Why did it take so long for the composer to be unambivalently embraced? Maybe because ambivalence is what he’s embraced most of all.
By Ben Brantley
How do you feel?
That’s a simple question, right? And unless you’re talking to a doctor, you probably have a simple answer.
And if that’s the case, the odds are that you’re lying.
Such, anyway, is always my view of the human race after listening to a cast recording of a Stephen Sondheim musical, or even to just one of his ballads. And when it comes to emotions, Sondheim — more than any other composer from the Broadway songbook — is the one I trust to tell me the truth.
That’s because in the world of Sondheim, feelings never come singly but in battalions. Even his simplest, most assertive melodies usually sound as if they’re being pulled in contradictory directions.
Of course, his ever-nimble lyrics — which have made his name a byword for verbal cosmopolitanism — abound in paradoxes, puns and declarations of uncertainty, all etched into deep-burrowing grooves. But the music adds yet another layer, which often both confirms and battles with the words.
It’s confusing. It’s exhilarating. It’s life as we know it, if we’re being honest with ourselves. Stephen Sondheim is the American musical’s supreme artist of ambivalence. Which is why it took audiences and critics so long to embrace him, and why — once they did — he assumed his rightful place on an Olympian peak that no subsequent songwriter has ever been able to ascend.
My baptism into the multicolored, churning waters of a Sondheim score occurred when I was 16, on my maiden trip to New York, a place that loomed in my Southern childhood like the Emerald City of Oz. In retrospect, I can’t believe my luck. Providence — or my ticket-buying parents — had seen to it that my very first Broadway show was “Follies,” Sondheim and the script writer James Goldman’s portrait of two unhappy marriages, set amid the ruins of a once glorious, fast vanishing era in show business.
I should say here that I considered myself well-versed in musicals at that time. Original cast recordings of New York shows were still regularly spinning on turntables in middle-class American homes. Growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C., I was weaned on the work of, above all, Rodgers and Hammerstein. (The first Broadway show my mother had seen, as a college graduation present, was “Oklahoma!,” and I used to warble “People Will Say We’re in Love” to my dog, Bangle.)
But I could also lie for hours on the floor next to our big, boxy monaural console in the company of recordings of Lerner and Loewe, Meredith Willson, Jerry Herman and the Leonard Bernstein who wrote the music for “West Side Story” and “Wonderful Town.” For me — and I imagine for many Americans — even the sad numbers from these shows were straight, pick-me-up shots of concentrated happiness.
They exalted everyday life — which I intuited early on was always going to be messy — by giving it a rhythm and rhyme that you could belt, wail and dance to. And usually, they had a conveniently insistent and straightforward progression of notes and words that, once heard, were tattooed forever on your mind, ready to be retrieved in moments of despair.
So in 1971, at the Winter Garden Theater, in the dark, when the overture began for “Follies,” I was incredibly excited and, before long, slightly disturbed. (At that point, I was unacquainted with “Company,” Sondheim’s breakthrough hit of the previous year.) A luxuriously full orchestra was summoning the kind of grand strains you expect to precede a majestic show with a cavalcade of stars. But there were shadows plucking at the grandeur, a sense of magnificence dissolving into dissonance.
By the end of the show — after watching a climactic succession of nervous breakdowns in song, styled, by the directors Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, as opulent fantasy musical-comedy vignettes — I wasn’t sure what had hit me. I had borrowed enough contemporary novels about disenchanted spouses from my parents’ library to realize a lot of Goldman’s book wasn’t exactly new territory.
But those songs! So worldly, so well-referenced, so eminently quotable, so contemptuous of hummable, assembly-line melodies — and, beneath it all, in a way I was still too young to absorb, so torn by a fathomless fear and yearning. As a self-conscious, awkward kid who wanted only to be sophisticated, I didn’t yet grasp the complex, subversive dialectic of words and music in those numbers, or realize that they were as full of feeling as anything by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The perception of Sondheim as a writer of “sweetly laconic cynicism” (as Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times) was fed by post-“Follies” cabaret acts and revues (including “Side by Side by Sondheim,” which was on Broadway in 1977 when I first moved to New York) that emphasized his supreme, stinging wit. These were lyrics you heard quoted as zingers at cocktail parties (“It’s not so hard to be married, I’ve done it three or four times,” from “Company”; “Could I bury my rage, with a boy half your age, in the grass?/Bet your ass,” from “Follies.”)
But in truth, Sondheim was never just the gimlet-eyed outsider at the party, quipping wisely and witheringly. Instead, what he was capturing like nobody else in his genre was the voice of a generation of doubters who, whether they admitted it or not, were starting to feel like outsiders in their own lives, like loners — even in a crowd, even within their own family.
These were people who grew up in an age of anxiety, of self-probing psychoanalysis and rising divorce rates. The all-conquering love hymned in the classic musical was beginning to look like an increasingly flimsy fiction. “Happy endings can spring a leak/ ‘Ever after’ can mean one week,” as Sondheim wrote in his lyrics for “Do I Hear a Waltz?,” the 1965 musical on which he collaborated with Richard Rodgers.
Such skepticism is not to be confused with wholesale cynicism or self-protecting numbness. As far back as his “Saturday Night” (written in the 1950s, but never produced in New York until 2000), a portrait of young Brooklyn men impatiently waiting for their lives to begin, Sondheim’s scores have consistently throbbed with a longing to connect, to engage and, yes, to love. It’s a sentiment wistfully embodied in the ballad “Being Alive” from “Company,” a song repurposed in the 2019 Noah Baumbach movie “Marriage Story” for Adam Driver’s divorce-mauled husband.
But no one in a Sondheim musical is ever going to make the sort of unconditional declaration that the cockeyed optimist Nellie Forbush did in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”: “I’m in love with a wonderful guy!” Love, chez Sondheim, is treated as a dangerous substance that could explode or rot or evaporate altogether once you finally embrace it.
“Follies” covers a giddy range of the forms assumed by the divided nature of love, and how we hold on to what remains of the illusions we once had about it. (What’s so brilliant about the pastiche numbers, evocations of quaint songs of yesteryear, is the musical tension at war between past styles and present perception.) Most of us, I imagine, have experienced something like the frenzied vacillations of the two-timing husband who sings, “I’ve got those ‘God-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later Blues.’”
But note how even an ostensibly straightforward ballad like “Not a Day Goes By,” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” progresses from a declaration of lifelong passion to a harsh and resentful cry against the human bondage that such commitment entails. Or how in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (1979), Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s retelling of a bloody Victorian urban legend, an exiled barber’s love for the family he lost is transformed into a blind pursuit of revenge, with music in which gentle motifs of tenderness are devoured by thundering chords of rage.
Obsession, as both a life-warping force (“Assassins,” the savage yet oddly empathic study of American killers from 1990) and a creative necessity (the ravishing “Sunday in the Park With George,” 1984), becomes an increasingly dominant subject for Sondheim in the second half of his career. The peerless “Finishing the Hat,” from “Sunday,” mixes the exhilaration that comes from the quest for perfection and the painful knowledge of the selfishness and sacrifices that it requires.
But what happens when love itself becomes the overwhelming obsession? Sondheim finally approached that subject late in his career, with “Passion” (1994), his penultimate work to date. As shaped by Sondheim and the writer and director James Lapine (his collaborator on “Sunday”), this operatic masterwork follows the initiation of an ordinary man, a soldier, into the labyrinth of its titular subject.
His instructor takes the form of a sickly, ugly woman named Fosca, who teaches him that love is a blinding, irrational force — “as pure as breath, as permanent as death, as implacable as stone.” The paradoxically uplifting darkness of the music here suggests that the triumph of love is something neither to celebrate nor to lament. It simply is, in all its irreducible complexity.
When Fosca describes what might be considered both her nemesis and her salvation, she might be speaking for Sondheim — a composer once dismissed as all head and no heart. “I know I feel too much,” she says. “I often don’t know what to do with my feelings.” Sondheim has always transformed that not knowing, a state in which we all exist, into some of the most fully feeling songs ever written.
Barbra Streisand, James Corden and More on Their Favorite Sondheim Song
By Nancy Coleman
Sure, the rhymes can be tricky, the lyrics high-speed. There are 68 words delivered in 11 seconds of “Getting Married Today,” alone. But for the pack of fans Stephen Sondheim has amassed over the years, it’s often the emotion — in one song, one melody, one lyric — that got them hooked. We asked his admirers, some of them also his collaborators, to reflect on the songs — with music and/or lyrics by Sondheim — that have stayed in their hearts. Their answers have been edited for clarity.
Audra McDonald, actor
“Move On,” from “Sunday in the Park With George”
George is quite stuck as an artist, and he feels like he’s having a hard time finding inspiration. And the character of Dot comes to him and sings, “Stop worrying where you’re going, move on/ If you can know where you’re going, you’ve gone /Just keep moving on.” It’s absolutely the truth. And the specific lyric that breaks me up every time is, “Anything you do/ Let it come from you/ Then it will be new/ Give us more to see.” That is an artist’s credo. That, to me, is like a Bible verse that I return to over and over.
James Corden, actor
“Not While I’m Around,” from “Sweeney Todd”
“Nothing’s gonna harm you/ Not while I’m around” — it’s the purest lyric, I think, in any musical. I found it moving as a teenager when I first heard it; I find it even more moving now as a parent.
Cameron Crowe, director
“Barcelona,” from “Company”
There was a PBS special on Sondheim, and I got steeped in “Company,” and “Barcelona” really stuck out. It was like the third character in that scene was Bobby’s emerging soul. Beneath this lilting back-and- forth, push-and-pull of the song was the strong current of what was pulling Bobby to “Being Alive.” It was as rich as any Paul Simon or Neil Young song that I was starting to fall in love with.
Barbra Streisand, singer
“Putting it Together,” from “Sunday in the Park With George”
I wanted to return to my roots and sing songs from Broadway, and thought this would be a great opener to a new album. I was very timid as I called Steve and asked him if he would consider rewriting the song to be about the music world, rather than the art world. I was almost waiting for him to slam the phone down, but he thought for a moment and said, “Sure, I’ll try it.” Now that’s extraordinary — he was willing to make changes to his own masterpiece.
Joe Iconis, composer
“Who’s That Woman?,” from “Follies”
I love that it starts in this very casual way, and then it gets more aggressive, more dissonant, more tense. And then to have the final line — “That woman is me” — that’s what we’re really getting to. You have both celebration and disdain in the same lyric.
Julie Andrews, actor
“Getting Married Today,” from “Company”
Lyrically, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to learn. It had vocally high choral moments, and then rapid-fire dialogue. I used very small physical gestures to help trigger my memory: There’s a moment — “Thank you for the 27 dinner plates and 37 butter knives” — and I just literally, with the word “knife,” thought of something stabbing me in the stomach.
Melissa Errico, actor
“No More,” from “Into the Woods”
I’m always looking for answers in my life. What makes him so fascinating is that his songs are made up of questions. These lines stand out to me: “Running away, go to it/ Where did you have in mind?/ Have to take care: Unless there’s a where/ You’ll only be wandering blind./Just more questions./Different kind.” What he’s saying is that it’s not black or white; it’s black and white simultaneously. You’re running one place, looking for an answer, and the answer is often the next question. And that’s hard, but that’s mature.
Michael Chabon, author
“Chrysanthemum Tea,” from “Pacific Overtures”
It’s my favorite of his musicals, probably because it’s the one I encountered first. I was taken by my parents, and it was such an incredible spectacle. “Chrysanthemum Tea” has typically clever Sondheim lyrics, with twisty rhymes. And the fact that it’s the shogun’s mother, and she’s poisoning her own son — there is a thread of wickedness in his work, and that was maybe my first encounter with it. I remember laughing, and being shocked at the reveal of what’s going on.
Raúl Esparza, actor
“Every Day a Little Death,” from “A Little Night Music”
I was a student at N.Y.U. in the ’90s. It was the first semester of a musical theater class, and one of the students got up and sang “Every Day a Little Death.” It was dark outside and snowing, and I remember hearing the song and thinking, “What is this?” It’s such a simple series of tiny moments that make up a day, that seem to be completely pragmatic descriptions of everyday life, played against the unbelievable torrent of sweeping emotion underneath in the music. And that is such a classic skill of Steve’s, where lyric plays against music, and the two things together, in the ear of the listener, tell you the whole story.
Steve Reich, composer
“Finishing the Hat,” from “Sunday in the Park With George”
Musically, it’s interesting because it’s six flats: G flat major. Now, that’s not your everyday key. Harmonically, it’s really very simple, in the best sense of that word. In terms of the lyrics, it’s just astounding — the rhymes, the half rhymes, the inner rhymes — all of which are making such a heartfelt impact.
John Mulaney, comedian
“Maria,” from “West Side Story” (1957)
“I’ve just kissed a girl named Maria” is a perfect line. It is not trying to be clever, flowery, metaphoric. That’s what I would aspire to write in any joke or any written prose, television script, anything. It’s the clearest thing, and it’s what that character would say.
Tituss Burgess, actor
“First Midnight,” from “Into the Woods”
“You may know what you need/ But to get what you want/ Better see that you keep what you have.” To me, that speaks to ambition. It speaks to having to make very tough decisions. It speaks to the heart of what sacrifice means, what compromise means, what negotiation means. It’s very smart advice.
Trey Anastasio, lead singer (Phish)
“Mr. Goldstone, I Love You,” from “Gypsy”
My mother was a huge fan of Broadway’s golden age. She had all the original cast recordings, and she gave them to me when I was about 10 years old. “Gypsy” was the one that I played until it wore out the grooves. My childhood favorite was probably “Mr. Goldstone”: “Have a lychee, Mr. Goldstone/ Tell me any little thing that I can do/ Ginger peachy, Mr. Goldstone/ Have a kumquat, have two!” The show had a huge effect on my career, as crazy as that sounds. It was just a giant, giant part of my musical upbringing and landscape.
Susan Choi, author
“Send in the Clowns,” from “A Little Night Music”
The memory is like a film clip: the camera points down at a small patch of dirt that is no longer farmland but isn’t yet lawn. It’s scrumbled full of gravel and other unsightly litter from the nearby building lots. And there’s a soundtrack: Judy Collins’s version of “Send in the Clowns.”
I know the place: the undeveloped lot directly bordering my childhood home, making an unsightly seam with our new-seeded lawn. And I know the time: 1975, right after my parents and I moved into our first, and as it turned out last, suburban home. But why the song?
Before that house was the ignominy of rented apartments, and after came the downslope of illness and divorce. But for the moment, we possessed the stage-set of a prosperous life. I couldn’t have known, at age six, that our show had a limited run — and yet, long before adulthood, my empty-lot explorations, in memory, became fused to Sondheim’s rueful music and words. It’s as if, despite those gaily-clad trapeze artists I imagined for “you in mid air,” I sensed the empty pageantry of our suburb, and how poorly-cast my parents were in their marital roles.
Jason Robert Brown, composer
“Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” from “Merrily We Roll Along”
I played the part at summer camp when I was 16. It’s a song that tells you about a character’s intelligence, the action of the character and the effect of the character’s action. The song makes stuff happen in the show. And yet what I find most amazing — it’s a fairly unlikable thing that this person is doing — is just the real faith in show business. It’s a song that the audience can’t help but want to cheer on.