sat 03/12/2022

Stephen Sondheim in memoriam - he gave us more to see | reviews, news & interviews

Stephen Sondheim in memoriam - he gave us more to see

Stephen Sondheim in memoriam - he gave us more to see

A master gone but in no way and never to be forgotten

Stephen Sondheim, who has died age 91

It seemed impossible and yet, the other evening, while idly flicking through emails, I learned the unimaginable: Stephen Sondheim, age 91, had passed away. And very quickly by all accounts, given that he was reported to have enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal with friends just the previous day.

"They die but they don't," goes a lyric from Into the Woods, as my mind filled with multiple responses to the news, many of them culled from his work (and often cited by others in their own, instantaneous reactions). I, too, was "sorry/grateful" – bereft at the news and yet grateful for the work. But I suppose the most enduring shock felt at the time, and continuing still, was the realisation that even theatrical gods are themselves immortal, to co-opt an exaltation of Sondheim that he himself played with in a 2010 Broadway revue. 

I'm referring to the compilation show Sondheim on Sondheim, starring Vanessa Williams and Barbara Cook, which contained a deliciously self-satirising song penned by Sondheim in honour of himself called "God". And over the weekend just gone, as the theatre community adjusted to the strange reality of a Sondheim-less world, one can only hope that the composer-lyricist was somewhere clocking the multitudes for whom that affectionately self-mocking title in fact came very close to the truth – not least for the more secular amongst us. 

My own acquaintanceship with his work came during my first year at university in the States, which coincided with the 1979 Broadway opening of Sweeney Todd. An easy train ride away from New Haven, Hal Prince's historic production became a theatrical magnet for me and various like-minded friends who developed an immediate fascination with this extraordinary story of a vengeful barber-turned-cannibal, Sweeney, and his entirely unlikely alliance with a smitten baker, Mrs Lovett, who is more than willing to sacrifice morality on the (often quite mirthful) altar of affection. I saw Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou give their iconic performances and returned on numerous occasions to the Uris Theatre (now the Gershwin) so as to sneak in at the interval – ah, those were the days! – thirsting for a cultural top-up. To this day, I can still see both stars rising up from beneath the stage floor during the final sequence.

Across the run, I watched as the original leads deepened their connection to parts that define them to this day, going on to catch various replacements (Dorothy Loudon and George Hearn preeminently) plumb depths of their own within an experience to which there had been no musical equivalent in my theatre education to that point. Having been weaned on Broadway revivals of On the Town and The Pajama Game, I was as unprepared for the power of Sweeney Todd as I then became fascinated, even overwhelmed, by it. And still am. Janie Dee in 'A Little Night Music'My parents had the cast albums to the earlier collaborations between Sondheim and Prince – Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures – which collectively amounted to a decade-long volume of output during the 1970s that won't be equalled again: the mechanics of modern-day production, not to mention financial exigency, work against that kind of history repeating itself, not least because younger equivalents to the Sondheim-Prince pairing were hard to find. (Pictured above, Janie Dee in Holland Park Opera's 2020 A Little Night Music, by Danny Kaan) 

Another irony worth noting, I suppose, is that the only Sondheim-Prince show I was aware of from its actual inception was also their only Broadway flop: Merrily We Roll Along, which I followed from first announcement through to its closing Saturday matinee for the simple reason that I had a lifelong friend in the cast. We were classmates together at Yale, from which he had taken a show-related leave of absence that turned out not to be necessary. As is now the stuff of (unfortunate) legend, Merrily closed on Broadway after 16 performances. I shan't forget my closing-day visit and hearing the young cast's voices crack with emotion on "Our Time", a soul-stirring song under any circumstances.

As life took me across the Atlantic, my awareness of Sondheim only intensified, as one might expect from a country famously adored by the man himself and one that had, of course, also sent to Broadway the defining musical revue Side By Side By Sondheim, during which the great Julia McKenzie was billed (and Tony-nominated) as Julie N McKenzie due to the fact that an American actress had the same name. So it was both a pleasure and a gift to arrive in London only to find McKenzie and Sondheim forging their own special relationship across any number of shows, her superlative occupancy of Mrs Lovett in the National Theatre's Sweeney included. I can still see McKenzie's haunted eyes at the start of the 1987 West End premiere of Follies as her Sally Durant Plummer surveyed the ghostly space she was about to inhabit, not to mention the cheers from the house at the end of that show's 18-month run when McKenzie, having then departed the production, was revealed to have returned for the final few performances. Andy Nyman and Catherine Tate in 'Assassins'Since then, so much happened: Merrily, once-dismissed, asserted itself as an essential part of the canon and was searchingly reassessed multiple times. So-called "actor-muso" productions whereby the cast double as their own band – courtesy directors like John Doyle or, more recently, Bill Buckhurst – allowed new modes of presentation. And many was the director, rewinding from Marianne Elliott back through Dominic Cooke and Jamie Lloyd and Michael Grandage and Sam Mendes, the last-named the original begetter of Assassins in Britain, who staked pivotal moments in their careers on a talent exalted by McKenzie's heir apparent, Imelda Staunton, as the "American Shakespeare", but who remained a singular, unique entity all his own. (Andy Nyman and Catherine Tate in the Menier Assassins, pictured above, by Nobby Clark)

So much rot has been written about Sondheim's work being calculated and cold, a fake cultural assertion at no point more resoundingly untrue than during a present-day climate whereby numerous Sondheim lyrics seemed to speak to our innate desire for connectedness, whether we found ourselves metaphorically in the woods (which in or out of a pandemic would seem to be the case) or not. "No one is alone", goes a vaunted Sondheim lyric, and I certainly wasn't alone when I flinched at the sight of the New York Times obituary of him, posted online a mere 17 minutes earlier. Since then, I've taken particular succour in an online coming-together of commemoration and grief, few of them more moving than that proffered on Sunday by the great Patti LuPone, who is reasserting her own connectedness to Sondheim nightly just now in Company.

Her tears of gratitude at his artistry were ours, and, now, so are our tears of loss. 

  • Stephen Sondheim, 22 March 1930 – 26 November 2021

Below: Patti LuPone in conversation with Sondheim 

Comments

My introduction to Sondheim was also via Sweeney, a student production at Bretton Hall in Yorkshire in 1982. It moved the ground below my feet, the music played and lyrics sung creating something I had not known until then. 

I saw the "Pie Shop Sweeney" in Tooting, where I have lived for most of my life and which the man himself visited and supported into the West End and on to Broadway.  

I've come to love A Little Night Music almost as much, its Swedish melancholy perfectly pitched for the long darkless nights I have come to know myself these last 20 years.

Cold? No - but clinically clever and unafraid to show it in an age in which the word "elite" has become an insult. 

I don't feel sad that he's been gone for the last three days - I feel elated that he was with us for the previous 91 years. 

Lovely tribute, Matt. Thank you. We all have our own special memories, don't we. Sad that The Guardian obit - Tom Sutcliffe - chose to be less than charitable. But I loved yours. He'll be remembered for as long as music theatre exists. He made me cry and laugh so many times; I just loved his juxtapositions and paradoxes. much love to you. xx

There are no words. I saw the original 1970's tours of Company, Follies, A Little NIght Music and Pacific Overtures. The brilliance, insight and heart of his lyrics, matched to truly poignant music (how can music be poignant? I don't know but his was, and is). I grew up on musicals but after seeing Sondheim shows, everything changed for me, as it did for musical theatre everywhere.

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