know? Since Sondheim once referred to theatre critics as ‘ignoramuses’ and had a famous disdain towards their appraisal of his work, perhaps the decision about his legacy should be up to him. The answer to how Sondheim would’ve wanted to be remembered may lie in his commitment to mentoring the next generation, expressed most poignantly in an email to Lin-Manuel Miranda in which he wrote of ‘repaying what I owe Oscar [Hammerstein]’. Not only was Sondheim’s mentorship instrumental in the development of titans like Miranda, Jonathan Larson (a process fictionalised in the recently filmed autobiographical musical Tick, Tick, Boom), and Jason Robert Brown, but he also imparted wisdom and encouragement, replying to thousands of letters with aphorisms as simple yet profound as his lyrics, letters which are now documented on the wonderful Instagram account @sondheimletters. Therefore, Sondheim’s legacy may lie in the writers whom he inspired, and we might honour him by seeing an original piece of musical theatre writing next season: one unhampered by desire for commercial success and concerned with expressing its writer’s individual voice, just like Sondheim’s work did forty years ago.

Thank you, Stephen Sondheim. May your memory be a blessing, and may we remember that – in the words of the Baker’s Wife from Into The Woods – ‘no one leaves for good’. 

Image Credit: Tantó / CC BY-SA 4.0

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