Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sondheim's Rich

Reflection on "The Sondheim Puzzle," essay by Frank Rich in New York magazine (Dec. 2013).

Sondheim and Rich onstage in Easton, PA, in 2010
Longtime New York Times essayist and sometime film producer Frank Rich has known Stephen Sondheim's work since age ten, and Sondheim himself since age twenty.  Now, around age sixty, Rich looks back to explain a "consistent emotional reaction" to the work that arises from something of its creator that underlies its "technical brilliance."  It's a puzzle, because Sondheim denies any autobiographical elements in his songs (except for "Opening Doors" in Merrily We Roll Along about young writers trying to break into show business).

What Rich finds is "a longing to connect and a fear that time is going by too fast."  No doubt.  Rich sites the song from Follies, "Too Many Mornings" about life "wasted in pretending I reach for you," that leads to the urgent question, "How much time can we hope that there will be?"  Of course, these are themes worked into the books of shows by what Sondheim calls his "unsung" collaborators.  In Hugh Wheeler's book for A Little Night Music, old Madame Armfeldt reminisces of the first in her long string of lovers, an ardent young man who gave her a wooden ring that had been in his family for centuries.  Because it was only wood, she rejected it, and him. "And now, who knows?" she asks.  "He might have been the love of my life." 

Rich comes closer to the essence when he quotes Sondheim on "loving his characters."  Sondheim thinks like an actor, finding some way to connect to each character, even the unsympathetic ones.     

I'd add that Sondheim also takes care of his performers.   We read in Sondheim's memoir how hard he worked to fix songs that earned their  performers merely "polite" applause, which he says is the most "dispiriting" reaction.  "I'm Still Here" gave Yvonne De Carlo the song of her career, "Send in the Clowns" played to Glynis Johns' strengths as an actress and weakness as a singer, and "Another Hundred People" was revised to give Pamela Myers her opportunity to stop the show.  Seeing six of Sondheim's shows at Kennedy Center in the summer of 2002, I was struck again and again by the ways he built numbers to show off the singing actors.

For example, "The Worst Pies in London" not only introduces us to "Mrs. Lovett" in Sweeney Todd, but also requires coordination of rapid-fire lyrics with dough-kneading, ale-pouring, roach-crushing, and, beneath it all, the subtext that Mrs. Lovett has recognized her customer.   The actress ends on a sustained note, always an applause-getter, tied with a flurry of final activity to present a complete pie to Sweeney on the last beat. 

Rich tells us that Sondheim's "journalistic objectivity" about people results in magnanimity about colleagues who have been less generous to him.  He tells us of Sondheim's gratitude to the teachers in his life, and his making time to meet privately with students at universities across America, wherever Rich has staged a series of public interviews with Sondheim over the past ten years. 

So Rich is right: "The ineffable quality in Sondheim's work is where love enters his equation."

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