You know that scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where the clouds part and God speaks to an overwhelmed King Arthur and his gaze-averting knights? That’s how I felt when I first spoke to Stephen Sondheim, who has died this week aged 91. I was in my early twenties, working at a cable television channel and quietly developing a book about my late mentor, the great theater critic Jack Tinker. Jack had written extensively on Sondheim, and I dreamed of getting some comments from the great man. I had read in that morning’s Evening Standard that he was in London, and a friend tipped me off that he always stayed at the Savoy Hotel. I called the Savoy and was given a fax number to message, which I did, and frankly I thought that would be that. Why? Because, come on, this was Sondheim.
For those who love musical theater, Sondheim was more than a man, he was a genre. He was the evolutionary tissue that transformed musicals from the more simplistic, folksy tales of Richard Rodgers and Sondheim’s own mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, into contemporary, sophisticated dramas that mixed the social and musical textures of the modern age – as colors on his compositional palette. And even that doesn’t do it. In a lifetime that stretched past the Broadway musical’s acknowledged golden era, past the days of almost all the great showmakers, many of whom he knew; past Bernstein, past Hart, Weill, Loesser, Porter, Coleman, Lerner and Loewe, he was almost the only one left. He was certainly the only one with the sheer number of beloved shows that he gave to us. Sondheim was a titan, an enormous granite face on the Mount Rushmore of musical theater. Perhaps the greatest creative force on the world stage. Such a creator that to a theater fan it sometimes felt like he was almost the Creator, capital C.
So when my phone rang in the middle of a busy open-plan office, and a casual, slightly gravelly voice at the end of the phone said, “This is Steve Sondheim,” it was, well, a shock. Around me bustled everyone doing everything we did every day and here I was working on this secret project and suddenly God was on the line. As it happened, God was very nice and helpful and sent me a piece of writing for my book. It took me a few days to get over that one.
My next encounter with God, who insisted on being called Steve, was at his house in Manhattan a few years later. I was in town and had asked for an introduction from a mutual producer friend. The friend had kindly made the introduction, recommended me, and I had received an invitation to Sondheim’s townhouse. On the map it seemed only an avenue away from my hotel but, not yet being used to the geography of the city, that one avenue turned out to be a 25-minute-walk. I was late, I ran, and the skies opened and drenched me with an authentic New York thunderstorm.
When eventually I arrived, bedraggled and sweating, Sondheim dismissed my effusive apologies with a wave and, “Don’t worry, I’m always a shloch. Do you like whisky?” I nodded. “Good, because [famous producer friend] is always sending me his own distilled whisky and I don’t like whisky and I’ve got bottles of the stuff. So you drink the whisky and I’ll drink vodka.” And then, for the next four hours or so, he proceeded to answer all my questions and talk in detail about his shows, one by one, about art, about life. And at the end of my audience, he opened a large cupboard, packed with a complete collection of CDs of his shows, and proceeded to fill a bag with every recording that I didn’t already own.
After that, we corresponded a few times, he wrote a lovely little piece about the composer Steve Reich for me when I was the editor of “Gramophone” magazine, but I never saw him again. I think in a way I didn’t want to spoil the memory of that perfect encounter in his house. Yet his shows, and indeed his books, have remained a constant presence in my life — in the lives of millions. And I think I understand him better now than I did then, and I think I understand why that whole God cliche was so very wrong.
People often look to musicals for absolutes. A glitzy song-and-dance show like “Anything Goes” can make them feel just great, while a literary-minded, historical epic like “Les Miserables” or “Hamilton” can give a melancholic yet thrilling sweep. Sondheim never dealt in absolutes. He dealt in contradictions. His shows talk about love but seldom show it successfully realized (as Mark Steyn has noted in his brilliant book “Broadway Babies Say Goodnight”), making them at once romantic and, kind of, anti-romantic.
He shows murderers but makes them sympathetic (who else is always gutted when Sweeney Todd gets killed?). His heroes are vain and shallow (the two Prince Charmings in “Into The Woods” are a riot when comparing their own egocentric “agony”). And his most beautiful, profound characters, often women, are flawed and usually either make mistakes or are simply ineffective, in a way that should make us lose all respect for them but doesn’t because, well, we love them (we even love the Baker’s Wife in “Into The Woods” when she cheats on her sweet husband with a prince, and we love Dot in “Sunday In The Park With George” despite her complete inability to ‘heal’ her fanatical artist-boyfriend).
Sondheim’s most famous song, “Send In The Clowns,” might sound beautiful, even tranquil, but in fact it’s yet another failed character (at that point in the show) regretting having missed her chance to marry the love of her life. And the number of his that I find the most gorgeous, “Losing My Mind” from “Follies”, is similarly a bluesy anthem of regret — Sondheim does regret a lot.
To an art form that had previously been about the big, grand gesture, Sondheim gave shows that are deep and complex, and the bar of his artistic ambition is so high that it’s sometimes hard to grasp on a first viewing. In fact, some of his shows are enriched only when set alongside others. His story-told-backwards tale of ruined friendship, “Merrily We Roll Along” (a notorious flop at its 1981 Broadway premiere), only reaches its full stature when you’ve seen his 1971 study of aging entertainers, “Follies”. Why? Because Follies starts with a sense of delighted nostalgia and dives into the darkness of ruined dreams and nervous breakdowns, while “Merrily” — with its reversed format — starts at the toughest point of its plot, with friendships turned sour and argumentative, but the evening ends at the start, as it were, so the last thing we see of our characters is them full of promise and full of love. And it’s only when you see them together that you realize that, as Sondheim told me on that rainy afternoon, “‘Follies’ is the tragedy, ‘Merrily’ is a cautionary tale.” They’re actually two sides of the same coin.
All of these complexities and seeming contradictions perhaps account for why his shows usually only achieved commercial success long after they were premiered. “I’ve spent years in therapy trying to understand why I’m so much less successful than Andrew Lloyd Webber” he quipped to me.
Yet these qualities are not only Sondheim’s art, they were, I think, embedded in his own personality. He had endured a very fractious relationship with his mother and became one of the kindest men in showbiz, someone who would always take time to mentor younger writers, to turn up at a cast member’s birthday party, or, in my case, to take four hours out of his day to talk to an aspiring theater writer who wanted to understand. He sometimes professed to be lazy – “any excuse to put off work” he grinned — and he read book reviews rather than the books themselves. And yet the thing he most appreciated in a painting, or a sculpture, was the sheer meticulous care that had gone into it. The hours, the effort, the detail. When he came to write his own great musical about the making of art, “Sunday In The Park With George”, about pointillist painter Georges Seurat, he replicated the tremendous detail of pointillism in his music — staccato ‘dots’ that seem all over the place if you look too closely, but step back and you are presented with one of the most moving, emotionally transporting scores in theater history. “Look I made a hat,” delights Sondheim’s George, “where there never was a hat.” And he makes us feel how much work went into making it.
None of this is about godliness. It’s all on the all-too-human level — flawed, contradictory, at times even unclear, to be argued over and debated. Maybe, in the end, what Sondheim responded to above all, and wrote about with endless empathy, is the heroism of perseverance. Of making it through to the next day, and the next, however we’re able. As one character in “Follies” sings, unforgettably,
I’ve run the gamut, A to Z
Three cheers and dammit, C’est la vie
I got through all of last year, and I’m here
Lord knows, at least I was there, and I’m here.
So, well. God didn’t ring me that day, it was no Olympian figure that welcomed me into his house. Sondheim was Steve; the most humane of men, the artist among us who understood the human state better than most, saw the beauty in how we all try to live with life’s flaws and frustrations and reflected that back to us with a shrug and a smile and sometimes a tear. He was a man who stood alongside us all, stood the same height, and yet stood so much taller.