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Now you know: A critic's guide to Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim has been the composer and lyricist of 15 stage musicals and the lyricist for three others. Chris Buzelli/The New York Times.

by Ben Brantley and Jesse Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Stephen Sondheim has been the composer and lyricist of 15 stage musicals and the lyricist for three others. The chief theater critics for The New York Times weigh in on all of them, dated by the approximate year of their composition or first Broadway performance.

Saturday Night (1955)
The start of Sondheim’s Broadway career was inauspicious. In his early 20s he wrote the songs for a musical with a book by Julius Epstein about a bunch of date-starved Brooklyn bachelors hoping to make a killing in the stock market. Charming and small-scale, with no chorus or other signs of Golden Age grandeur, “Saturday Night” exemplified the changing texture of musical theater — or would have, had its lead producer not died. Although the show would not be staged in New York until 2000, two of its songs became cabaret standards in the meantime: “So Many People” (a lovely ballad) and “What More Do I Need?” (a left-handed tribute to the city, where “even the falling snow looks used”). But it was the title song that introduced Sondheim’s genius for compressing a worldview into a quatrain: “I like the Sunday Times all right, / But not in bed. / Alive and alone on a Saturday night / Is dead.”

— Jesse Green

West Side Story (1957)/Gypsy (1959)/Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965)
Although he thought of himself as a composer first, or at any rate liked writing music more than lyrics, Sondheim served a grudging apprenticeship as the word man to three musical geniuses: Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story,” Jule Styne on “Gypsy” and Richard Rodgers on “Do I Hear a Waltz?” His mixed emotions showed up in the mixed (if always exceptionally polished) results. For “West Side Story” he wrote “poetic” lyrics that Bernstein loved but that embarrassed their author — yet also produced, as the collaboration matured, lacerating lines that never cloy. (One of his best came straight from Arthur Laurents’ libretto: “A boy like that, who’d kill your brother.”) More confident with Styne, he began to produce words that turned songs into complex scenes (“Rose’s Turn”). Rodgers required a relapse into a Golden Age style that no longer suited the ambitious young Sondheim — or the musical theater he was about to change forever.

— Jesse Green

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962)
An antic adaptation of several ancient comedies by Plautus, featuring a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, and the first Broadway show for which Sondheim created both music and lyrics. Under the supervision of venerable director George Abbott, this tangled farce of scrambled identities in dirty old Rome thrust its 32-year-old composer into a maelstrom of constant revisions and second guesses, including the last-minute substitution of a game-changing opening number. That’s “Comedy Tonight,” and as delivered by its star, Zero Mostel, it set the tone for what (despite out-of-town travails) became a palpable hit, running 964 performances. Sondheim’s work here is broad, buoyant and melodic, with only tantalizing traces of the complex artist to come.

— Ben Brantley

Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
An oddball contribution to the burgeoning creed of 1960s individualism by two self-defined nonconformists, Sondheim and Laurents (the show’s book writer and director). Set in a financially strapped town in search of an economic (and literal) miracle, the plot traffics in the then-fashionable blurring of boundaries between sanity and insanity, with characters who include a corrupt mayor (Angela Lansbury, in a smashing Broadway musical debut), a bogus doctor and a repressed psychiatric nurse at an institution called the Cookie Jar. Audiences were allergic to its high whimsy, and the show closed after nine performances. It has some strange little jewels of songs, though, including a title number (performed by Lee Remick’s nurse) that is pure Sondheim in its aching wistfulness.

— Ben Brantley

Company (1970)
Phone rings, door chimes, in comes “Company.” At the start of a decade that would see five astonishing new Sondheim shows on Broadway — all directed by Harold Prince — this one, with a book by George Furth, helped drag the musical into a new age. Part of that newness was the story: A toxic bachelor named Bobby, turning 35, is forced by the five couples who are his best friends, as well as three women he’s dating, to rethink his reflexive antipathy toward marriage. And part of it was the sideways approach, which emphasized theme over plot and commentary over action. But most of it was the phenomenal score, the first in which Sondheim, writing about people he really knew, inhabited his natural style fully: a style as cosmopolitan as the busy signal that introduces the cast album but also stealthily passionate and, at its thrilling best, both.

— Jesse Green

Follies (1971)
One of the great elegies in Broadway history, this portrait of a reunion of performers from a Ziegfeld-style revue was a luxuriant farewell to a vanishing era of show business and to the American illusion of a happily-ever-after existence. Staged by Prince and Michael Bennett, with a book by James Goldman, “Follies” remains a prime example of Sondheim’s peerless gifts for pastiche songwriting (“Beautiful Girls,” “Broadway Baby”) and the musical nervous breakdown, often combining elements of both. Designed with an extravagance that would be financially impossible today, it featured a cast that included vintage Hollywood stars like Alexis Smith and Yvonne de Carlo, who introduced the barbed evergreen “I’m Still Here.” A once misunderstood show that looks more beautiful every time it’s revived.

— Ben Brantley

A Little Night Music (1973)
Marriage was the open question in “Company” and definitely not the answer in “Follies.” Finally, in “A Little Night Music,” Sondheim, working with a book by Hugh Wheeler, wrote a musical in which the realignment of mismatched lovers made for a happy ending. Is it a coincidence that the result brought Sondheim the best reviews of his career to that point? Suddenly the snarky wit was a romantic, the angular composer a melodist. True, “A Little Night Music” is sumptuous, as befits its setting among the Swedish upper class in 1900. And Sondheim’s spectacular all-waltz time score (orchestrated, like all his ’70s shows, by Jonathan Tunick) included a bona fide crossover hit: “Send in the Clowns.” But as could be expected from a story based on an Ingmar Bergman film, “A Little Night Music” serves up more than whipped cream. It’s about the uncomfortable proximity of maturity and mortality. Bergman loved it.

— Jesse Green

The Frogs (1974)
In the midst of his Broadway triumphs, Sondheim went to Yale. There, at the School of Drama, along with his “Forum” collaborator Shevelove, he revisited ancient comedy with “The Frogs,” based on the Aristophanes play in which Dionysus moderates a contest in Hades between the playwriting giants Euripides and Aeschylus. (The winner comes back from the dead to save the theater.) Shevelove’s larky hourlong production updated the debaters to Shakespeare and Shaw and was staged at Yale’s pool, with the swim team as the title characters and Meryl Streep in the ensemble. Despite acoustics that Sondheim compared to “putting on a show in a men’s urinal,” “The Frogs” was an eight-performance hit, eventually spawning a Broadway version starring (and expanded by) Nathan Lane. The score represents Sondheim at both his funniest (“Invocation to the Gods and Instructions to the Audience”) and his strangest — but also, as in his setting of Shakespeare’s “Fear No More,” his most haunting.

— Jesse Green

Pacific Overtures (1976)
The concept was complicated: a show about the “opening” of Japan by Adm. Matthew Perry in 1853, told, Sondheim said, as if by “a Japanese who’s seen a lot of American musicals.” Perhaps that’s why, by conventional measures, it was not a major success: It had the shortest run of his ’70s shows and, despite Prince’s jaw-dropping production, was all but shut out at the Tony Awards. Yet in telling a cautionary tale about cultural imperialism, “Pacific Overtures,” with a precision-tooled book by John Weidman, pushed Sondheim to explore a harmonic and lyrical language that opened a new chapter in his artistic life. (We would soon hear more of it in “Sunday in the Park With George.”) Characterized by extreme compression and allusiveness, that language allowed songs like “A Bowler Hat” and “Someone in a Tree” (his own favorite among his works) to offer the world in a phrase.

— Jesse Green

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979)
The darkest, angriest and most improbably entertaining work in the Sondheim canon. Wheeler wrote the book for this “black operetta,” in which revenge is a meat pie served piping hot and made from the title character’s dismembered victims. Sondheim gave transcendent musical voice to monomaniacal rage, with a shivery riff on the Dies Irae of the Catholic Mass. But he also plied his signature wit with wicked word play on matters macabre (see: “A Little Priest”). First staged as a big-picture indictment of the industrial revolution by Prince — in a production memorably starring Len Cariou as the deranged barber and Lansbury as his pie-making accomplice — “Sweeney” has since proved itself ideally suited to more intimate interpretations, like John Doyle’s 2005 revival, which invite audiences directly into the clammy confines of a madman’s mind.

— Ben Brantley

Merrily We Roll Along (1981)
The much-loved problem child of Sondheim’s musicals, and one that directors keep returning to in the hopes of finally getting it right. When this reverse-chronology portrait — about the intersecting roads to success and disillusionment in showbiz — opened on Broadway with a young and untried cast, it not only crashed and burned; it also signaled the end of the long and fruitful years of collaboration between Sondheim and the show’s director, Prince. (That sundering strangely echoed the musical’s portrait of the unraveling of a longtime creative friendship.) Furth’s cliché-stoked script, adapted from a 1934 play by Moss Hart and George Kaufman, has remained a stumbling block for subsequent revivals. But Sondheim’s rueful score captured the sweep and sting of regretful memory and abandoned hopes, and introduced the cabaret standard “Not a Day Goes By.”

— Ben Brantley

Sunday in the Park With George (1984)
Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winner and a show that breathtakingly expanded the possibilities for the form and subject of the genre. George is the 19th-century French pointillist painter Georges Seurat and also his (fictional) 20th-century great-grandson, a conceptual artist. And “Sunday,” with an inventive book by James Lapine (its original director), both portrays and embodies art’s role in weaving form and order out of daily life. Sondheim’s use of song as character study is at its most acute, with unforgettably idiosyncratic portraits of the obsessively focused Seurat and his neglected lover and model, Dot (originally portrayed by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters). The first act’s final scene, a re-creation of the painting of the title, is the stuff of legends; a 2017 revival, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, showed it had lost none of its magic.

— Ben Brantley

Into the Woods (1987)
Built on familiar tropes and repeated melodic motifs, “Into the Woods” is deceptively welcoming; thanks to the 2014 movie and innumerable school performances, it is probably Sondheim’s best-known work. But Lapine’s story about a witch’s curse, a couple’s quest, a girl’s gluttony and a giant’s revenge (among other elements of the densely woven plot) is far darker than its jaunty title song indicates. Act 1, which sends the characters working toward their wishes, is followed in Act 2 by the dark consequences of their achievement: discord, separation, death. Likewise, the songs, many built from musical cells Sondheim flips and shuffles, darken into warnings, laments and lullabies. So don’t let the fairy-tale ending fool you: This is a sophisticated musical about sophistication — about the dangers, for both parents and children, of growing up. “Isn’t it nice to know a lot?” Red Riding Hood sings. “And a little bit not.”

— Jesse Green

Assassins (1990)
Resounding proof that Sondheim, at 60, had lost none of his artistic daring or precision, or his willingness to defy convention. Set in a sort of purgatorial shooting gallery, “Assassins” presented an assortment of men and women who had killed — or attempted to kill — U.S. presidents, including John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley. Weidman wrote the connective, poker-faced script. But it was Sondheim’s score, inflected with regional accents of the American songbook through the ages, that gave the show its radiant chill, as its dispossessed characters sang longingly of a hunger for glory. “Assassins” opened off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons just as the Persian Gulf War was beginning, and critics recoiled at its perceived glibness in a moment of national crisis. But when it finally arrived on Broadway in 2004, its depiction of the rabid lust of celebrity felt scaldingly relevant. A forthcoming off-Broadway incarnation, directed by Doyle, may well reveal it to be a sobering mirror for our own age of resentful populism.

— Ben Brantley

Passion (1994)
Why did audiences at the Plymouth Theater giggle and groan during previews of “Passion”? Certainly, it was an uncomfortable story: A sickly, unattractive woman named Fosca (actually the beautiful Donna Murphy, with a mole) falls in love with a handsome young captain — then makes him fall in love with her. And though Lapine’s book neatly theatricalized the film “Passione d’Amore” — as well as “Fosca,” the epistolary novel it was based on — his staging could not solve the problem of the crazy lady popping up everywhere to torment that nice soldier. This was the audience’s loss, as revivals, especially in smaller spaces, have since proved. “Passion,” kept close to the eyes and ears, is overwhelmingly beautiful, filled with rhapsodic inquiries into the impossibility and ultimate necessity of love. If it contains some of Sondheim’s most moving music and probing lyrics, perhaps that’s because it was, unusually, his idea to do it. Very much like Fosca, he knew what he wanted.

— Jesse Green

Wise Guys (1999)/Bounce (2003)/Road Show (2008)
Since its buzz-generating inception as a starry workshop production in 1999, this endlessly evolving collaboration with Weidman has undergone repeated changes of casts, dialogue, song lists and directors. It has remained Sondheim’s most picaresque piece, a tale of two itinerant brothers at odds with and reliant on each other (one of whom is the only gay leading character in a Sondheim musical). Inspired by real-life entrepreneurs (and flim-flammers) extraordinaire Addison and Wilson Mizner, the show is a country-crossing map of fortunes lost and made, in which unbounded success always looms as a tantalizing chimera. The brothers, like many Sondheim characters, may be casualties of unfulfilled American dreams. But he, and we, can’t help admiring their determination in reinventing themselves. The show’s last line: “Sooner or later, we’re bound to get it right.”

— Ben Brantley

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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