The trouble with Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim is 70 on Wednesday. He's written some of the most critically acclaimed musicals of the past 50 years. But is he just too clever for the genre?
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The Independent Online

When it comes to Stephen Sondheim, the world is divided into two, dare I say it, camps. It's not just a case of like or dislike: fervent fans group themselves into Appreciation Societies to worship at his shrine, while dissenters bang on about his "cynicism" and brandish his catalogue of commercial failures. But whichever way you slice it, as far as writers are concerned, his is the most influential career in musicals of the past 50 years. Mind you, that has its downside. As songwriter Alan Chapman puts it (to a suitably insistent, nay, neurotic accompaniment): "Everyone wants to be Sondheim, but me. So they try to write a melody/ That goes somewhere unexpectedly/ And they think that's how you get to be Sondheim."

So much for the unpredictability of his master's voice. How about his words? "And they pack their lyrics till they're so damn dense/ You could put 'em in your yard and you could use 'em for a fence/ And they honestly believe that they've captured the sense/ Of Sondheim."

The smartest thing about that song is the way it both skewers and implicitly praises the work in question. After all, it may have been The Hollies who sang "All I need is the air that I breathe", but some of Sondheim's over-crafted later lyrics could do with a little more space than he accords them, and his most recent scores have sometimes overworked the basic melodic material in the way that even the tastiest Christmas turkey can end up less attractively as curry before (anti)climaxing as rather thin soup. But that is by no means the whole story.

The American musical is notable for the fact that its "A" list is frighteningly short, its "B" list not much longer, while the stream of also-rans (not to mention the downright dogs) goes on for days. So the fact that before Sondheim made it as a composer/lyricist, he'd supplied the lyrics to two of the form's unquestioned masterpieces - West Side Story and Gypsy - is seriously impressive. His career blossomed further with his first produced show for which he also wrote the music: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a glorious, silly, splendid farce derived from a comedy by Plautus.

The ride, ever since, has been a great deal rockier. Money-makers like A Little Night Music and Into the Woods have been matched by high-profile flops like the misconceived Anyone Can Whistle, which famously died after nine performances, and the sadly underrated Merrily We Roll, which lasted for 16.

The trouble with his reputation, in this country at least, dates back to the arrival of what can now be safely described as his masterpiece, Sweeney Todd. In 1980, however, this genuinely devastating piece of theatre was given short shrift by the vast majority of British critics, who took issue with the expression of its heart of darkness, and as a result, it closed after three months. Ever since, the critical establishment has suffered from what can only be described as the Sondheim Guilt Syndrome.

Consciously or no, they feel so bad about having not spotted a great work, that for years afterwards they fell over themselves to heap praise upon everything that followed. Mediocre or misguided stagings of his finest work drew critical superlatives, seducing audiences to see productions which often left them dissatisfied. Understandably, audiences tended to blame the writer when they should have been blaming the productions. As a result, most of his work is now not viable outside the subsidised sector.

To be fair to directors, his shows are peculiarly demanding of their casts. Sondheim has argued that he ideally casts actors rather than singers; his sometime- collaborator James Lapine votes for singers. The truth is that you need both. Musicals have always been about performers transcending text. However much a writer might want a show to flow, the post-Oklahoma! musical-play form has relied on climaxes, usually a solo number, in which a performer grabs the material by the scruff of the neck and lifts the audience on to an emotional and dramatic high which non-lyric theatre can only dream of.

But to do that in a Sondheim show, it is not enough to have a voice, you have to be able to deliver the dramatic goods, too. It's no surprise that Angela Lansbury has shone in three of his shows. When she starred - and I invoke that overused word advisedly - in London's Gypsy, she nabbed the London Critics award for Best Actress, the only time it has ever been awarded to a performance in a musical.

So it is somewhat ironic that his biggest success in Britain was in the bastardised form of a compilation show which did wonders for the careers of all its participants, including young producer Cameron Mackintosh. Side by Side by Sondheim took two pianos, three performers, three black and chrome bar stools and did away with the carefully structured drama which has been the hallmark of all his musicals. MC Ned Sherrin dovetailed the songs to provide context, and everyone cleaned up. Suddenly, all those nay-sayers who had frowned over Sondheim's supposed "lack of tunes" found themselves smiling with pleasure. Familiarity, it seemed, bred contentment.

Which is the whole point. His shows are short on reprises, the device whereby the same tune is repeated so that you cannot fail to hum it on the way out of the theatre. Of course, these days, shows like the grotesquely cynical Saturday Night Fever, or the beguilingly innocent Mamma Mia! do away with that imperative: they have you humming all the tunes on the way in.

His problem has always been that he's a serious man working in a form that's considered overwhelmingly frivolous. There's more snobbery surrounding musicals than any other theatre form. Heavens, it's far too popular - and populist - to be considered as art. Serious-minded commentators are deeply suspicious of success but try to have the argument both ways: blockbusters must be tripe, while attempts at artistic advance are considered elitist. How foolish of Sondheim to write a show about Seurat, love, and artistic endeavour - Sunday in the Park with George. Clearly too clever by half.

To be honest, they may have a point with Sunday. In common with several other Sondheim shows, its dodgy second act could lead it towards being classified as a case of "nice songs, shame about the show". But the first act is daring and intensely theatrical, and the shimmering climax is unforgettably moving.

Crucially, that has everything to do with Sondheim's score. Like The Lion King, Sondheim's musical about the creation of a painting relies absolutely on its visuals. But unlike Disney's visual feast, a success which makes spectacle respectable, the shivers of pleasure that Sunday in the Park with George induces are everything to do with sound: an impassioned, dramatic fusion of words and music. The difference between Sondheim and Elton John & Tim Rice - or for that matter, almost everyone else in the field - is that while they write shows, he writes musicals.