Stephen Sondheim: One of the great dissident voices of America

Johann Hari
Saturday 28 June 2003 00:00

As Stephen Sondheim's mother prepared for an operation that she thought would kill her, she wrote a note to her only child, then in his forties. "The only regret I have in life," she explained, "is giving you birth."

Theatregoers in Chicago and London will not, I suspect, share her regret. The impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh has just announced that he is to build a new theatre called the Sondheim in London's West End. And a terrific production of one of Sondheim's most daringly uncommercial shows, Pacific Overtures - a musical history of Japan, from the US intervention in 1853 to (in the new update) 11 September 2001 - has just opened at the Donmar Warehouse. Stateside, Chicagoans will see that rare thing, a Sondheim premiere, Gold, nine years after his last work.

Yet this moment - which superficially seems to be one of glory and applause - is a dangerous one for Sondheim. Although he has always insisted that his work is non-political - a claim that is less persuasive with each passing year - Sondheim is in fact one of America's great dissident voices. His last show, Assassins, took the most laceratingly critical view of America ever seen on Broadway. It opened, with lethal bad luck, during the First Gulf War, and received savage reviews, yet it is now coming to be seen in Europe as his masterpiece. As the show opens, Lee Harvey Oswald is planning the assassination of JFK. All of the men and women who have tried to kill a US President, from Lee Wilkes Booth to John Hinkley, appear before Oswald to urge him to do it. "All you have to do/ Is move your little finger," they sing, "Move your little finger and/ You can change the world."

Instead of demonising them, Sondheim shows the assassins as sympathetic and even dangerously persuasive; they appear to the audience as the pathetic victims of an America that promises equality of opportunity at every turn but refuses to deliver. The blandly pro-American narrator tells them, to the accompaniment of a banjo, that in the US, "the mailman won the lottery" and "the usherette's a rock star", that the delivery boy can become the King of Wall Street. His Reaganite platitudes seem ridiculous when contrasted with the reality of the assassins' thwarted lives.

To illustrate this, Sondheim dares to take every meritocratic pro-American cliché and subvert it. Leon Czolgosz sings, as he stands in a queue, that "in the USA you can work your way to the head of the line" - a song that in any other context could be played at a Republican Party rally. But gradually the audience realises that he is working his way to the head of the line to assassinate President William McKinley, the closest that he will ever get to making that jingoistic tune ring true.

The final song declares, "There's another national anthem, folks/ And it's not the one you'll hear at the ball-park/ There's another national anthem folks,/ For those who never win,/ For the suckers, for the pikers,/ For the ones who might have been."

For a major American artist to use a populist art form to declare that the American national anthem is really a song for the rich and wealthy élite was startling and, for many Americans, unacceptable. Like so many of Sondheim's shows, it closed early, and a production of Assassins due to open on Broadway in October 2001 was pulled by its investors the day that al-Qa'ida attacked New York.

Nor is Assassins the only one of Sondheim's musicals to deconstruct the founding myths of American identity. Franklin Shepherd, the main character in Sondheim's 1981 show Merrily We Roll Along, has fulfilled the American Dream. When the show opens, he is a phenomenally successful Hollywood director and multi-millionaire, and married to the hottest babe on Broadway to boot. "How did you get there from here, Mr Shepherd?", flocks of aspiring students sing.

Yet as the story is told backwards, scene-by-scene, we see that every step towards the brash American dream required him to kill part of his soul. Franklin - now dubbed "Franklin Shepherd Inc" by his oldest friend - has had to smother the youthful idealism embodied in the final (and therefore youngest) song, "Our Time", which, not coincidentally, is sung as Franklin and his friends gaze at the sky during that landmark in American optimism, the moon landing.

Similarly, Pacific Overtures forces Americans to see that, contrary to their self-image, they were a 19th century imperial power just as surely as the British, Dutch and French. Its criticism of US foreign policy would be dubbed "anti-American" if its author was not American himself. There is a horribly ambiguous moment in the new Donmar production where 11 September is mentioned and there is a flood of light and the sound of burning. It is impossible to think not only of the World Trade Centre but also of Hiroshima, an attack launched by America against a Japanese civilian centre.

So when you hear that Gold is, according to its promotional literature, "set in turn-of-the-century America, in the whirlwind rush for gold, a time when the opportunity that embodies the America Dream was at its most limitless," you somehow know that it won't be a rosy patriotic celebration. Yet in the post-11 September world where Assassins is all but unstageable, will Sondheim's dissidence be deemed unacceptable? He has, like Woody Allen, always been much more popular in Europe than back home, but could this be the Mia Farrow moment in which Americans give up on him altogether?

Being rejected by Americans yet further would, at least, be nothing new for Sondheim. He has always been an outsider. He has lived for almost all of his life as a single gay man, and he has had only one relationship, when he was in his sixties.

His most autobiographical show, Sunday in the Park With George, is about the French artist Georges Seurat, who invented the technique of pointillism. He was both unloved and unappreciated in his own lifetime; he was too innovative for his countrymen to understand his work, and too obsessed with his art for any romance to be possible. Sondheim's own reinvention of the musical is as radical in its own medium as pointillism was to painting.

He has taken an essentially two-dimensional genre and made it three-dimensional, adding depth and shade to an art-form that had long been considered inherently shallow and frivolous. Frank Rich, the legendary theatre critic of The New York Times, argues that Sondheim "has changed the texture of musical theatre as radically as Oscar Hammerstein, and may yet leave our theatre profoundly altered." He has burned all of the conventions of the musical, such as the need for an upbeat ending, the avoidance of ideas and the fear of any whiff of the intellectual.

Sondheim has been free to break the rules of the musical in this bold way at least in part because he learned those rules so firmly and so early, and at the feet of the master. Oscar Hammerstein - the greatest musical writer before Sondheim - was a friend of the Sondheim family, and adopted the teenage musician as a protégé. His influence was massive: Stephen has often said that if Hammerstein had been a geologist, he would be working in geology now. Yet the pupil has arguably spent his entire career subverting the teachings of his guru, by endlessly pushing the musical in directions nobody thought it could go.

Many critics think that Sondheim pushes it beyond its capacities. John Lahr, theatre critic for The New Yorker, insists that "you cannot debate in song. Song is a form of enchantment. And Sondheim is on record as saying that he cannot create joy. His intelligence has driven the musical into a cul-de-sac." He later accused the composer and lyricist of "boulevard nihilism," dubbing him "the Samuel Beckett of musical theatre".

Many of Sondheim's defining characteristics - this bleak world-view, his outsider status, and his wariness of relationships - are often attributed to his bizarre mother, Janet Sondheim, known universally as "Foxy". Both Stephen's parents were fantastically wealthy and influential figures in the New York fashion scene, leaving Stephen - in his own words - as "an orphan, an institutionalised child."

But his isolation turned to something worse when his father left Foxy for a younger woman when he was 10. Sondheim's mother began to turn her attention onto her child. "She took it out on me because she had no one else to take it out on," Sondheim says, but this seems to have included not only her anger but also her sexual attentions.

He gave his biographer some typical examples: "I went to a show with her and she not only held my hand, but looked at me during the entire play. And she would sit across from me with her legs spread. She would lower her blouse and that sort of stuff."

Many aspects of Foxy's character can be seen in Sondheim's lyrics for Gypsy, where the central character, Mamma Rose, is a crazed, ambitious but chronically disappointed woman. Foxy finally pushed her son too far in the 1970s, and they never spoke again. He continued to give her $80,000 a year to live on, though, until her death in 1992. He does not know where she is buried.

Foxy's legacy is in part found in her son's emotional reserve, perhaps compensated for by over-intellectualisation. Stephen cannot whistle, and in one of his most-loved songs, a repressed woman laments that she too cannot whistle because she won't "lower my guard - learn to be free". Arthur Laurents, his friend and collaborator, says that the song "will be Steve's epitaph. It's about Steve - a person who is out of touch with his feelings".

Pacific Overtures will almost certainly be lauded by the London critics; the reaction to Gold in Chicago, however, will show us if it is not only his emotions that Sondheim is out of touch with, but also increasingly his country.


Born Stephen Joshua Sondheim in New York City, 22 March 1930

Family Parents divorced when he was 10. Moved to Philadelphia with his mother

Education Influenced by his neighbour, Oscar Hammerstein II. Spent a short time at military school. In 1950, graduated from Williams College. Studied music theory and composition with Milton Babbitt.

Career Assistant writer on the early sitcom Topper, 1953-54; lyricist for musicals West Side Story (1956) and Gypsy (1959); composer and lyricist of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962); Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1974), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1981), Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1990), Passion (1994).

Honours National Medal of Arts award (1997), President of National association of Playwrights, Composers and Lyricists (1973-1981), Kennedy Centre Honors (1993)

He says "I'm just a nice Jewish boy from the 19th century."

"I prefer neurotic people; I like to hear rumblings beneath the surface."

They say "Possibly the greatest lyricist ever." Cameron Macintosh

"Performing Sondheim spoils you for other composers." Julie Andrews

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