Stephen Sondheim needed to discover a brand new world each time

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IN A TOWNHOUSE in central Manhattan, in a room with a grand piano, lights would usually burn all night time. The person who sat there had an air of intense and nervous preoccupation. He would throw himself again in his chair, twist his neck to interrogate the ceiling, lean dangerously sideways, arch his arm over his head, as he strove to hyperlink his phrases to music and his music to phrases.

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To do each issues, write lyrics and compose, was uncommon and difficult. Music was enjoyable, summary and inside him; lyrics have been a sweat, although he considered himself as a playwright first. Combining them required not inspiration, like some lady twittering on his shoulder, however affected person craft. He needed to let the lyrics sit calmly on the melodic line, bubble and rise, whereas making certain that the music made them shine and generally explode. As he labored he was painfully conscious of his mistake in “West Facet Story” (in 1957, when he was beginning out, and the music was Lenny Bernstein’s, not his), of placing the indefinite article on the best word of a phrase in “Someplace”, or failing to note how lengthy a purple line may embarrass him afterwards. (For ever, actually.) Much less is extra, maintain it easy, he saved reminding himself. Intelligent rhymes and puns have been his forte, however why have been “love” and “life” so near-impossible to rhyme with something? For Stephen Sondheim, working with the English language he adored was very, very exhausting.

Nor was it his nature. He was instinctively a mathematician, sidetracked whereas nonetheless at college by the good lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, the daddy of his finest pal, who taught him virtually all he knew. Maths was saved for the puzzles and cryptic crosswords he invented the place slowly, hyperlink by hyperlink, the answer gleamed into view. Against this, the 15 musicals he wrote for the American stage, works that propelled him into the corporate of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Noël Coward, have been research in disconnection. Although he may place his characters in ostensibly jovial events or reunions, deep emotional fissures quickly appeared once more.

In each “Firm” (his breakthrough work, in 1970) and “Follies” (1971), marriages have been foundering, however new commitments have been too troublesome. “Into the Woods”, a revisiting of traditional fairy tales, delved into the love-hate relationship between dad and mom and youngsters, one he had vividly identified himself. “Sunday within the Park with George” (1984) explored the competing claims, on the painter Georges Seurat and George, his struggling-artist great-grandson, of the human love every needed and the artwork they needed to do.

These conflicts meant that the dual Sondheim roles, lyricist and composer, usually sparked in opposition to one another. Despair could possibly be hidden underneath banter, and malice underneath gentleness. In “Follies” he wrote the bitterly witty “May I depart you?” (“May I bury my rage/with a boy half your age/within the grass?/Wager your arse!”) as a grand waltz; in his cartoonish semi-opera “Sweeney Todd” (1979), the demon barber crooned the tender, blithe “Fairly Girls” as he ready to chop a buyer’s throat. Typically, too, a Sondheim musical would fracture time itself, punctuating the motion with flashbacks, as in “Firm”, or reversing chronology completely (“Merrily We Roll Alongside”, a catastrophe). The linear musicals American audiences had come to count on, ending with a grand refrain quantity and man and lady dazzlingly collectively, grew to become in his arms messy slices of life by which nothing had been resolved, nor ever could possibly be.

Audiences subsequently tended to depart the theatre baffled. Loads walked out. They discovered him too mental, the themes uncomfortable and nothing hummable within the flowing, conversational scores. Apart from “A Humorous Factor Occurred on the Method to the Discussion board” (1962), his first foray into Broadway in each hats, his runs have been brief. His title could possibly be twisted into the pleasing anagram, “He penned demon hits”. However his just one (huge although it was) was “Ship within the Clowns” from “A Little Evening Music”, a music written largely as easy questions and once more about disconnection. (“Isn’t it wealthy?/ Are we a pair? Me right here eventually on the bottom/You in mid-air?”) He handled the 32-bar torch songs, once more actually exhausting to put in writing, as commentaries or little one-act performs to maneuver the plot alongside. If there was a plot.

Lack of recognition didn’t trouble him. He had by no means got down to be company or industrial; he loathed all that. His solely need was to experiment, to make himself nervous in new territory and never do the identical factor twice. Among the many topics he threw himself into have been the emergence of Japan (in “Pacific Overtures”, accomplished as a chunk of kabuki theatre) and the killing or tried killing of America’s presidents in “Assassins”, staged in a fairground. Vaudeville and pastiche have been strewn round, spiking his work with irony, and he wrote in unfriendly sharp keys simply to problem himself. “Maverick” was a phrase he feasted on.

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He additionally noticed himself as an outsider: an solely baby who received the perfect marks at college, Jewish, homosexual, shy. His first expertise of musicals was Rodgers’s and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” at 15, when the sight of the villain-outcast Jigger ostracised by the townsfolk decreased him to tears. He beloved collaborating on musicals, notably with the producer Hal Prince and the author James Lapine, as a result of he had discovered such household feeling nowhere else. Till he was 61, he lived alone. The work was all-consuming to the top, and his prime concern was that it ought to go on being accomplished, in faculties, communities, wherever. Completed and accomplished and accomplished.

His solely try at memoir was a two-volume evaluation of all his musicals. Individuals subsequently questioned which ones contained the important thing to him. “Firm”, maybe, the place the outsider Bobby moodily observes his mates’ marriages in an effort to search out happiness himself? Or “Into the Woods”, with its robust echoes of the analysts’ couches on which he had spent so many hours? Or “Sunday within the Park with George”, the place within the final act George is counselled within the night time park by his great-grandmother’s ghost:

Cease worrying the place you’re going/Transfer on
In the event you can know the place you’re going/
You’ve gone Simply maintain shifting on…

This text appeared within the Obituary part of the print version underneath the headline “Hold shifting on”

20211204 cna1280 - Stephen Sondheim needed to discover a brand new world each time

From the December 2nd 2021 version

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