SIDE BY SIDE
It took me a long time to come around to Stephen Sondheim, I admit. Oh, I recognized his importance to the American Musical Theatre--he is unquestionably a giant. Of that there can be no doubt. But his musical compositions often only had a tenuous relationship to melody (and that was of paramount importance to me) and his lyrics were sometimes too cute by half. Most of my theatre-going life has been dedicated to drama anyway, as anyone scanning the walls of my classroom can easily deduce. There are probably ten window cards to one for plays over musicals. It's not that I didn't desire to see musicals (especially those in the canon), but theatre-going is expensive and my resources were usually limited, so I made choices. I made sure to see My Fair Lady, and The King and I, and Carousel, and Cabaret. I loved Chicago. My very first theatre-going experience was to see a musical. I won two tickets to see It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman when I was 13! But I never went to see Sondheim's classics, A Little Night Music or Company or Sweeney Todd or Sunday in the Park with George. (Update: I finally saw Sunday in the Park with Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford. Lovely.) People I respected loved them, but I just never pushed through to go see them. Saw a production of Follies in summer stock because a colleague was in it, but it wasn't until 1989, when I saw a production of Into the Woods, well into its run and minus star Bernadette Peters, that I was compelled to reconsider my view on Sondheim.
My recollection of that production was that I was as deliriously happy at intermission as I had ever been at a show, and I would have been quite content to go home then! I had more than gotten my money's worth! The second half of the show was less melodic because it was much darker (It's about what happens after "They lived happily ever after"), and so I went home feeling ambivalent. Still, that show stuck with me in powerful ways I didn't really understand. There are many wonderful moments for me from that show, but it is the opening sequence, by far, that resonates with me today. Now, I am moved to tears when the three disparate tales that open the show merge into one powerful statement about human frailty and resilience. Below is a clip from the original production I saw back in the day. It is a short segment that kicks into other short segments to meet with copyright laws. If you go to YouTube and check out Into the Woods Original Cast, you can pretty much watch the whole show in stops and starts. (I've attached a link for the full show and we'll see if it works). I have the DVD--a better way to enjoy the show. Following that is a promo video about an unconventional production I saw with my daughter Claire in Central Park during the summer of 2012.
As the years have passed, however, I find myself more attentive when I hear a Sondheim tune. Maybe it's because I've reached the age when I can look at the truths about relationships--the truths about life really--and see that Sondheim has often found a way to express its joys and disappointments in equal measure. It's like that joke that Woody Allen (as Alvy Singer) tells at the opening of his classic comedy Annie Hall: "There's an old joke - um... two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, 'Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.' The other one says, 'Yeah, I know; and such small portions.' Well, that's essentially how I feel about life - full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly."
I felt that way a couple of years ago at a production of Sondheim's Passion, a show about the power of love and obsession. It was a wonderful, rich, but minimalist production, the only musical ever mounted at the Classic Stage Company, an intimate space. It made me rethink my preconceived notions about both love and relationships. Here is a clip of Judy Kuhn, whom I saw as Fosca in that production, singing one of its moving ballads:
In my reading and viewing about Sondheim in recent years, I have come across some wonderful videos. The HBO special Six by Sondheim (which I've watched multiple times) is fascinating. I still can't wrap my head around the story he tells about his mother and her lack of maternal instinct. She sends him a letter as he's beginning to achieve success and says something to the effect that her only regret is giving him birth! Not sure how anyone deals with that, but obviously Sondheim channeled his emotions into art. The intensity of human feelings is probably best seen in this clip from Sondheim's 1970 show Company. Dean Jones, who was only in the show briefly, plays Bobby, who celebrates his 35th birthday by pondering his life at the midway point. Jones gives a breathtaking interpretation of the song "Being Alive", one of Sondheim's greatest musical achievements.
Sondheim is a gray eminence now, and he has been wonderful as a mentor to others just as he was the beneficiary of Oscar Hammerstein II's tutelage when he was a youth. He is the link between the classical musical theatre to the contemporary. He spans the period from West Side Story (lyrics) Gypsy (lyrics) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (music and lyrics) to the period of the experimental and conceptual musicals of the 70s (e.g. Company, Sweeney Todd) to the present. He is planning to unveil his latest musical, an adaptation of two surrealist films (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel) by the legendary director Luis Bunuel at the Public Theatre shortly. He has also composed some new tunes for the film version of Into the Woods to be released this Christmas. He's 84! If you are interested and willing to sit and get some history and dirt on the musical theatre, check out the links below. The first is the HBO Documentary Six by Sondheim, an analysis of the man's accomplishments through the prism of six of his songs. It's well worth the time investment. (Here is the YouTube link if it's blocked: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGkj3ljFGs8. ) The second video (sorry about its pixelated resolution) explains in elaborate detail how Sondheim and his partner James Lapine constructed Into the Woods. Speaking of which, a new production of Into the Woods will be appearing on Broadway this spring. Order your tickets today! (Update: This production was most enjoyable--a stripped-down version with a small cast. It went on a national tour after its New York appearance).