Opera + Classical Music Features

Stephen Sondheim: A Reflection



With the passing of the Titan of Broadway, it feels like the end of an era. For over half a century his brilliance as a composer and lyricist generated magic in abundance. Our writers pay tribute to his genius by recalling six nights in the theatre that will live long in the memory

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

A Little Night Music (Menier Chocolate Factory, December 2008): Since being bowled over by Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane in 1980, I’ve managed to catch most Sondheim productions in London, which has made for many a memorable evening. As with any genius who has produced so many masterpieces, it’s difficult to pick out a favourite work but, for one that sweeps me away into a world of elegance and poignancy every time, I’d say the score of A Little Night Music comes closest to the number one spot. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, it’s a confection of sheer delight and staggeringly beautiful melodies.

The production I’ve liked best is the 2008 one by Trevor Nunn at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which combined perfect musical values with great storytelling and sharp characterisations. Working on a smaller scale than most of Nunn’s more recent musical productions, it was tight and poetically intense, giving this most delicate of works an immediacy that gets lost on bigger stages (the 1995 National Theatre production being a good example). It also boasted a performance of the fading actress Desiree Armfeldt that was physically beautiful, vulnerable and most of all musically accomplished. Sondheim famously wrote ‘Send in the Clowns’ for non-singers (and there’s been a long line of them which includes Glynis Johns, Jean Simmons, Susan Hampshire and Judi Dench). Hannah Waddingham is a full-blown West End star and brought so much more than most other actresses to the role, although Dench’s superlative acting was a great compensation. With Waddingham it was such a pleasure to hear this song performed by a real singer instead of the usual Rex Harrison approach adopted by other actresses. (Simon Thomas)

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Saturday Night (Jermyn Street Theatre, February 2009): Sondheim’s first musical was written in 1954, but did not officially premiere until 1997 at the University of Birmingham. The 24 year old composer originally intended to stage Saturday Night during Broadway’s 1954-55 season, but when the show’s producer Lemuel Ayers (responsible for Kiss me Kate) died, the funding dried up and it remained unperformed for over forty years. My encounter with the work came in 2009 when Primavera offered a production based on Julius J. Epstein’s revised book of the show, which featured for the first time two songs that remained unfinished when he died in 2000.  

Set in 1929, Saturday Night concerns a group of youths in Brooklyn who search for fun with a girl each weekend, and who typically end up either without a date or with one who spends all their money. In some ways, this is all portrayed as good, honest fun, and yet in terms of social commentary the musical feels ahead of its time in insinuating that the people we see are going to live in long-term poverty, especially since the Wall Street Crash is only months away.

Over the Brooklyn Bridge lies the enchanting world of Manhattan, and Brooklyn boy Gene Gorman strives to make his fortune there with disastrous consequences. The sadness derives from the fact that, as is frequently pointed out, everyone knows Gene is not what he pretends to be. His crime, however, of being a ‘sham’, a term that implies he deserves no better than what he has, derives only from his not being born into a rich family. In this way, the musical is serious in the way in which it exposes the injustice of what is still quite a rigid class system.

When I heard the musical, I was struck by just how early on Sondheim developed the writing style that we now associate with his later works. Though feeling comparatively green, the songs possess the same combination of colourful music and clever lyrics to be found in his subsequent creations. Particular highlights include ‘Saturday Night’, in which a quartet of men sing about what they hope and fear the evening holds for them, ‘Exhibit A’ in which the character Bobby describes the art of wooing while a dancer acts out the song with him, and the company’s joyfully exuberant ‘One Wonderful Day’. The production in the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre may have been small scale, but that is what made it so memorable as all of the songs were both sung and played by the cast members who proved to be as deft on the saxophone, guitar, double bass, piano and drums as on the vocals. (Sam Smith)

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (English National Opera, London Coliseum, April 2015): I had only a passing familiarity with Sondheim’s work when I went to see Sweeney Todd at ENO six years ago. West Side Story I knew very well, having performed in it, and A Little Night Music too – as well as lots of famous excerpts, raved over by friends (since then, things have changed considerably). I think I was mainly going, to tell the truth, to see Bryn Terfel in the title role, and had relatively slender expectations for the musical and dramatic substance of the work. Well, I was certainly in for a surprise.

Terfel’s laser-guided diction helped a great deal in communicating what is an extraordinary story, but the electricity of the lyrical writing was what amazed. The playfulness and dexterity of his rhymes would be the envy of Da Ponte, not least in ‘A Little Priest’, the Act I finale, which still makes me titter just thinking about them (“Shepherd’s Pie peppered with actual shepherds on top”; “the trouble with poet is how do you know it’s deceased – try the priest!”).

The show began with a brilliant coup de théâtre, which took me in completely. Musicians came out in tails and with scores, as if we really were in for a concert performance (I genuinely turned to my companion, who I had taken as his birthday treat: “oh dear – I thought it would be different!”). Of course, at the first big chorus entry, costumes were torn, music thrown on the floor, and the stage spattered with bloody red light. It’s instructive enough about what Sondheim does: carelessly graceful music and words – but honing into view behind them are punchy politics and satire (“the history of the world my sweet… is who gets eaten – and who gets to eat”), as well as intense feelings of tenderness and despair.

It was the brutal simplicity to Sondheim’s lyrics that really struck me as a relative newcomer to the show. “I’m alive now – and I’m full of joy!”, Terfel hymned as he resolved to slaughter all and sundry. “And I’ll never see Joanna – no, I’ll never see my girl again”, he wailed, in a moment worthy of any of Verdi’s brooding, broken fathers for its pathos and rawness.

It was probably not the best production of Sweeney Todd that was even on that year (certainly, Jonathan Kent’s down the road in 2012 received many plaudits) but it seemed to sum up something essential to Sondheim’s work: a main stage opera company hosting a musical, performed by opera singers and top flight actors (Emma Thompson as Mrs Lovett) and exceptional musical theatre professionals, all presented with witty theatricality and irony. It represented the way Sondheim synthesises so much of music and theatre in their glorious heterogeneity: a surreal, vaudevillian sense of humour; scores that pull on jazz and Stravinsky and Rodgers & Hammerstein; patter singing that probably exceeds Rossini at times; and a superlative grasp of both music and words (devising them, and, more importantly, making one a natural expression or intensification of the other).

Sondheim’s words and music, for me, have the quality of a Campari spritz, that bracing blend of bitter orange liqueur, soda water, ice, and a lemon slice customarily consumed before supper, alongside a bowl of olives. His work is a kind of aperitivo for the human condition. There is extraordinary effervescence and lightness of touch, a salty hit of irony, and zesty comedy. But so too a dark, intense bitterness that is unsparingly truthful and humane, a complexity that sees the opportunity and sadness of living from each angle. (Benjamin Poore)

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Follies (National Theatre, August 2017; revived February 2019): I have a confession to make – I’ve always been a bit sniffy about musicals. In hindsight, this has been my loss. When I look back at my time living in London since the early ’90s I could kick myself that I didn’t attend more musicals, especially those by Sondheim. Although I was familiar with many of his ‘hit’ numbers, or torch songs (how could I not be as a card-carrying gay?), I’d never fully appreciated his myriad talents as a composer, lyricist, and storyteller.

All that changed, however, in 2017 when a friend of mine persuaded me to go along to see Follies with him at the National Theatre. It proved to be a transformative experience. Not only was Dominic Cooke’s staging exemplary on every conceivable level, the singing and acting simply blew me away. But how could it not, with a cast that included Imelda Staunton (Sally Durant), Tracie Bennett (Carlotta Campion) and the legendary operatic soprano Dame Josephine Barstow (Heidi Schiller) – a role she shared with another superstar Dame – Felicity Lott!

Staunton was mesmerising, delivering a heartbreaking ‘Losing my Mind’, while Bennett brought the house down with a blistering rendition of ‘I’m Still Here’. I knew there’d be vocal fireworks, but I was genuinely taken aback by the poignancy and melancholy that Sondheim managed to weave through the story.

I couldn’t wait to see it again, so seized the opportunity when the NT revived it two years later. I discovered more within the subtle layers of the story, and the performances were once again faultless. There can be no doubt that Sondheim was not only a giant of musical theatre, but a genius on so many other levels as well. And it’s my loss that I waited this long to find out for myself. (Keith McDonnell)

Imelda Staunton sings ‘Losing my Mind’ in the National Theatre’s Follies.  

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West Side Story (BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, August 2018): Unlike my colleagues, I have never been a great fan of Sondheim’s music (there’s always one!), but I have always been a great admirer of his skill with a lyric. He often deployed unsophisticated rhymes and metres, but there is a knowing quality to them which infuses the simplicity with layers of double meaning. Take these lines from the opening of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street:

“His needs were few, his room was bare:
a lavabo and a fancy chair,
A mug of suds and a leather strop,
An apron, a towel, a pail and a mop.”

Bare/chair, strop/mop are simple, monosyllabic rhymes, but they’re carefully chosen to be as clean and abrupt as the swish of a razor in the context of the uneasy, almost recitative ballad they sit in. And, in four words, they give us all the elements of the drama: a cold moral certitude; some clever apparatus; a sharpened blade; a clean-up operation. Sondheim took inspiration for Sweeney Todd from a play by Christopher Bond, some of whose characters speak in blank verse, and I always feel that, had blank-verse plays come back into fashion in a big way, Sondheim would have been a prime candidate to write one.

In this context, mention must be made of Sondheim’s 1957 collaboration with Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I attended a first-rate semi-staged version conducted by John Wilson at the 2018 Proms, in which I was reminded of the cleverness of Sondheim’s lyrics, and his ability to transform Shakespeare’s text into a modern idiom. Again, the rhymes are uncomplicated, but they take the sexual and testosterone laden subtexts that Shakespeare’s audience must surely have understood and translate them into daring (for 1950s America) double entendre: “got a rocket in your pocket”; “Gee, Officer Krupke: krup you!”. The smartest resonance, in my view, occurs in the brilliant volley of musical and textual material in the Act I ‘Tonight Quintet’, where Riff and Tony exchange the words: “Womb to tomb/Sperm to worm”. These short lines reference so much in Romeo and Juliet – a play whose summary might be “love and death” – and one’s mind instantly conjures Romeo’s Act V speech at Juliet’s tomb: “Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death…”. Genius. (Barry Creasy)

West Side Story

West Side Story at the Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

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Company (Gielgud Theatre, October 2018): “A man with no emotional commitments reassesses his life on his 35th birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and girlfriends. That is the entire plot.” That was Sondheim’s own description of his 1970 musical, but this 2018 production switched the genders so that the man (Bobby) became a woman (Bobbie). Director Marianne Elliott decided to do so because, while a 35 year old man being single in 1970 was still different enough from the norm as to be worthy of exploration, today people would be more inclined to ask what the issue was. Second, when the story is stripped down it involves a man sleeping around with no real interest in, or sense of responsibility towards, the women he beds, which is at the very least distasteful in the modern day.

Although it was not actually Sondheim’s idea to take this approach, he gave Elliott his blessing, and it is a mark of the strength of the piece that it can withstand such alterations because changing the sex of the main protagonist has implications for the character or gender of so many others. In this way, Elliott helped to reveal the brilliance of Sondheim’s writing, and George Furth’s libretto, by revealing how it ultimately portrayed human, as opposed to specifically male, traits and emotions.

The production was memorable for playing Sondheim’s songs out for all their worth through the staging. For example, ‘Getting Married Today’ always saw the Priest in exactly the right place for the start of each refrain, even in one instance arriving in position by emerging out of the refrigerator! The trio ‘You Could Drive a Person Crazy’ was nicely handled as it was sung by three men rather than women, while the large ‘What Would We do Without You?’ prevailed by virtue of its scale, dynamism and sheer inventiveness. Conversely, the ‘slow motion’ movement employed in ‘Another Hundred People’, which generated a sense of figures tumbling on and off metro carriages as they went about their daily lives, was effective in a far quieter way. ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ was an undoubted highlight as it saw Patty LuPone perched on a high stool in a bar, drooling over the lines in a way that surely only she ever could. In each instance, however, a brilliant routine could never have arisen out of a poor song, meaning that we were never allowed to forget the genius of Sondheim’s music that underpinned all that we saw before us. (Sam Smith)

Company

Rosalie Craig in Company (Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

Words by Sam Smith, Barry Creasy, Keith McDonnell, Benjamin Poore and Simon Thomas


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Stephen Sondheim: A Reflection