Stephen Sondheim, the man who felt too much

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Stephen Sondheim, the man who felt too much
Carolee Carmello and Norm Lewis in “Sweeney Todd,” at the Barrow Street Theater in New York, April 11, 2017. Why did it take so long for Stephen Sondheim to be unambivalently embraced? Maybe because ambivalence is what he’s embraced most of all. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Ben Brantley

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- How do you feel?

That’s a simple question, right? And unless you’re talking to a doctor, you probably have a simple answer.

And if that’s the case, the odds are that you’re lying.

Such, anyway, is always my view of the human race after listening to a cast recording of a Stephen Sondheim musical, or even to just one of his ballads. And when it comes to emotions, Sondheim — more than any other composer from the Broadway songbook — is the one I trust to tell me the truth.

That’s because in the world of Sondheim, feelings never come singly but in battalions. Even his simplest, most assertive melodies usually sound as if they’re being pulled in contradictory directions.

Of course, his ever-nimble lyrics — which have made his name a byword for verbal cosmopolitanism — abound in paradoxes, puns and declarations of uncertainty, all etched into deep-burrowing grooves. But the music adds yet another layer, which often both confirms and battles with the words.

It’s confusing. It’s exhilarating. It’s life as we know it, if we’re being honest with ourselves. Stephen Sondheim is the American musical’s supreme artist of ambivalence. Which is why it took audiences and critics so long to embrace him, and why — once they did — he assumed his rightful place on an Olympian peak that no subsequent songwriter has ever been able to ascend.

My baptism into the multicolored, churning waters of a Sondheim score occurred when I was 16, on my maiden trip to New York, a place that loomed in my Southern childhood like the Emerald City of Oz. In retrospect, I can’t believe my luck. Providence — or my ticket-buying parents — had seen to it that my very first Broadway show was “Follies,” Sondheim and script writer James Goldman’s portrait of two unhappy marriages, set amid the ruins of a once glorious, fast vanishing era in show business.

I should say here that I considered myself well-versed in musicals at that time. Original cast recordings of New York shows were still regularly spinning on turntables in middle-class American homes. Growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I was weaned on the work of, above all, Rodgers and Hammerstein. (The first Broadway show my mother had seen, as a college graduation present, was “Oklahoma!,” and I used to warble “People Will Say We’re in Love” to my dog, Bangle.)

But I could also lie for hours on the floor next to our big, boxy monaural console in the company of recordings of Lerner and Loewe, Meredith Willson, Jerry Herman and the Leonard Bernstein who wrote the music for “West Side Story” and “Wonderful Town.” For me — and I imagine for many Americans — even the sad numbers from these shows were straight, pick-me-up shots of concentrated happiness.

They exalted everyday life — which I intuited early on was always going to be messy — by giving it a rhythm and rhyme that you could belt, wail and dance to. And usually, they had a conveniently insistent and straightforward progression of notes and words that, once heard, were tattooed forever on your mind, ready to be retrieved in moments of despair.

So in 1971, at the Winter Garden Theater, in the dark, when the overture began for “Follies,” I was incredibly excited and, before long, slightly disturbed. (At that point, I was unacquainted with “Company,” Sondheim’s breakthrough hit of the previous year.) A luxuriously full orchestra was summoning the kind of grand strains that you would expect to precede a majestic show with a cavalcade of stars. But there were shadows plucking at the grandeur, a sense of magnificence dissolving into dissonance.

By the end of the show — after watching a climactic succession of nervous breakdowns in song, styled, by directors Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, as opulent fantasy musical-comedy vignettes — I wasn’t sure what had hit me. I had borrowed enough contemporary novels about disenchanted spouses from my parents’ library to realize a lot of Goldman’s book wasn’t exactly new territory.

But those songs! So worldly, so well-referenced, so eminently quotable, so contemptuous of hummable, assembly-line melodies — and, beneath it all, in a way I was still too young to absorb, so torn by a fathomless fear and yearning. As a self-conscious, awkward kid who wanted only to be sophisticated, I didn’t yet grasp the complex, subversive dialectic of words and music in those numbers or realize that they were as full of feeling as anything by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The perception of Sondheim as a writer of “sweetly laconic cynicism” (as Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times) was fed by post-“Follies” cabaret acts and revues (including “Side by Side by Sondheim,” which was on Broadway in 1977 when I first moved to New York) that emphasized his supreme, stinging wit. These were lyrics you heard quoted as zingers at cocktail parties (“It’s not so hard to be married, I’ve done it three or four times,” from “Company”; “Could I bury my rage, with a boy half your age, in the grass?/Bet your ass,” from “Follies.”)

But in truth, Sondheim was never just the gimlet-eyed outsider at the party, quipping wisely and witheringly. Instead, what he was capturing like nobody else in his genre was the voice of a generation of doubters who, whether they admitted it or not, were starting to feel like outsiders in their own lives, like loners — even in a crowd, even within their own family.

These were people who grew up in an age of anxiety, of self-probing psychoanalysis and rising divorce rates. The all-conquering love hymned in the classic musical was beginning to look like an increasingly flimsy fiction. “Happy endings can spring a leak/ ‘Ever after’ can mean one week,” as Sondheim wrote in his lyrics for “Do I Hear a Waltz?,” the 1965 musical on which he collaborated with Richard Rodgers.

Such skepticism is not to be confused with wholesale cynicism or self-protecting numbness. As far back as his “Saturday Night” (written in the 1950s but never produced in New York until 2000), a portrait of young Brooklyn men impatiently waiting for their lives to begin, Sondheim’s scores have consistently throbbed with a longing to connect, to engage and, yes, to love. It’s a sentiment wistfully embodied in the ballad “Being Alive” from “Company,” a song repurposed in the 2019 Noah Baumbach movie “Marriage Story” for Adam Driver’s divorce-mauled husband.

But no one in a Sondheim musical is ever going to make the sort of unconditional declaration that the cockeyed optimist Nellie Forbush did in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”: “I’m in love with a wonderful guy!” Love, chez Sondheim, is treated as a dangerous substance that could explode or rot or evaporate altogether once you finally embrace it.

“Follies” covers a giddy range of the forms assumed by the divided nature of love, and how we hold on to what remains of the illusions we once had about it. (What’s so brilliant about the pastiche numbers, evocations of quaint songs of yesteryear, is the musical tension between past styles and present perception.) Most of us, I imagine, have experienced something like the frenzied vacillations of the two-timing husband who sings, “I’ve got those ‘God-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later Blues.’”

But note how even an ostensibly straightforward ballad like “Not a Day Goes By,” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” progresses from a declaration of lifelong passion to a harsh and resentful cry against the human bondage that such commitment entails. Or how in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (1979), Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s retelling of a bloody Victorian urban legend, an exiled barber’s love for the family he lost is transformed into a blind pursuit of revenge, with music in which gentle motifs of tenderness are devoured by thundering chords of rage.

Obsession, as both a life-warping force (“Assassins,” the savage yet oddly empathic study of American killers from 1990) and a creative necessity (the ravishing “Sunday in the Park With George,” 1984), becomes an increasingly dominant subject for Sondheim in the second half of his career. The peerless “Finishing the Hat,” from “Sunday,” mixes the exhilaration that comes from the quest for perfection and the painful knowledge of the selfishness and sacrifices that it requires.

But what happens when love itself becomes the overwhelming obsession? Sondheim finally approached that subject late in his career, with “Passion” (1994), his penultimate work to date. As shaped by Sondheim and writer and director James Lapine (his collaborator on “Sunday”), this operatic masterwork follows the initiation of an ordinary man, a soldier, into the labyrinth of its titular subject.

His instructor takes the form of a sickly, ugly woman named Fosca, who teaches him that love is a blinding, irrational force — “as pure as breath, as permanent as death, as implacable as stone.” The paradoxically uplifting darkness of the music here suggests that the triumph of love is something neither to celebrate nor to lament. It simply is, in all its irreducible complexity.

When Fosca describes what might be considered both her nemesis and her salvation, she might be speaking for Sondheim — a composer once dismissed as all head and no heart. “I know I feel too much,” she says. “I often don’t know what to do with my feelings.” Sondheim has always transformed that not knowing, a state in which we all exist, into some of the most fully feeling songs ever written.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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