Stephen Sondheim: An Appreciation

One day in 1979, the chief music critic at the San Francisco Examiner, Michael Walsh, who had the desk next to mine, sidled over and handed me the album of a new musical, Sweeney Todd.

‘It’s actually an opera’, he whispered conspiratorially, ‘but don’t tell anyone’.

When I put it on the turntable that evening, it forever changed my conception of what a Broadway musical could be. Sondheim had already made an impact as a composer with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies and Pacific Overtures. Impressive as these were, this was something more, as musically powerful as a great opera, deep and complex while couched in the language of the British music hall.

Till his death, which sadly occurred on 26 November, Sondheim staunchly insisted that he did not write operas, often saying that the musical experience in an opera house is different from musicals on Broadway. Over the years, however, virtually every top-tier opera house in North America and Europe has mounted one or more of his pieces, with actual opera stars and orchestras.

I attended magnificent stagings of Sweeney Todd at Lyric Opera of Chicago, starring Bryn Terfel and Judith Cristin and conducted by Paul Gemignani (who led the orchestras of many Sondheim works on Broadway); and at San Francisco Opera with Brian Mulligan and Stephanie Blythe, Patrick Summers conducting. New York City Opera and Houston Grand Opera staged both Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music, and English National Opera did Pacific Overtures.

Smaller opera companies have put on Sunday in the Park with George, which fits the description of a chamber opera.

However one categorizes these works, Sondheim gradually incorporated elements of opera into his musical form. Sweeney Todd, for example, builds its music from a phrase first heard in the nervous accompaniment to the opening chorus, an example of Sondheim using a device richly employed by every notable opera composer of the Romantic Era but few in the musical theater world. Leonard Bernstein, for one, employed that technique to tie together the various songs and interludes in West Side Story, building on a gesture first heard in the prelude.

Each Sondheim score operates under its own musical umbrella of style. Follies is pastiche, emulating the music of familiar Broadway composers from Jerome Kern to Cole Porter. The pentatonic modes of Pacific Overtures could suggest Japanese music without making a caricature of it. Sweeney conjures the British music hall. Every song and interlude in A Little Night Music, a love letter to the waltz-filled operettas of Franz Lehár and Johann Strauss, uses triple meter. Sunday in the Park channels painter George Seurat’s pointillism into its own musical style.

Having studied composition with Milton Babbitt, Sondheim was unafraid to use dissonance. He employed it in Follies to underlie a character’s growing madness, and let it fly unharnessed in Sweeney. The piquancy of dissonance, and a willingness to let melodies take unconventional turns, became a signature move.

He also wrote some of the majestic set pieces in the American musical theater canon. After Follies, his shows always included an extensive ensemble scene every bit as complex and propulsive as a Mozart opera finale.

A Weekend in the Country’, the seven-minute finale to Act I of A Little Night Music, gets the major players reacting to their invitations for a socially fraught gathering. The music paints every character’s emotional quirks. It’s a lively dance until the all-too-sober Henrik breaks into a hymn, only to be overrun by everyone else’s enthusiasm in a thrilling finish.

Someone in a Tree’ (Pacific Overtures) portrays the treaty conference that opened Japan to the West, but rather than simply showing it, the story is told by an old man, a youth representing the man as a child, and a warrior hiding underneath the treaty house. They recall, Rashomon-like, their slightly different accounts. In the words of the lyrics, each reflects ‘a fragment of the day’. The result is an eight-minute tour-de-force of music and words.

Into The Woods begins with a 15-minute prologue, a single, continuous, bumptious, humor-filled romp that introduces all of the storybook human characters. The music, first childlike, then humorous, sometimes a bit scary when the witch shows up, sets up the collision of fairy tales that gets things off and running.

Because he had a hard-nosed editor’s willingness to discard some excellent songs, either for something better or because they were unnecessary, Sondheim also left us a treasure chest of songs that never made it into his musicals. The 1980 revue, Marry Me a Little, a great compilation, allows us to compare ‘Uptown, Downtown’, for example, with the memory of the song that replaced it in Follies, ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’.

No doubt, most listeners’ impressions of Sondheim stem from his most popular songs. Ironically, the most famous, ‘Send in the Clowns’, is one of the simplest. Its range was tailored to the non-singer in the role of Desiree Armfeldt, an aging actor played in the original cast by Glynis Johns. Only an octave in range, it benefits from how the words lie perfectly on the music (a hallmark of Sondheim’s songwriting), and musical lift from refined orchestration and a subtle countermelody.

Like great opera arias, his songs are specific to a moment of emotional tension, yet they can be appreciated for their artistry even when divorced from the plays. Singers from opera stars to pop idols love to sing them because they are both challenging and immensely rewarding. Among my favorites are those that make a sly but gently serious point, such as ‘Children Will Listen’ (from Into the Woods) and ‘Not a Day Goes By’ (Merrily We Roll Along); and others that play acerbically for humor, such as ‘A Little Priest’ (Sweeney Todd) and ‘Getting Married Today’ (Company).

For me the masterpieces are the ensembles, none more beautifully wrought than the Act I finale of Sunday in the Park with George. It overwhelmed me the most when I saw it on Broadway, and still gets me. Seurat’s masterpiece, A Sunday on the Grande Jatte, comes to life before our eyes, while the chorus – every bit the equal of Bernstein’s ‘Let Our Garden Grow’ – rises to a climax.

Act II then opens on the same tableau-vivant, only the actors portraying the figures start to complain in ‘It’s Hot Up Here’. Sondheim can’t help taking it to the next level. Whether that is up or down, he always showed us something that we may not have expected but was absolutely right.

Thank you, Stephen.

By Harvey Steiman. This article first appeared on Seen and Heard International