Decades in the Broadway biz, and still we want more of Stephen Sondheim


Stephen Sondheim in the HBO documentary “Six by Sondheim.” (Jerry Jackson/Courtesy of HBO)

“God. I mean, the man’s a god,” Stephen Sondheim puckishly wrote in the 2010 Broadway revue “Sondheim on Sondheim,” sending up the long ascending, stratospheric image of himself that includes a 1994 New York magazine headline, “Is Sondheim God?”

“This is my studio. I work lying down,” he explains in a deliberately mundane video footage of the genius at work that’s interspersed with the song. The number builds to a finish that briefly cribs the triumphant tune of “I’m Still Here,” only with the lyric “Look who’s God!”

Just before that, the composer-lyricist says dryly, “And this box contains my fingernail clippings. I’m thinking of sending them to the Smithsonian.”

Now 84, the colossus of the American musical theater has spent the past two decades being celebrated in nearly every conceivable way, from star-studded tribute concerts to having a theater named after him on Broadway. He was a Kennedy Center honoree 21 years ago, in 1993. His status has long been clinched.

But still, we want to know more, and Sondheim knows it. His only new show since “Passion” in 1994 has been “Road Show” in 2008, which had troubled earlier incarnations as “Wise Guys” and, at the Kennedy Center in 2003, “Bounce.” Yet he is an increasing object of fascination and study.

He cooperated with longtime collaborator James Lapine for the “Sondheim on Sondheim” revue, and on last year’s “Six by Sondheim” documentary for HBO. He recently published two handsome, exhaustive, incisive collections of his lyrics (with abundant commentaries), “Finishing the Hat” and “Look, I Made a Hat.” Mark Eden Horowitz’s “Sondheim on Music,” updated in 2010, is an intensely sophisticated set of interviews with Sondheim detailing the composing process behind scores that range from the low comedy of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” to the near-operatic horror of “Sweeney Todd.” (Horowitz is a senior music specialist at the Library of Congress.)

We also want to see and hear the shows one mo’ time, so on stage and screen, they continue to be held to the light. Three of Sondheim’s musicals have won Tonys for best revival — “Into the Woods” (2002), “Assassins” (2004) and “Company” (2007) — and eight more have been nominated since the category came into being only 20 years ago. In September, PBS will air the recent New York Philharmonic concert staging of “Sweeney Todd” that starred Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel. Due this Christmas: the Disney film of “Into the Woods” with Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep.

Closer to home, on Aug. 5 the Sondheim specialists at Arlington’s Signature Theatre begin performances of “Sunday in the Park with George” — “Sondheim’s most significant musical accomplishment,” Horowitz wrote for the quarterly The Sondheim Review. “Sunday” is Signature’s 23rd full production of a Sondheim musical in 25 years.

And for something completely different, on Aug. 7 the Landless Theatre Company plugs in its guitars at the small Warehouse Theater for a first-time ever prog metal version of “Sweeney Todd.”

Sondheim has never been America’s most popular composer: None of the musicals for which he has written the music and lyrics are near the top 100 of Broadway’s longest-running shows. Then again, maybe he is: Post-Rodgers and Hammerstein, no one else’s catalogue is quite as ingenious, or is generating the same kind of sustained scrutiny and attention.

So at the risk of burnishing the “god” legacy and boring the most fervent acolytes with what they already know, here is a primer on some of the talismans, techniques and tallies from the Sondheimisphere.


(L-R) Richard Bauer, Marin Mazzie, Victor Garber holding David Garrison, and Becky Ann Baker in Arena Stage’s 1990 production of Merrily We Roll Along. (Joan Marcus)

Mantras

“Less is more.” “Content dictates form.” “God is in the details.”

Tools

Rhyming dictionary:

Clement Wood.

“That’s the best one, and for a very simple reason: All the words are listed vertically,” Sondheim told James Lipton on the Bravo network’s “Inside the Actors’ Studio” in 1994. “If you use one that lists them horizontally, your eyes start to skip over the entries. The problem with Clement Wood is that it was published in 1938, so there are very few contemporary words in it. But I’ve written a lot of words into my main copy . . . If anybody wants to write lyrics, that’s the one to use.”

When the revised “Merrily We Roll Along” came to Arena Stage in 1990, Sondheim borrowed a staffer’s copy. When he returned it, he told the owner, “I think you’ll want to know that I wrote in some words.”

Paper:

yellow legal pad, 32 lines

Pencils:

Blackwings (soft, and need frequent sharpening)

Balm for bad reviews:

Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time,” by Nicolas Slonimsky.

“A startling and hilarious, if discomfiting, compendium of published criticism about everyone from Beethoven to Copland,” Sondheim writes in “Look, I Made a Hat.” “Slonimsky’s display of these monumental misjudgments should be required reading for every artist, particularly those just starting out.”


Arena Stage and Signature Theatre’s 1997 co-production of “Sunday in the Park with George.” Stephen Sondheim said Georges Seurat’s famous painting that inspired the production was perfect “for somebody like me to musicalize.” (Joan Marcus/Joan Marcus)

Patti LuPone plays Mama Rose in the musical "Gypsy," during the2008Tony Awards. She won the award for best actress that year. (Jeff Christensen/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Steve and Tony

Sondheim is the composer with the most Tony Awards (8). Music and lyrics were separate prizes when “Company” won in 1971. “Follies” (1972), “A Little Night Music” (1973), “Sweeney Todd” (1979), “Into the Woods” (1988) and “Passion” (1994) each won Best Score. Sondheim also won a Special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in 2008.

Best Musical winners:

“Forum” (1963), “Company” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973), “Sweeney Todd” (1979), “Passion” (1994)

Pulitzer Prize for Drama: “Sunday in the Park with George” (1985)

Most Best Actor Tony winners for a single Sondheim role:

Three, for Pseudolus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — played by Zero Mostel (1963), Phil Silvers (1972), Nathan Lane (1996)

Most Best Actress
Tony
winners for a single Sondheim role:

Three, for Mama Rose in “Gypsy” (lyrics by Sondheim, music by Jule Styne) — played by Angela Lansbury (1975), Tyne Daly (1990), Patti LuPone (2008)

Sondheim’s longest-running show on Broadway: “Forum,” 1962-64 (964 performances)

Shortest-running musical in Broadway history to win Best Musical: “Passion” (280 performances)


Roundabout Theatre Company's "Assassins.” Sondheim calls it “perfect” other than one moment he would like to improve. (Joan Marcus/Joan Marcus)

Richard Bauer, Marin Mazzie, Victor Garber holding David Garrison, and Becky Ann Baker in Arena Stage’s 1990 production of Merrily We Roll Along. (Joan Marcus/Joan Marcus)

Sondheim favorites

Best realized:

“Assassins.”

“If I were asked to name the show that comes closest to my expectations for it, the answer would be ‘Assassins,’ ” he writes in “Look, I Made a Hat.” “ ‘Assassins’ has only one moment I’d like to improve. . . . Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, the show is perfect. Immodest that may sound, but I’m ready to argue it with anybody.”

Closest to his heart:

“Sunday in the Park with George.”

“Because of the ambitiousness of what it’s trying to say, and because I really feel, obviously, for the subject matter,” he said in “Sondheim on Sondheim.” To Horowitz, he said of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” which is painted exclusively with small dabs of basic colors, “This is the perfect painting for somebody like me to musicalize because it is all about design, and it’s all about echo, and it’s all about the effect of this next to that, or this apart from that. It’s so musical. The more I got to know the painting, the more musical I felt.”

Hardest of his scores to write: “Merrily We Roll Along,” he told Horowitz in 1997. “To write a 32 bar song that has freshness and style to it and tells the story is really hard. And nobody does it anymore.”

What’s more fun to write: music or lyrics?

Music. Sondheim has called composing “a pleasure,” lyric writing “a chore,” “hell.”


Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic performing Sondheim's Sweeney Todd with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson at Avery Fisher Hall in March. (Chris Lee/Courtesy PBS)

Craft & precision

“Keen observer of the human condition. Mercurial. Gruff. Kind. Incredibly precise,” Signature musical director Jon Kalbfleisch e-mails of Sondheim.

“The sheer sweat and effort he puts into his craft dwarfs anything I’ve seen from any other songwriter,” Horowitz wrote for a “Studies in Musical Theatre” article that also featured Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. “Where other lyricists might list 15, 20, even 30 options for something, Sondheim might list 100.”

Musical craft , “Sunday in the Park”:

“In ‘Finishing the Hat,’ the barest minimum of thematic material is used to form a song that becomes moving and rich and rhapsodic,” Horowitz wrote in a “Biography of a Song” for the Sondheim Review. “In its entire 93 measures there is not a single accidental (a sharped or flatted note) in the melody! Furthermore, there are only four measures in the entire song that have any accidentals in the harmony! And that primary five-note melodic motif that underlies the first statement of the title phrase (D-flat, E-flat, G-flat, D-flat, B-flat) repeats 18 times in the song exactly, and several more times in slight variations. If the song sounded slight or innocuous that would be one thing, but somehow it is passionate and surprising and close to miraculous.”

Lyric precision, “Sweeney”:

Number of walks of life Sondheim considered for the “Sweeney Todd” song “A Little Priest,” about the people the murderous barber and Mrs. Lovett might bake into meat pies: More than 150.

“Based on his approach and his sketches, I believe Sondheim is the most ‘serious’ composer ever to write for the musical theatre — including Gershwin, Weill, Blitzstein and Bernstein,” Horowitz wrote.


Claybourne Elder and Brynn O’Malley rehearse “Sunday in the Park with George” at Signature Theatre. (Christopher Mueller/Christopher Mueller)

Revivals

Average run for first New York production, after opening, of shows with music and lyrics by Sondheim: 384 performances

“I do know that most of the shows I’ve written were probably underappreciated or condescendingly dismissed the first time around,” Sondheim told Horowitz in 2009. “So that when they occur the second time, if they’re any good, people tend to say, ‘Ooh, isn’t that wonderful.’ ”

Sunday in the Park with George

Book by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Aug. 5-Sept. 21 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington. Tickets $40-$109, subject to change. Call 703-573-7328 or visit signature-theatre.org.

Sweeney Todd

Book by Hugh Wheeler, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Aug. 7-31 at the Warehouse Theatre, 645 New York Avenue NW. Tickets $25. Visit landlesstheatre.com.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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