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Pure and simple

Philip Hensher finds Stephen Sondheim, in his later years, side-stepping from smartness into sincerity

26 November 2011

10:00 AM

26 November 2011

10:00 AM

Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments by Stephen Sondheim

Virgin, pp.480, 35

It might be that the stage musical is now pretty well over as a form. Certainly, the gloomy parade of ‘juke-box’ musicals through the West End doesn’t give one much hope for the future. It is difficult to pick out a worst offender, but the Ben Elton We Will Rock You, confected from the Queen catalogue, is as bad as any. Its premise, of taking the work of a curious-looking, homosexual, Parsi, excessive genius like Freddie Mercury and turning it into an idiotic story about two clean-cut stage-school kids Putting the Show on Right Now says something truly terrible about the musical: it says that it can only deal with conventional views of conventional subjects.

The demonstration of just how untrue that really is comes with the collected works of Stephen Sondheim, who is surely the greatest figure in the entire history of the stage musical. In his long career, he has not hesitated to address difficult subjects. It’s certainly true that other classics in the genre have dealt with some serious issues — race relations in Showboat, the Anschluss in The Sound of Music, even trade union movements in The Pyjama Game and urban prostitution in Sweet Charity. When Sondheim takes on themes of colonial exploitation (Pacific Overtures), political assassinations (Assassins) or Freudian psychological depths (pretty well the whole oeuvre), he is not stepping outside the previously established limits of the form.

Where he excels, and where some audiences find him disconcerting, is his regular refusal to coat the theme in Rodgers-and-Hammerstein sugar — compare Pacific Overtures with South Pacific, or the rendering of obsession in Sweeney Todd with the Judd sub-plot in Oklahoma! Even more disconcerting, this distinctive clarity of vision is not at all austere: Sondheim, even at his most penetrating, retains a distinctive love of spectacular staging, and the combination of acid psychological commentary, dazzling pastiche and extravanganza makes a musical like Follies — his masterpiece, in my opinion — a unique contribution.

This glorious volume, the second of two, collects the lyrics for his remarkable musicals from 1981 onwards. There are four complete works here: Sunday in the Park with George, a grand spectacle about Seurat and ‘La Grande Jatte’; Into the Woods, a fairytale musical which first confects a happy ending and then lets it bleakly unravel into something more tentative; Assassins, a heavily amusing work about assorted people who have tried to murder various US presidents (you wouldn’t get away with that nowadays); and Passion, a rather laborious piece of work based on an Italian neo-realist classic. There are also four separate versions of an ill-fated musical about the American Dream, urban development and sexual repression, called successively Wise Guys, Bounce and Road Show, which never really worked, and, grippingly, a series of fragments, try-outs, sketches and occasional pieces.

It’s in this last that you see Sondheim’s remarkable range and magpie-like sympathy — an adaptation of Brecht, a musical about an academic-turned-bodybuilder, a Holmes and Watson cocaine-addiction musical, Dick Tracy, and something called I Believe in You. (‘I have no idea what the notion was’, Sondheim writes. ‘I’ve lost the script and forgotten the plot. All I remember is that there was a young couple named Sandy and Jo Ann, and detailed descriptions of food.’) Not all of these were ever going to come to anything, but Sweeney Todd and Company and Sunday in the Park with George must initially have seemed quite as unpromising.

The second half of Sondheim’s career has less of the lyric smartness that makes the early work such a joy: there is not much in the post-George work to remind us of Phyllis wondering whether or not to leave her husband in Follies — ‘Not to fetch your pills again/ Every day at five,/ Not to give those dinners for ten/ Elderly men/From the UN—/ How could I survive?’ The sharpness of vision which came as such a revelation to the first London audiences of Company survives, though perhaps not the cynically witty expression: ‘The concerts you enjoy together, / Neighbors you annoy together, / Children you destroy together, / That keep marriage intact.’

Reading the simplicity of the lovely lyric ‘No one is Alone’ from Into the Woods, it might be wondered whether Sondheim took a side-step into sincerity. ‘Mother cannot guide you./ Now you’re on your own/ Only me beside you./ Still, you’re not alone.’ But the simplicity has always been an important part of Sondheim’s armoury, from Gypsy’s ‘Little Lamb’ lyric, despite its terrific sting in the tail, through ‘Losing My Mind’ from Follies — ‘A coffee cup/
I think about you…’

And, like most revolutionaries, Sondheim came into the art form with a mission to simplify and purify. There is an immense gap between Sondheim and many of the classics of the form. On the one hand there is Hammerstein’s idiotic line from The Sound of Music, about Maria wanting to be ‘like a lark who is learning to pray’ — that common sight in the Austrian alps. (‘And while we’re at it, how can you tell a lark that is just learning to pray from one who’s actually praying?’ Sondheim remarked in the previous volume.) On the other hand,  we have the lovely, even affected simplicity of Sondheim’s line in West Side Story as Tony looks forward to love — ‘It may come cannonballing down through the sky,/ Gleam in its eye,/ Bright as a rose!’

Sondheim has taken the Broadway musical a long way from the position in which he found it — described here by him as ‘Act One, Get the Hero Up a Tree; Act Two, Throw Stones at Him; Act Three, Get Him Down From the Tree.’ He did so principally by being a craftsman of immense refinement, examining every element with a jeweller’s precision, and one of the joys of this volume and its predecessor is hearing his scrupulous and unforgiving comments on his own and others’ failings. In the previous volume, Noel Coward and Oscar Hammerstein came in for it, and poor old Lorenz Hart was skewered — wrongly, in my view — for writing ‘Your looks are laughable/ Unphotographable’ when Sondheim thought he can only have meant ‘unphotogenic’. (But surely Hart meant ‘impossible to capture’?)

In this one, he focuses more exclusively on his own work, rightly describing the word ‘honey’ in a lyric from the ill-fated Wise Guys as a ‘time bomb’, calling another number in the same show ‘interminable … a play in itself, or, more accurately, an oratorio’. We hear about all manner of momentary enthusiasms, including ‘the notion of transforming Sunset Boulevard into a musical’ — what a marvellous idea, someone ought to do that some time.

We also hear a good deal about sins committed many years before, including, in a very early song from 1952, ‘I blush to see the rhyme “favorites/ save it’s” with that extra “r”…’ It’s this unflagging attention to detail which enables such triumphs as this song from an unproduced musical about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor: ‘He may not be awf’ly Brooks/ Or as stylish as the Duke/ But for me he has the looks/ Of the ten best-dressed men in Dubuque.’

Sondheim is a global treasure, and these two volumes are indispensable contributions to a dying art.

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