Not just songs, but stories

Robin Lane offers an appreciation of American icon Stephen Sondheim.

During my student days in London, I could be found loitering around West End theatres trying to get a ticket that would fit my budget. Late one afternoon, having got lucky with a show, I spotted a magnificent sight: an Italian restaurant with a meal deal. What student could resist pizza and wine for £10?

Two men took their seats at the table beside me. One, armed with a phone, began to take a selfie but was clearly struggling with the technology. I offered my assistance. Tap the screen, focus the camera, let the image clear. And then I saw him. The other person at the table. Stephen Sondheim. Oh, the things I could say to that man:

You are my favourite lyricist of all time.

Sondheim’s use of language is unmatched in musical theatre. The titillation, the wit, the humour: ‘Lovely bit of clerk/Maybe for a lark/Then again, there’s sweep if you want it cheap and you like it dark’ – Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979). The bittersweet reflections on relationships, love and heartbreak: ‘I dim the lights/And think about you/Spend sleepless nights/To think about you/You said you loved me/Or were you just being kind?/Or am I losing my mind?’ – Follies (1971). No one could match his ability to find the right words for what many of us would find indescribable.

Your music has moved me.

With Sondheim you can tell which show or character the music is from within a few bars. He captures each emotion his characters feel. Think of ‘Send in the Clowns’ from A Little Night Music (1973). Its shifting metre creates a sense of uncertainty, mirroring the character of Desirée at this moment in the show. The melody flutters up, only to deflate at the end of the line ‘Me here at last on the ground, you in mid-air’, mirroring the
physical sensation of a heart dropping with disappointment. You feel every small moment of his music in a way that none of his contemporaries ever achieved.

You have created so much great work.

The volume of Sondheim’s output would be impressive enough, but for it to feature so many groundbreaking works is astonishing. Company (1970) broke from theatrical convention and deviated from a traditional narrative, focusing on themes and relationships. Into the Woods (1987) took the fairytales we all know and turned them on their heads. His own works have been completely reimagined, too, notably in the 2018 revival of Company, which saw the gender of its central character swapped from male to female. A Sondheim show is never mundane; he spent his early years learning the rules and the rest of his career gloriously breaking every single one of them.

What was the greatest lesson you learned from Oscar Hammerstein II? What was it like to work with Bernstein? What comes first, the lyrics or the melody?

These are things I wish I had said. Instead, I fumbled with the phone, the camera went out of focus and I took the photo. I quickly returned the phone to Sondheim’s companion, who looked in confusion/horror at the blurry image, and I slunk back to my table. Stephen Sondheim smiled at me and said, “Thank you.”

“No, Mr Sondheim,” I should have replied. “Thank you.”

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