In 2011, I was cast in a production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the late American composer Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical. Sweeney Todd, about a murderous barber who slits the throats of his clients and his lovelorn landlord, Mrs Lovett, who bakes the bodies into pies and sells them, is one of the best and likely most popular of all Sondheim’s tricky, wondrous creations.
I remember that, in our first run-through of the show as a team, our director asked us to speak all the lines, including the songs. It’s certainly an appropriate way of approaching the work of musical theatre’s greatest lyricist, to read aloud his lyrics and appreciate their form. Sondheim’s music—at turns lilting and challenging and rich and deeply bleak in Sweeny Todd – sets his lyrics to a meter that can often conceal their meaning, their cleverness, the brilliant internal rhyming structure.
There’s the foolhardy, rushing, youthful beauty of Anthony’s refrains in Johanna: ‘Til I’m with you then, I’m with you there/Sweetly buried in your yellow hair’ Or the oddly charming, leering ‘Pretty Women’, a duet between a man who lost his love and the man who destroyed her: ‘Pretty women . . ./Silhouetted . . ./Stay within you . . ./Glancing…!/Stay forever/Breathing lightly…/Pretty women!’. Then there’s the riotous patter in ‘A Little Priest’, the song which ends the first act, and breaks all records for how many rhyming jokes you can fit into a song about cannibalism. (‘Is that squire/On the fire?/Mercy no, sir, look closer/You’ll notice it’s grocer!/Looks thicker/More like vicar!/No, it has to be grocer/It’s green!’)
These were the lyrics written by a man who once told the New York Times’ Jesse Green that he and his friends did the weekend crosswords out loud, ‘no pens. No paper.’ A man who moonlighted as the cryptic crosswords editor for New York magazine. Yes, they’re clever. Yes, they’re lovely in their lyricism. But it would be a mistake to remember Stephen Sondheim, who died on 26 November 2021 at the age of 91, simply as a clever man who wrote clever lyrics. For he was much, much more than his often reductive reputation made him out to be.
Sondheim endured a lifelong campaign against his reputation (aided by his frequently acerbic missives to critics who dinged him) as a writer of caustic or cold work. Held up against that purveyor of feelings and good times in the musical theatre, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sondheim was the cool, intelligent composer who wrote witty work that nevertheless left audiences cold. But, if my life’s education has been in the musical theatre—beginning at the age of seven when, for my birthday, I was given a CD copy of West Side Story, the first musical on which Stephen Sondheim served as lyricist—then I can think of no better teacher in the realm of feelings than Sondheim.
At 16, I was preparing for the HSC and my singing teacher selected for my exams ‘Losing My Mind’, one of Sondheim’s famous 11 o’clock ballads from his tarnished gem Follies. The song is beautiful; it twists and builds, it’s strange and elegiac. As a 16-year-old middle-class closeted bisexual who had never had a date, I couldn’t yet understand the words, ‘Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor/Not going left, not going right/I dim the lights, and think about you/Spend sleepless nights, and think about you’. Though I tried in vain to imagine being stopped in my tracks by the boy I spoke to on MSN Messenger, who already had a girlfriend but had valiantly agreed to take me to my Year 12 formal. But I felt the words and understood the weight of them, the value. I understood that Sondheim grasped something I would one day experience: painful love.
It wasn’t until years later that I sang the song again, having experienced painful love for the very first time, and ‘Losing My Mind’ cracked me open. That time, I was singing it for my audition for Sweeney Todd, where I was eventually cast as a woman who was turned mad by painful love.
Sondheim himself was intimately attuned with love—as a writer. But in his life, he was unlucky until very late in his life. He was gay, but didn’t come out until the 1970s, and found that his late queer awakening brought with it some exquisitely painful moments. ‘I went through what everybody goes through in their first serious relationship, which most people do in their late teens or 20s, and which I didn’t until I was 60,’ he said in 2010. ‘So it was difficult for me to learn; but it was also joyful.’ Far from being cold or unfeeling in his work, the man knew of the bitter-sweetness of love.
Sondheim is not for everyone. There is something a little difficult about it; some of it lacks the ease and the slap of other show tunes from giants like Rogers and Hammerstein—the latter Sondheim’s surrogate parent and mentor from childhood. Sondheim himself skewers his work’s difficulty in his 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, when a producer sings to Merrily’s bright-eyed musical artists Frank and Charley: ‘There’s not a tune you can hum/There’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum/You need a tune you can bum-bum-bum-di-dum/Give me a melody!’
But, actually, Sondheim gave us dozens of melodies, the most famous of which might be the crossover pop hit ‘Send In The Clowns’ from his solidly delightful 1973 musical A Little Night Music. Anyone who has watched the golden years of The Simpsons knows ‘Send In The Clowns”’ which Krusty sings at his Krusty Komeback Special in the final episode of season 4, ‘Krusty Gets Kancelled’. And my favourite Sondheim song of all-time, ‘Being Alive’, becomes a breathless statement of brevity and freedom for Adam Driver’s Charlie in the memeable Noah Baumbach film Marriage Story. Driver cannot really sing (though he does an admirable job) but he is so intimate with the best phrases of this beguiling and blessed number. He handles the words ‘Alone/is alone/not alive’ with so much care.
‘Being Alive’ has been performed by Mandy Patinkin, Barbra Streisand, Bernadette Peters, Neil Patrick Harris and David Campbell, but the best version of this brilliant song is undoubtedly done by Raul Esparza, for the 2007 revival of Sondheim’s first real hit, the plotless 1970 musical Company. Company is my favourite Sondheim musical, not just because ‘Being Alive’ is a great song but also because the show is tantalisingly indescribable to anyone who is not intimate with how theatre can break all kinds of boundaries for what makes a story ‘a story’. In Company, rudderless bachelor Bobby swirls from 35 to 36 while his married friends make bad examples of coupledom around him, and Bobby can’t decide whether or not he wants to be single. The show has no traditional ‘story’ to speak of—it’s really a series of vignettes about one man’s social life—and yet I feel I know more about Bobby than I do about any Sondheim character.
I feel Bobby’s fear when his friend sings to him that ‘You’re always sorry/you’re always grateful/you’re always wondering/what might have been/then she walks in’ as a response to his question, ‘Are you ever sorry you got married?’ Bobby’s desperation and guileless naivety tugs at me in ‘Marry Me A Little’, when he sings to Amy, his neurotic soon-to-be married pal, ‘Marry me a little/Love me just enough/Warm and sweet and easy/Just the simple stuff/Keep a tender distance/So we’ll both be free/That’s the way it ought to be/I’m ready!’ Truly, what is more emotionally uplifting and fulfilling, more real, than a feckless man getting his act together and admitting he wants something, because ‘alone/is alone/not alive’?
Sondheim eventually found his something, his husband Jeff Romley, whom he married in 2017. Romley survives Sondheim now.
It’s most exciting to see someone come to Sondheim for the first time—a true discovery. And that’s why, though Mandy Patinkin’s performance of Sondheim’s masterpiece ‘Finishing the Hat’ is peerless, my favourite performance of the song— from the 1984 musical Sunday In The Park With George, about the French pointillist Georges Seurat and his cynical (fictional) grandson—comes from international superstar Jake Gyllenhaal. The performance is immortalised in a swish (now viral) video directed by Cary Fukunaga. It tracks Gyllenhaal moving through the Hudson Theatre, singing the tricksy number until he ends up on the stage with a full orchestra. He opens his arms a little, smiles and sings, ‘Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat’. It’s a truly joyous performance, generous. Gyllenhaal has tapped into that instinct so many of us have to share when we have discovered something exquisite.
Cassie Tongue, the Guardian’s theatre reviewer, wrote that ‘it was only a matter of time before Hayes Theatre Co—the impossibly small Sydney space dedicated to making musicals matter—staged Merrily We Roll Along’. This is because Merrily was one of Sondheim’s famous flops (for, though he had many hits, beginning with his work on West Side Story and Gypsy, he also flirted frequently with failure). Staged in 1981 for just 16 performances before it was cancelled, the show has gone on to become a beloved cult classic for many Sondheim diehards. Its score is sparkling with rough-cut diamonds, but its structure—where a trio of artist friends, Frank, Charley and Mary, begin the show as caustic (drunken) middle-aged cranks and move backwards in time to where they first meet, brimming with the promise of youth and unaware of what is in store for them—was both confusing and off-putting for early audiences.
The Hayes revival of Merrily, which is a delectable production featuring some of Australia’s best musical theatre talent, happens to be the first thing I saw at the theatre after a two-year break from live art due to COVID-19. Sondheim once said of himself, ‘I’m a great audience. I cry very easily. I suspend disbelief in two seconds.’ When the Overture began at Hayes, I felt myself well up; this was the first time I was seeing live theatre in two years, and the first time I would see Sondheim’s wonderful, rarely performed flop. And it was being performed in the stomping ground of my school days where, just before we entered the theatre, I had run into my old drama teacher, Inga Scarlett. Ms Scarlett told me that, under her direction, my school was the first place in Australia to stage Merrily—one year before Sydney Theatre Company’s 1996 production. ‘The parents didn’t understand it,’ she told me.
In a softer moment of this soft musical, composer Frank Shepherd is at his piano, thinking about how his friends are drifting away from him and his unsinkable ambitions. ‘Every road has a turning/That’s the way you keep learning’, sings Frank. And I think, as I often do when I’m listening to Sondheim, about my old friend, Angus. Angus was the first person I wanted to talk to when I found out Stephen Sondheim died. Angus and I are old theatre hags, who would sit together gossiping about people we hated (and people we loved). We would drink incredible amounts of gin and wine together. We would put West Side Story on Angus’s record player, and wake up his housemates singing along to ‘Giants In The Sky’ from Into The Woods (Sondheim’s worldly fairytale mash-up musical from 1986). We’re not friends anymore; it’s that thing that happens sometimes with friendships. They run out of steam, or they explode with a puff of smoke. ‘Something just broke’.
Now I watch Sondheim shows with my partner, Lawrence. I tell him little facts I’ve picked up about the music, or the actors. I point out some of my favourite lines, like in Into The Woods where Jack’s Mother describes Milky White the cow’s ageing as ‘while her withers wither with her’. Or when The Baker’s Wife sings, ‘Oh, if life were made of moments/Even now and then a bad one!/But if life were only moments/Then you’d never know you had one’. Lawrence has come to like Sondheim— he even loves some of his best shows—but I miss that connection with someone who really understood.
We get by, when a friendship ends, but there’s always that twinge when you realise you shared this one thing with this one person, and are few others who understand. Angus understood musical theatre; he understood Sondheim. I wonder how he feels about the fact that Sondheim is dead. I wonder if he is as sad as I am. But I listen to Frank Shepherd sing about ‘Growing Up’ in Merrily, and I understand: ‘Growing up/Trying things/Being flexible/Bending with the road./Adding dreams/when the others don’t last/Growing up/Understanding that growing never ends./Like old dreams—/Some old dreams—/Like old friends.’