Stephen Sondheim was a seismic Broadway force
As the houselights went down the other week on the first performance of “Company” since the COVID shutdown, an old man, wearing a ratty sweater, slipped into the theater from a side entrance.
If he hoped to be unobtrusive, he failed. The audience recognized him immediately – Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the show’s score. The crowd leapt up, its thunderous cheering causing a
minor seismic shock in Times Square.
You couldn’t see Sondheim’s face – masking is strictly enforced on Broadway – but I have no doubt it flashed that sly grin that always seemed to say (to me at least), “Thanks for the recognition, but let’s not get carried away.”
Sondheim, who died Friday at 91, was the most feted musical theater legend since Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Starting from the time he was 60, his every major birthday (and some minor ones) were celebrated in grand style – at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Royal Albert Hall, The Library of Congress.
“I think my actual funeral will be an afterthought,” he once joked to me.
If he was slightly cynical about the never-ending stream of tributes, it’s probably because it took him years, and plenty of setbacks, to become a Broadway icon.
His first Broadway show was “West Side Story,” for which he wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s symphonic score. The New York Times, praising the show, did not mention him.
Critics admired the lyrics to his next show – “Gypsy” – but saved most of their adoration for his far more famous collaborators – composer Jule Styne, director Jerome Robbins and leading lady Ethel Merman.
Sondheim then wrote the music and lyrics to “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” a sensational musical comedy with a jaunty, tuneful, jolly score.
He could have cranked out more shows like “Forum,” but it was not in his nature to repeat himself. And so, with director Hal Prince, he embarked on a series of dramatic shows that elevated the musical theater from diverting entertainment to art.
The shows – “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd” –are now classics. But with the exception of “Night Music,” all lost money and left audiences and many critics cold.
“Sweeney Todd,” about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, didn’t just leave audiences cold. It enraged them. During intermission of the first preview in 1979, a sweet matinee lady walked up to the producer and yelled, “Cannibalism — on Broadway? I never!” Then she hit the producer with her purse.
The rap against Sondheim back then was that while his lyrics were clever and witty, his sophisticated music lacked catchy tunes. (His only pop hit, in fact, was the incomparable “Send in the Clowns” from “Night Music.”)
The rap was wrong and unfair. Melodies – snappy, tender, witty and warm – flow through all his scores. “Side By Side” from “Company” is a showstopper. “Losing My
Mind” from “Follies” will break your heart. “Every Day a Little Death” from “Night Music” has haunted me for years. And is there a funnier song, musically and lyrically, in all of musical theater than “A Little Priest” from “Sweeney Todd”?
Todd and Mrs. Lovett are discussing the kinds of people they’re going to kill and grind into meat pies.
She: “Here’s a politician so oily, he’s served with a doily. Have one.”
He: “Put it on a bun. Well, you never know if it’s going to run!”
Sondheim did not sit at the piano and crank out hits. He could not “pee a melody,” as Richard Rodgers once bragged he could. For Sondheim, the songs came slowly, sometimes painfully, and were always rooted in a dramatic moment from the show.
James Lapine, who wrote the script to “Sunday in the Park With George” – for which he and Sondheim won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 – catalogs in his memoir “Putting It Together” the number of scenes, ideas and snatches of dialogue he had to supply Sondheim before Sondheim could sit at the piano.
Outside “Sunday,” “Finishing the Hat,” one of his best songs, might sound baffling. But within the context of the show it shimmers with beauty, and captures, perhaps better than anything ever written, an artist’s obsession with getting the work just right.
In person, Sondheim was as complex as his shows. Close friends say he was kind, wise, and generous. But, depending on his mood, he could be prickly. In all the years I’ve covered Broadway, I never got to know him. He claimed to be above the kind of showbiz gossip I peddled, preferring instead the company of his acolytes at the New York Times. But whenever I emailed him a question for an article or a book I was working on, he always got right back to me with a helpful answer.
Still, the prickliness was never far below the surface. A few weeks ago, I found the sheet music to “Send in the Clowns,” which I learned to play on the piano as a kid. I asked if he’d sign it for me. He wrote back immediately: “I once asked you not to print a letter I wrote to Arthur [Laurents] that criticized Leslie Uggams because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings in public. You printed it anyway. So I’m not inclined to do you any favors.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but when I rummaged around the Post’s website, there it was: a bitchy column I wrote in 2014.
Fair enough, I thought. But a week later, I got a call from the press agent for the new movie of “West Side Story.” Sondheim was arranging a private screening for some theater people and wanted to include me.
Just the other day I wrote him a note about the movie. This time, sadly, there was no reply.