Still cutting it at 80: Stephen Sondheim interviewStephen Sondheim, who revolutionised the musical with hits such as Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music, has lost none of his edge
By Mick Brown
Stephen Sondheim Photo: Ethan Levitas
Early for my appointment with Stephen Sondheim on a sultry New York afternoon, I sat down for a moment on a bench outside an office building, a short walk from Sondheim’s home. He has lived in New York all his life, and his work, while seldom explicitly about the city, seems very much to reflect its sensibility – sharp, sophisticated, knowing.
He is, by universal acknowledgement, the man who revolutionised American musical theatre, and the last survivor of a form that is all but extinct, swept away in the deluge of 'jukebox musicals’, overblown crowd-pleasers and 'theme-park’ spectacles that now dominate the Broadway stage.
In my bag I was carrying a copy of Sondheim’s new book, Finishing the Hat, a compendium of the lyrics from his first musical, Saturday Night (1954), to Merrily We Roll Along (1981), along with his commentaries and observations. (The book is only volume one; he is working on volume two.) As Sondheim acknowledges in his introduction, a book of song lyrics is a contradiction in terms: 'Theatre lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung.’ But Sondheim’s lyrics stand apart from the music, like playlets in themselves, unparalleled in their wit, erudition and ingenuity.
Affixed to the bench was a sign that read, somewhat paradoxically, no loitering. What could Sondheim make of that?
'Loiter?’ Sondheim rolls the word around his tongue. 'Well, “goitre” is the obvious one.’ He laughs. 'But it’s a hard word to place. There are certain rhymes where you need the exact situation. I once wanted to rhyme “opposite” and “poppa sit”, and I had a situation where a woman is seating her family at a table, so “poppa sit opposite” made perfect sense. And I thought, God, that’s so lucky, because what other situation could I use that in?
So if you happen to have a lady with a goitre and she’s dawdling…’ He breaks into laughter.
Sondheim is a bearish-looking man of compact build with an untidy thatch of grey hair and grizzled beard, his face a cross-hatching of crevices and folds from which his eyes glint piercingly, alternately flashing between humour, thoughtfulness and impatience. He is dressed casually in a sweater and baggy khaki trousers.
At the age of 80 he exudes the vitality and mental sharpness – a sort of coiled energy – of a much younger man. His assistant brings water, and two black poodles scamper around the room, demanding to be scratched and stroked. 'She’s a diva and he’s a chorus boy,’ Sondheim says.
Sondheim has lived in the house for the past 50 years. Katharine Hepburn was once his next door neighbour. The furnishings in his sitting-room suggest refinement, studiousness and comfort in equal measure: a Persian rug on parquet flooring; deep sofas draped with throws, one of which Sondheim falls into like a demolished building. An antique sideboard is crowded with decorative boxes, ornamental plates, gold gewgaws, a pair of giant dice.
Sondheim is a lover of games, and collects antique ones (many were destroyed in a fire that swept through the lower floors of the house in 1995). He has a passion for murder mysteries, puzzles (he once spent 18 months devising cryptic crosswords for New York magazine), word play and anagrams. His own name, he points out, provides two particularly delicious ones, 'demonish’ and 'hedonism’.
'Well demonish, isn’t a proper word, of course,’ he says. 'But neither of them describe me, I don’t think. Someone sent me a whole set of anagrams of my full name the other day. “He pens demon hits”.’ He laughs. 'I like that one.’
In a career spanning more than 55 years Sondheim has written 17 musicals and countless songs, and it is something of an oddity that there is only one of them that most people – which is to say people who are not fans of musical theatre in general and Sondheim in particular – would immediately recognise. Send in the Clowns was originally written for Glynis Johns to sing in 1973’s A Little Night Music – a middle-aged woman reflecting with bitterness, anger and irony as she realises that an old lover has no interest in reviving their affair. It went on to become a hit for both Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins, and has been covered in more than 500 separate recordings, travelling far beyond its original setting to acquire a kind of universality as a song of every unhappy ending, every what-might-have-been.
'It baffles me,’ Sondheim says, 'because I’ve written other ballads that I think audiences will like and that could have been hits, but I come from an era when hit songs did not come from the theatre. They still don’t.’
His work has tended to avoid the traditional elements of musical theatre – uplift, consolation, escapism, joy – addressing thornier, more complex and more demanding subjects: Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street; the creative processes of the French artist Georges Seurat. There has been a recurring critique of some of the shibboleths of American life: Pacific Overtures examined American cultural imperialism in the negotiation of the trade treaty with Japan in 1853; Assassins brought together Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth, among others, in exploring the notion that if not everybody can become the President, then any nobody might try to assassinate him. Then there is the cherished constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness – an emotion that, at least in its most innocent and unalloyed form, is noticeably absent from most of Sondheim’s work.
His songs are unrelentingly grown-up; charged with a playful, and often acerbic, wit, and precise in their observation of the ambivalence that lies at the heart of human relationships. He has written his share of beautiful songs – listen to Not a Day Goes By or Losing My Mind (an improbable hit for the Pet Shop Boys and Liza Minnelli) – but he is more likely to subvert a melody if it threatens to become too 'easy’.
The recurring criticism of his songs is that they are 'unhummable’, and in a way that is true: a phrase or chorus will snag in the mind, or turn your heart over, but an entire song may prove frustratingly elusive. His musicals are cut from whole cloth, and carefully tailored to the larger theme: the score for Sunday in the Park with George offered a musical representation of Seurat’s pointillist technique, while A Little Night Music, his comedy of 19th-century love and infidelity, was written almost entirely in variations of waltz time.
Coach parties have never beaten a path to Sondheim shows. It is often said that he has not fans but fanatics. He is almost certainly the only living composer to have a quarterly, The Sondheim Review, dedicated to his life and work, including essays on such weighty matters as Sondheim and the changing gestalt of the American family, and 'Psychoanalyzing Sweeney Todd’.
When, earlier this year, the BBC Proms presented an evening of Sondheim’s music in celebration of his 80th birthday he was ushered on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall to an ovation bordering on the worshipful. Here, at least, there seemed to be only one answer to the question that was once posed, tongue-in-cheek, in the headline of a profile in New York magazine: is stephen sondheim god?’
'Oh, that,’ Sondheim says, relaxing into the sofa with a wry smile. 'Well, that’s not something you’d ever take seriously.’
He composed a new song for another birthday gala this year in New York: 'God!/I mean the man’s a/God!/Wrote the score to/Sweeney Todd!/With a nod/to De Sade./Well, he's odd./Well, he’s God!’
Sondheim’s father, Herbert, was a wealthy dress manufacturer; his mother, Foxy, a designer in her husband’s firm. An only child, Sondheim grew up in a large apartment on Central Park in an atmosphere that combined luxury and solitude in equal measure.
'I wasn’t unhappy,’ he says. 'My parents weren’t around much, but I assumed everybody’s family was the same. I didn’t know people had mummies and daddies who would give them milk and cookies after school. I just thought everybody lived on Central Park West and they had a nanny to take care of them.’
When Sondheim was 10, his father left the family for another woman. His mother was a difficult woman – one contemporary would describe her as 'the most pretentious, self-centred, narcissistic woman I have known in my life’ – and she seems to have taken all the anger and frustration she felt over her husband’s desertion out on her son. Sondheim would later describe to his biographer Meryle Secrest how his mother would subject him to verbal abuse and in his teenage years sometimes behave in inappropriate and embarrassing ways, including sporting herself provocatively in front of him in low-cut blouses.
When Sondheim was 11, he and his mother moved to a farm in Pennsylvania. The lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II lived nearby, and Sondheim became friends with his son Jamie. Seeking refuge from his mother, he became a regular visitor to the Hammerstein home. Sondheim had learnt to play the piano as a child, but Hammerstein became his mentor and inspiration – in Sondheim’s words 'a surrogate father’. He once said that if Hammerstein had been a geologist 'I would probably have been a geologist.’
Hammerstein was probably the single most important figure in the development of the American musical. With Show Boat, which he wrote in 1927 with Jerome Kern, and which was the first work to combine the music of European operetta with a wholly American subject matter, life on the Mississippi, and with Oklahoma!, which he wrote with Richard Rodgers in 1943, Hammerstein conceived the musical as a 'sung play’, in which the songs, rather than simply providing musical interludes, diversion or comic relief, actually established and defined character and drove the narrative forward. It was Hammerstein, Sondheim says, 'who made it possible, even necessary, to take characters in a musical seriously.’
With Hammerstein’s encouragement, Sondheim wrote his first musical when he was 15. By George, about life at the Quaker boarding school where his mother had sent him, comprised three acts, 20 songs, dances and a cast of 50.
'I asked Oscar to read it, as if it had just crossed his desk and from an unknown writer,’ he remembers. 'And he said, well, it’s terrible. It just doesn’t make any sense. And you want to know why it’s terrible? I didn’t say it’s untalented, but let’s just look at the first page direction: what does this mean? How do you do that on the stage? Is this character going to sing this song having just said that line? And it was one of those “Alice on her golden afternoon” moments. Everything went “wham” and I understood what Hammersteinish musical theatre was about. And from then on I wrote Hammerstein-type musicals, meaning to attempt to tell stories, attempt to deal with character, attempt to do the kind of work that he was doing. The principles of everything I’ve written ever since can be traced back to that afternoon.’
Sondheim went on to study with the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt, worked briefly as a television scriptwriter in Hollywood, and composed a musical, Saturday Night. The show was still-born (it would not actually reach the stage until 1997), but the score brought Sondheim to the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who hired him to write the lyrics for West Side Story (1957). He worked again as the lyricist on Gypsy (1959); composed the music and lyrics for the farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), and suffered his first crushing blow with Anyone Can Whistle (1964), about the mayoress of a small town who fakes a miracle to attract tourists. The show closed after 13 performances.
Sondheim says Company, written in 1970, was the first musical where he 'began to hear my own voice loud and clear’. Company takes the form of a series of vignettes in which a 35-year-old single man assesses his life through his relationships with his married friends. Sondheim describes it as 'the first Broadway musical whose defining quality was neither satire nor sentiment, but irony.’ With its complete absence of plot, its themes of loneliness and the inability to make emotional commitment, and its frequently cynical take on the compromises of marriage ('It’s… the concerts you enjoy together/Neighbours you annoy together/Children you destroy together/That keep marriage intact’ runs one song), Company was about as far from the conventional fare of musical theatre as it was possible to get. It is said that after attending the opening night in New York the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, whose work on Camelot and My Fair Lady embodied the notion of the musical as a vehicle of sweet, romantic uplift, returned home and wept, saying, 'It’s over’ – meaning his kind of musical, and by implication his career.
Lerner was wrong, of course; he would go on to write five more musicals. And there has always been an audience for romantic uplift, in a way that there has not always been for Sondheim’s work. Like many of his shows, Company opened to lukewarm reviews, only later becoming a success. Merrily We Roll Along (1981), about two young songwriters whose idealistic dreams become soured with age and compromise, closed after only 16 performances on Broadway, but has gone on to be revived in countless productions. Sweeney Todd (1979) opened to terrible reviews in London – 'It was my love letter to England and I felt like a spurned lover,’ Sondheim would later remark – but became one of his most enduring shows and is now widely recognised as his masterpiece.
'Stephen is a real child of Broadway,’ says his friend the impresario Cameron Mackintosh, who has produced a number of Sondheim musicals. 'He’s never approached his work thinking, the last thing I want is a hit on Broadway. He wants it. However, he is the first to admit that he is attracted to subjects that often have, mostly have, some sort of dark exploration of human nature.’
Sondheim rolls his eyes when I put it to him that the delayed success of much of his work suggests an artist ahead of his time. 'That phrase always makes me a little chilly, because I don’t know what it means. But I do think audiences become more sophisticated. You try something out on them and they say, “Ugh”. You try it a second time and they say, “Oh”. You try it a third time and they say, “Ooh”. You try it a fourth time and they say, “Oh, that’s awfully old hat.”’ He laughs. 'That’s the history of art, is it not?’
Finishing the Hat takes its name from the song in Sunday in the Park with George that describes Seurat reflecting on the creative process. 'Studying the hat/Entering the world of the hat/Reaching through the world of the hat/Like a window.’ Sondheim says he was originally asked to do a book of collected lyrics 14 years ago. 'I said, sure, if I can write some essays to go with them. What I actually meant was, I don’t write prose, so… But they then said, fine, which was… unfortunate. So I said, I’ll get back to you.’
Four years ago, he finally did. 'I thought, I’m reaching an age where if I want to put down on paper what I think about songwriting for the theatre and the musicals, now is the time to do it.’
As well as the joy of reading Sondheim’s lyrics in full, Finishing the Hat provides a masterclass in the art of lyric-writing. He enumerates the golden rules: less is more; content dictates form; God is in the details; clarity is everything. 'If the audience understands it, and they don’t like it, fine. But if they don’t understand it, you have no chance of making them like it.’ It is always better to be funny than to be clever, but better still if you can be both. In that respect, Irving Berlin’s You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun from Annie Get Your Gun is, he says, 'an iconic number for me. It’s so brilliantly rhymed, and the timing of the jokes and the images of the jokes… It’s a song that is as funny as it’s clever, and as clever as it’s funny.’
The sly, dark humour of Sondheim’s own lyrics is nowhere better exemplified than in the song A Little Priest in Sweeney Todd, when the pie-maker Mrs Lovett first broaches the culinary possibilities of the demon barber’s victims: priest, lawyer, locksmith or fop – 'Finest in the shop./And we have some shepherd’s pie peppered/With actual shepherd on top.’
In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim is at his most brilliant, and his most waspish, in his judgments of other writers and composers. He says he has never believed the dictum that you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. 'They’re exactly the people you should speak ill of, because you can’t hurt their feelings.’
And he is unsparing in what he calls his 'heresies’ about the giants of musical theatre. The lyrics of WS Gilbert, for example, 'bore me to distraction – literally’. While Irving Berlin’s technique is 'impeccable’, his sentiments are 'banal’. Noël Coward is comprehensively skewered as 'the Master of Blather’. Lorenz Hart was 'the laziest of the pre-eminent lyricists’. Sondheim cites the line from My Funny Valentine 'Your looks are laughable/unphotographable’ in evidence, on the grounds that 'only vampires are unphotographable’. He laughs. 'But then again, it is hard to rhyme “unphotogenic”.’
Not even Oscar Hammerstein is spared. Sondheim recites the lyric of Like All the Things You Are: '“You are the breathless hush of evening, that trembles on the brink of a lovely song.” I think that’s overstating things a little bit,’ he says, 'and I don’t know what it means. And that is always considered the songwriter’s song.’
Sondheim says he hesitated to commit his criticisms to print. 'But these are things I feel, and if I’m just going to be nice all the time…’ He shrugs, as if entertaining second thoughts. 'Maybe I shouldn’t have done it. I’m not sure.’
It should also be added that he is just as hard on himself. Writing of Maria from West Side Story ('Say it loud and there’s music playing/Say it soft and it’s almost like praying’), he laments the 'overall wetness of the lyric – a wetness, I regret to say, which persists throughout all the romantic lyrics in the show, but which appealed to my collaborators and which may very well have contributed to the score’s popularity.’
When I ask him to elaborate on a critique of his lyrics he goes about it with almost masochistic relish. 'Verbosity. Glibness. Repeating the same idea or notion in a disguised version within a lyric is something I can sometimes get away with, but it is getting away with it. Maybe a fussiness. That is to say too much detail and not enough muscle – writing superficially about an idea instead of coming to grips with it. I truly believe I’m aware of my weaknesses and I fight against them, but of course I don’t succeed in overcoming them all the time.’
Julia McKenzie, the English actress and singer who has appeared in innumerable Sondheim shows, describes his songs as both the most challenging and the most rewarding that any performer could hope to sing. 'He demands a lot of you, but it is the best experience you could have in a musical. You don’t have to make buttons and bows over things as you do in some musicals; he just gives you everything. His songs even put your body into the right physical state.’
She cites The Worst Pies in London from Sweeney Todd, in which Mrs Lovett is required to act the making of a pie as she sings, marking the rhythm of the song by banging a rolling-pin on the off-beat. 'When we did it at the National it must have taken me a month to get that spot-on. But once you find the key to it, it’s just blissful.’
Anyone wishing to make an immediate acquaintance with Sondheim’s songs, and to see how far they have travelled, could do worse than spend an afternoon on YouTube, which provides a marvellous archive of fragments from different productions, not only in professional theatre, but also in schools and local dramatic societies. There is something sweetly affecting in these amateur clips – the musical as collaborative exercise, a collective repository of hopes and dreams.
'I think that’s the reason this TV show Glee is such a hit,’ Sondheim says. 'Putting on a show is absolutely a microcosm of what we wish the world would be. It’s people of varying talents, varying intelligences, getting together and making something that wasn’t there before. And that is the most wonderful thing.’
I came across a clip from a concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005, to celebrate Sondheim’s 75th birthday. It showed a choir of high school children, some 200 strong, singing Our Time, the closing anthem from Merrily We Roll Along. The student who had posted the clip – one of the choir – had captioned it, simply, as 'the best day of my life’. Sondheim, it transpired, was in the audience, 'standing offstage, stage right’, another member of the choir wrote, 'crying the whole time.’
'I remember that,’ Sondheim says, his voice softening. 'That was a wonderful evening.’
He has always been an epic weeper. He once recalled as a 15-year-old watching the first performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel and being so moved that he wept 'copious tears’ on Dorothy Hammerstein’s fur wrap. 'Apparently certain kinds of fur will stain from tears and I stained hers irrevocably.’
Sondheim’s 1965 show Do I Hear a Waltz contains a song, Someone Woke Up, sung by a girl named Leona who goes to Venice in search of adventure and romance: 'Some people cry at hellos and farewells/Some people cry at nostalgia with bells/Some cry at weddings, some at the moon,/I cry promptly Mondays at high noon.’
He laughs. 'Oh, I think when I was writing that song I was absolutely identifying with Leona.’ He clutches at his face, mimicking hysteria. 'Oh, look at that painting! Oh, look at that lamp! Oh, look at that dog! I do cry easily at the theatre – and not just at my own stuff. But to me it seems that half the fun of going to the theatre and the movies is to laugh and cry, both.’
His propensity to tears would seem to contradict the charge that has often been levelled against him of being 'cold’ and unfeeling in his work – another way of saying that he has always avoided the easy sentimentality that is the stock-in-trade of musical theatre. There are few happy endings in Sondheim musicals. 'Well…’ he raises an admonitory finger. 'They’re not frivolous happy endings, let me put it that way. But it’s the difference between sentiment and sentimentality. Ambivalence is something I’ve been accused of, and that’s absolutely right, because I think it’s the stuff of drama. Look at Hamlet. Everybody in Chekhov is ambivalent. That’s why they’re not dull. That’s also why they are actable.’