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Stephen Sondheim, American composer and lyricist, 30th November 2000. (Photo by Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto via Getty Images)
The Bard of Broadway

The Bard of Broadway

Stephen Sondheim, American composer and lyricist, 30th November 2000. (Photo by Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto via Getty Images)

Stephen Sondheim was a genius. Martin Samuel will brook no argument. Here’s why

Like Shakespeare, some said. And that immediately raised a few hackles.

Shakespeare, the father of the English language, in the same sentence as a song and dance man? Yet, really, what better touchstone can there be? Stephen Sondheim redefined his artform. He pieced together words and created phrases that have slipped seamlessly into our language without anyone realising their origin. He explored humanity’s emotions and failings with a depth that will remain relevant long after his death. He had wit. He had insight. He wrestled with problematic subjects, took enormous creative gambles. And unlike Shakespeare, nobody will ever dispute that each note and syllable attributed to him, was indeed his. Plus, he wrote tunes. What tunes. The mistake would be to see Sondheim the wordsmith, and not the composer; or to laud the composer but not the storyteller. He created characters, not mere vehicles for his music. When he wrote about those that have tried – with wildly varying degrees of success – to kill the President of the United States, he did so from the perspective of the downtrodden, unhinged assassins, because these souls had stories that needed telling, as much as the famous men they set out to murder.  

“Charlie Guiteau

Drew a crowd to his trial

Led them in prayer

Said, ‘I killed Garfield

I’ll make no denial

I was just acting

For Someone up there

The Lord’s my employer

And now He’s my lawyer

So do what you dare’”

(‘The Ballad of Guiteau’, from Assassins)

Frank Sinatra would complain that Sondheim didn’t write enough songs for “saloon singers like me”, but he could had he wanted. He just chose not to. He wrote ‘Send In The Clowns’ specifically for actress Glynis Johns, who was playing Desiree in A Little Night Music. Atypically, it has short phrases because Sondheim knew Johns couldn’t carry long notes. Elsewhere, he created brilliant lines that required the most extreme vocal breathing contortions to make their structures and rhythms work.

“Listen everybody, look, I don’t know what you’re waiting for. A wedding. What’s a wedding? It’s a prehistoric ritual where everybody promises fidelity forever, which is maybe the most horrifying word I ever heard of, which is followed by a honeymoon, where suddenly he’ll realize he’s saddled with a nut, and want to kill me, which he should …”

(‘Not Getting Married Today’ from Company)

It’s for this reason that so much focus is placed on Sondheim’s words, why he inspires comparison with a giant of poetry even more than the great songwriters such as Irving Berlin or Cole Porter. Yet to pigeon-hole Sondheim as a finer lyricist than composer undersells his breadth. It is a myth that the audience can’t whistle his tunes, as the title song from Anyone Can Whistle rather testifies. Not all of them and, as so many are character-driven, nor do they always suit Sinatra’s saloon. Yet Sondheim was a musical genius in both senses of the word; he regarded his songs, his lineage to be the golden era of musicals when Rodgers and Hammerstein or Rodgers and Hart most certainly wrote crowd-pleasing scores, while also taking artistic chances. Oklahoma! may seem a conventional piece of work today but in 1943 when it opened on Broadway, to be an Okie was a byword for an absence of sophistication. There was nothing less cool in the minds of urbane, theatre-going America. To put that exclamation mark after the name of the state, then, represented a genuine challenge to audience preconceptions. Imagine opening in the West End now with a musical called “Ipswich!”. 

Follies is Sondheim’s nod to all of that; a virtual history of the American musical songbook, with its perfect pastiches. What he developed most fully was Oklahoma!’s ground-breaking characterisations. In Sondheim musicals, songs never just hang, never just sit for the sake of an interlude, or to please a restless crowd. Each one pushes the narrative forward, tells the audience more about the people they are watching. He wrote for actors who could sing, not necessarily just singers. Perhaps that is why he did not settle for writing hits. The modern jukebox musicals would be an anathema to him, flimsy plotlines conjured to join the dots of hit parade smashes. Sondheim’s songs always did the heaviest lifting. They worked hard, they informed, they revealed. So, no, they didn’t always fit easily into a saloon bar repertoire. Yet the great voices – Sinatra, Streisand – still learned to appreciate the rare crumbs from his table.

“If you find something hummable, you’ve probably hummed it before,” Sondheim said and there’s enough evidence of the antecedents of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s most popular songs to suggest he had a point. Yet Sondheim did not set out to be unapproachable, and it is hard to make that charge stick against the writer of West Side Story, Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, the unacknowledged inspiration for Frankie Howerd’s Up Pompeii. Sondheim was also a great humourist, even in his most serious works, even when considering the westernisation of imperial Japan. “Funny is better than clever,” he said, “because clever is only fun for clever people.”

“Have some tea, my Lord,

Some chrysanthemum tea.

It’s a tangled situation,

As your father would agree.

Though it mightn’t be so tangled

If you hadn’t had him strangled …”

(‘Chrysanthemum Tea’ from Pacific Overtures)  

And it’s impossible to attempt to convey the brilliance of Sondheim in print without quoting the many golden lines, the infernal internal rhymes, moments of dry cynicism, moments of teary tenderness, of great optimism and great despair that pepper his works – much like the shepherd’s pie “peppered with actual shepherd” in Sweeney Todd. Yet, as the New York Times pointed out, for a supposedly inferior composer, A Little Night Music alone contains a waltz, two sarabandes, two mazurkas, a polonaise, an étude and a gigue, and was written entirely in triple time. The waltz was ‘Send In The Clowns’ which will endure, as Sondheim will endure, centuries from now. 

He was 91 when he died, and still relevant as the testimony from Lin-Manuel Miranda confirmed. The writer of Hamilton, arguably the freshest and most critically successful musical of this century, was among those making the Shakespeare comparison on social media. On Sunday, he led a gathering of the Broadway community playing public tribute by reading an extract from Look, I Made A Hat, one of the two books Sondheim wrote setting out in detail his artistic process. Undeniably, no Sondheim, no Hamilton. Miranda’s latest work, Tick, Tick … Boom tells the story of Jonathan Larson, composer of the revolutionary musical Rent, and another young writer championed by Sondheim, who would often be given his work to review. Sondheim would also write letters of recommendation to producers, regarding Larson’s talent.

At one point, the film recreates a voicemail message from Sondheim for Larson. On hearing it, ever the perfectionist, Sondheim contacted Miranda. “When I screened the movie for Sondheim, he emailed me and said, ‘You treated me very gently and royally, for which I am grateful’,” Miranda recalled. “But he said, ‘One thing: the last voicemail message to Jon, it sounds a little cliché. I have a feeling you’re going to have a very bright future – I would never say that. Can I please rewrite what Sondheim says in the voicemail? I’ll record it if you can’t get the actor back’.”Miranda agreed. “I’m not turning down a Sondheim rewrite,” he said.

So, no Sondheim, no Rent. And no Book of Mormon, either. Trey Parker, creator of the show and also of South Park is a fan of musicals, and therefore Sondheim. Listen to the Broflovskis sing ‘The Dreidel Song’ in season three of South Park and the spirit of Sondheim and his counterpoint lyrics is being channelled as much as the spirit of Hannukah. Later, when the same creative team wrote South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, Parker received a letter from Sondheim announcing it to be his favourite musical of the last 15 years. Imagining the genius behind Into The Woods, revelling in Parker’s perfectly-pitched, gloriously crude ‘Uncle Fucker’ – “Shut your fucking face, Uncle Fucker / You’re a bona fide bastard, Uncle Fucker / You’re an Uncle Fucker, yes it’s true / Nobody fucks uncles quite like you” – is to appreciate that, more than any of his contemporaries, Sondheim knew the worth of a good tune, and a good joke. He wasn’t the cold fish some critics insist, he wasn’t incapable of feeling. That’s another misconception, that Sondheim personally embodied the cynicism of a project like Company, or stood outside like the rigid Fay in Anyone Can Whistle. He would refute both characterisations.

“To believe that Anyone Can Whistle is my credo is to believe that I’m the prototypical repressed intellectual and that explains everything about me,” he wrote. It never could. There was always emotion, always connection. It just wasn’t allowed to override reality. “What makes smash-hit musicals are stories the audience want to hear,” he said. “And it’s always the same story – how everything turns out terrific in the end. Unfortunately, that’s seldom the kind of material that attracts me.”

And yet:

“Someone to hold you too close

Someone to hurt you too deep

Someone to sit in your chair

And ruin your sleep

Someone to need you too much

Someone to know you too well

Someone to pull you up short

To put you through hell

Someone you have to let in

Someone whose feelings you spare

Someone who, like it or not

Will want you to share

A little a lot

Someone to crowd you with love

Someone to force you to care

Someone to make you come through

Who’ll always be there

As frightened as you

Of being alive…”

(Being Alive from Company)

So, yes, Sondheim rhymed with the wit of Ian Dury, John Betjeman or John Cooper Clarke. He wrote like the classical masters. His stories will be told to future generations, like those of Shakespeare. But he felt, too. He felt humanity’s suffering, he felt humanity’s powerful love. And if you’re ever feeling happy and think everything’s coming up roses: remember where you heard it first. 

Martin Samuel is the chief sports writer for the Daily Mail.

Photograph by Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto