Because the houselights went down the opposite week on the primary efficiency of “Firm” for the reason that COVID shutdown, an outdated man, carrying a ratty sweater, slipped into the theater from a aspect entrance.
If he hoped to be unobtrusive, he failed. The viewers acknowledged him instantly – Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the present’s rating. The gang leapt up, its thunderous cheering inflicting a
minor seismic shock in Instances Sq..
You couldn’t see Sondheim’s face – masking is strictly enforced on Broadway – however I’ve little doubt it flashed that sly grin that at all times appeared to say (to me at the very least), “Thanks for the popularity, however let’s not get carried away.”
Sondheim, who died Friday at 91, was essentially the most feted musical theater legend since Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Ranging from the time he was 60, his each main birthday (and a few minor ones) had been celebrated in grand model – at Carnegie Corridor, Lincoln Heart, The Royal Albert Corridor, The Library of Congress.
“I feel my precise funeral shall be an afterthought,” he as soon as joked to me.
If he was barely cynical in regards to the unending stream of tributes, it’s most likely as a result of it took him years, and loads of setbacks, to grow to be a Broadway icon.
His first Broadway present was “West Facet Story,” for which he wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s symphonic rating. The New York Instances, praising the present, didn’t point out him.
Critics admired the lyrics to his subsequent present – “Gypsy” – however saved most of their adoration for his way more well-known collaborators – composer Jule Styne, director Jerome Robbins and main girl Ethel Merman.
Sondheim then wrote the music and lyrics to “A Humorous Factor Occurred on the Method to the Discussion board,” a sensational musical comedy with a jaunty, tuneful, jolly rating.
He may have cranked out extra reveals like “Discussion board,” however it was not in his nature to repeat himself. And so, with director Hal Prince, he launched into a collection of dramatic reveals that elevated the musical theater from diverting leisure to artwork.
The reveals – “Firm,” “Follies,” “A Little Night time Music,” “Sweeney Todd” –are actually classics. However aside from “Night time Music,” all misplaced cash and left audiences and plenty of critics chilly.
“Sweeney Todd,” in regards to the Demon Barber of Fleet Road, didn’t simply depart audiences chilly. It enraged them. Throughout intermission of the primary preview in 1979, a candy matinee girl walked as much as the producer and yelled, “Cannibalism — on Broadway? I by no means!” Then she hit the producer together with her purse.
The rap towards Sondheim again then was that whereas his lyrics had been intelligent and witty, his refined music lacked catchy tunes. (His solely pop hit, in actual fact, was the incomparable “Ship within the Clowns” from “Night time Music.”)
The rap was fallacious and unfair. Melodies – snappy, tender, witty and heat – stream by means of all his scores. “Facet By Facet” from “Firm” is a showstopper. “Shedding My
Thoughts” from “Follies” will break your coronary heart. “Each Day a Little Demise” from “Night time Music” has haunted me for years. And is there a funnier track, musically and lyrically, in all of musical theater than “A Little Priest” from “Sweeney Todd”?
Todd and Mrs. Lovett are discussing the sorts of individuals they’re going to kill and grind into meat pies.
She: “Right here’s a politician so oily, he’s served with a doily. Have one.”
He: “Put it on a bun. Effectively, you by no means know if it’s going to run!”
Sondheim didn’t sit on the piano and crank out hits. He couldn’t “pee a melody,” as Richard Rodgers as soon as bragged he may. For Sondheim, the songs got here slowly, typically painfully, and had been at all times rooted in a dramatic second from the present.
James Lapine, who wrote the script to “Sunday within the Park With George” – for which he and Sondheim gained the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 – catalogs in his memoir “Placing It Collectively” the variety of scenes, concepts and snatches of dialogue he needed to provide Sondheim earlier than Sondheim may sit on the piano.
Outdoors “Sunday,” “Ending the Hat,” certainly one of his finest songs, would possibly sound baffling. However throughout the context of the present it shimmers with magnificence, and captures, maybe higher than something ever written, an artist’s obsession with getting the work good.
In particular person, Sondheim was as complicated as his reveals. Shut buddies say he was sort, sensible, and beneficiant. However, relying on his temper, he could possibly be prickly. In all of the years I’ve coated Broadway, I by no means received to know him. He claimed to be above the form of showbiz gossip I peddled, preferring as a substitute the corporate of his acolytes on the New York Instances. However at any time when I emailed him a query for an article or a e book I used to be engaged on, he at all times received proper again to me with a useful reply.
Nonetheless, the prickliness was by no means far under the floor. A number of weeks in the past, I discovered the sheet music to “Ship within the Clowns,” which I discovered to play on the piano as a child. I requested if he’d signal it for me. He wrote again instantly: “I as soon as requested you to not print a letter I wrote to Arthur [Laurents] that criticized Leslie Uggams as a result of I didn’t wish to harm her emotions in public. You printed it anyway. So I’m not inclined to do you any favors.”
I had no thought what he was speaking about, however once I rummaged across the Put up’s web site, there it was: a bitchy column I wrote in 2014.
Truthful sufficient, I assumed. However per week later, I received a name from the press agent for the brand new film of “West Facet Story.” Sondheim was arranging a non-public screening for some theater folks and needed to incorporate me.
Simply the opposite day I wrote him a word in regards to the film. This time, sadly, there was no reply.