On Stephen Sondheim

On Stephen Sondheim

Ellis Graham

  • Australian Columnist

I am not one for bold statements. I do not see the world in black and white. If there is a fence in an argument, I will plant my bum firmly on it and give equal attention to pros, cons and every grey area. Nothing is set in stone for me.

Except for this.

I can say, unequivocally, and without a doubt, that Stephen Sondheim is the greatest composer/lyricist who ever lived. 

Even as I type this, I can already sense uproar. My brain is screaming at me, ‘are you insane?! What about Lin-Manuel Miranda? What about Gershwin, Lloyd Webber, Rogers and Hammerstein? What about Berlin, Porter, Bernstein, Lerner and Lowe? Good god, what about MENKEN?’

Here’s the truth. I hold a special place in my heart for all the aforementioned composers (although, Lloyd Webber needs to get his act together, because I’m still traumatised after Love Never Dies). But none of them can compare to Stephen Sondheim. With shows like ‘Sweeney Todd,’ ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Sunday in the Park with George,’ he has completely revolutionised the modern musical, bringing to Broadway an artistry and creativity that was all his own.

Firstly, before there was Lin-Manuel Miranda, there was Sondheim. Before I could rap ‘Guns and Ships,’ I was replaying the prologue from ‘Into the Woods’ over and over again, memorising the Witch’s Rap. Though Sondheim was actually not the first to incorporate rap into the Broadway musical (check out Rock Island from ‘the Music Man), he was the first to popularise it. To this day, it still stuns me that Sondheim manages to squeeze not only the musical’s major plot line, but also countless exposition AND Rapunzel’s backstory, all into a couple of tightly written verses. Not only that, but he manages to incorporate intense dramatis with blended comedic elements (see his rhyming of ‘scenes’ and ‘nectarines.’)

Secondly, he has some of the most complex lyrics ever featured in any musical, and anyone who says otherwise has clearly never attempted to sing ‘Not Getting Married’ in the shower. Sondheim seems to forget that humans have this annoying need to breathe every once in a while, and as a result he’s made it his life-long quest to see just how long his singers can hold a note before they pass out. But his lyrics are so eloquent, the melodies so lustrous and decadent, that it’s hard not to feel spoilt listening to them. Listening to one of his songs is like opening a birthday present – within every layer of wrapping (lyrics), you find a new and wonderful surprise, be it an intelligent rhyme or existential musing. When he composes ballads, Sondheim’s lyrics do not merely scratch the surface of the character’s psyche. They delve deep into what it means to be human, the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, pleasures and pains. 

Last year I attended a showing of ‘Sondheim on Sondheim,’ a revue featuring many of his most famous songs. Halfway through, the cast all got together to perform ‘Opening Doors’ from the musical ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ infamous for being one of the biggest flops of 1981. But when I heard those lyrics, discussing – in precise detail – the harsh realities of being a nobody in a world of somebodies, I had the urge to leap to my feet and cheer. No one writes the underdog better than Sondheim, but this particularly song rang true with me in a way none of the others had. I think the constant, endless hope of the characters had something to do with it, because when they belted the line ‘that faraway shore’s looking not too far,’ I couldn’t keep my grin off my face. 

One of Sondheim’s greatest attributes is that he writes music with universal appeal. Though not all of us want to be composers like Frank, we do have some secret goal we want to attain, and being mere steps away from that ‘faraway shore’ is one of the best feelings in the world. Sondheim knows that, and ha manages to capture that emotion and pin it down on paper.

Thirdly, his humour is often macabre and always hilarious. When he’s not being intense and dramatic (and let’s face it, he often is,) Sondheim is just about one of the funniest composers to ever grace the Great White Way. He’s a fan of dark humour, and it shows in his compositions. ‘Any Moment’ is a song about infidelity, and yet I just giggle throughout it, because Sondheim’s lyrics give leeway for the actors to experiment and have fun with their roles. The same could be said for any songs featuring Mrs Lovett from ‘Sweeney Todd.’ His lyrics are open to multiple interpretations, and many actresses who’ve played Mrs Lovett have elected to really play up the comedy of the role, which – in such a grisly show – is some much welcomed relief. In particular, I love Angela Lansbury’s original turn as Lovett, especially her rendition of ‘the Worst Pies in London,’ which took on a conversational tone and still – to this day – makes me cackle when she furiously declares ‘no you DON’T.’ 

Lastly, Sondheim is not afraid to distance himself from the norm. He’s composed songs for musicals about fairy tales, murderous barbers, broken marriages, Roman farces, night-time lovers and even Georges Seurat. He has never shied away from the gritty or gusty, and his shows are often underlined with tragic tones. But while his shows have elements of devastation, they always reach their own unique happily ever afters (we’re possibly excluding Sweeney Todd from that comment).

Despite the fact that several of his shows feature elements of the fantastical or magical, Sondheim still manages to present realistic stories with relatable characters. He never dumbs anything down to please anyone – his shows continue, to this very day, to be intense, intricate affairs/ His emotional manipulation is always perfectly timed – he knows when his audience should laugh or cry, and he knows exactly how to pinpoint these moments in his songs, whether with provoking lyrics or one striking chord. Though his shows are not always successful, they secure themselves a place in history thanks to their unique and powerful scores.

So Sondheim is not Lin-Manuel Miranda. He’s not Gershwin, Lloyd Webber, or Rogers and Hammerstein. He’s not Berlin, Porter, Bernstein, Lerner and Lowe. He’s not Menken. But he is a distinctive, superb, extraordinary composer, in a class all his own. 

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