Sondheim gets a little tearful
How could I not write about dear old Stephen on his 80th birthday and also after seeing this picture? Sondheim had just found out they were to name a theatre after him. See this is someone who really strives for his art, I bet Andrew Lloyd Webber wouldn't be so overcome if he had a theatre named after him. Then again he owns lots of theatres and so could easily name all of them"The Andrew Lloyd Webber Theatre"; thankfully that would get very confusing and so he doesn't. This being Sondheim's eightieth, I thought I'd have a little celebration of his work and a meander through "Lucy's world of Sondheim".
I guess my first exposure to Sondheim, as is 'traditional', was to West Side Story. Strangely in my family it's my Dad who is the theatre lover, with WSS being one of his favourites. A copy of Tonight could often be found atop the piano and once I learnt to play I could be found playing said copy of Tonight. Dad tried to get me to watch the film but I never made it past the endless overture. Tonight still contains some of the most romantic lyrics, the phrase "today the world was just an address, a place for me to live in, much better than alright" also ways captivates me. I found myself appearing in West Side Story many years later and, although I had very little to do in the show, it felt special to be doing such an eponymous musical.
Charles and Ella embrace in Evening Primrose
We'll start this little trip down memory lane with possibly my favourite bit of Sondheim and also because I was just listening to it on Spotify. As a small detour from the road to becoming one of the most admired songwriters, Stephen wrote a small musical for television in the style of The Twilight Zone. Evening Primrose tells the story of Charles, a stressed out writer as he discovers the after-hours inhabitants of a department store. He meets the mysterious Ella and together they plot to escape this underground existence. Being a short television special, Evening Primrose boasted only four songs but they are four of Sondheim's finest. If You Can Find Me I'm Here sets the story for the listener and cleverly builds up pace by adding more and more words in typical Sondheim fashion. When? Is a strange one, sung telepathically between Ella and Charles juxtaposing a card game. Charles riffs off the moves he makes in the game to construct a love song between the two of them. Much like Sondheim himself, Charles battles to find words to rhyme with Ella, conceding that his job would be much easier had she been named Jane. I Remember has become a cabaret classic- with Sondheim's trademark clever rhyming and magically conjured up metaphors. Where clever metaphors did not sit well with Maria in I Feel Pretty, they are much more convincing with the lonely and alienated Ella. My favourite of the four songs is Take Me To The World, Ella dreams of seeing this dreamlike outside world as Charles tries to convince her of the cruelty and evil that he has experienced there. They concede that wherever they go it will be with each other. I love the counterpoint between the two characters and the dreamlike quality conjured up by Sondheim's lilting melody.
Enough about shows no one has heard of. My real love affair with Sondheim started with Company- the sartorial examination of romance set in 1970s New York. Despite being in my teens when I first heard the songs such as Being Alive and Another Hundred People, I felt I could relate to Bobby. Everyone around me was starting their first serious relationship and here I was having friends but never feeling like I fitted in. As I've grown up and those relationships around me have developed I can see Bobby's view of just wanting to be loved and having someone to love.
Bernadette Peters and friends in Into The Woods
Many of Sondheim's shows tend to be the type where I absolutely love particular songs or ideas but have never got round to fully appreciating the play itself. Two examples of this genre would be Into The Woods and Sunday in the Park With George. One thing that sets Sondheim apart from his peers is use of slightly off the wall material for his shows. Into The Woods focuses on the fairytale characters we all know and love but hits you with a bizarre second act portraying what happens after they've got their happy ending. "Sunday" (did you really think I was going to write Sunday in the Park With George every time?) starts with the familiar territory of the life of Georges Seurat and extends into the perceived future of Georges' great grandson George. What appears to be a biographical show about an artist evolves into Sondheim's comment on the creation of art.
This can be seen in songs like Putting it Together and Children and Art. I'm a personal fan of Move On, Dot's message from beyond the grave to the modern day George to be grateful for what has achieved and not fret about the future. Hmph, if only life was really like that.
Just like anyone, Sondheim is not perfect. I direct you to A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (or Forum as it will be known from here on in). I know many of you reading will be fans of this show (as I know many of you reading will be friends of min
So what does the future hold for Stephen Sondheim? And who will replace him when he is gone, in fact, will we ever have anyone to replace him?
This year, he'll just be doing a lot of celebrating and smiling to celebrities and audiences alike as the many tributes to the master of the musical keep popping up. There is little news of new shows being written but what do you expect from someone old enough to be my great grandad? (well, just) Road Show (or whatever it is called now) still seems to be in developing hell following an out of town tryout, whether it ever makes it to Broadway no one knows. Perhaps, much like the numerous Kander and Ebb musicals that have posthumously crept out of the woodwork, we will have to wait until Sondheim dies to fully appreciate works like Road Show and Saturday Night that have never been seen on the White Way. In my dream world Evening Primrose will be resurrected in some form so that I can see it! It is sad to think that one this amazing man will be gone but it is inevitable and so we look to the next generation of songwriters to provide the ambitious and ingenious shows that Broadway so desperately needs. Strangely my dad asked me this exact question last week, I didn't think he cared that much!
The obvious answer would be Michael John La Chiusa for it is he (with the stupidly long name) that is associated with the 'intellegent' musical. My issue is that La Chiusa's music is hardly catchy and I find his shows being intelligent and intricate for intelligence's sake. Some of his stuff is good- Little Fish featured some nice numbers, as did The Wild Party. Perhaps if he stuck to just writing the music and the lyrics and let someone else deal with the book we could have a future Sondheim on our hands. Another writer being touted as the next Sondheim is Jason Robert Brown. OK people just because two people are Jewish it does not make them the same! Whilst I do appreciate Jason's music, I find it a bit samey (lots of quavers in the piano part and smug jazz solos) and when he does try something different it doesn't turn out as well (*cough* 13 *cough*). He also relies a bit too much on his own life for inspiration and ideas- both The Last Five Years are essentially biographies of different moments in his life. Adam Guettel could also fit the Sondheim mould- smart, intelligent musicals based on interesting source material. I find Guettel's musical, whilst beautiful and sweeping, a little dull- if he could have a more commercial hit or two he could be in with a chance of Sondheim's crown.in
If you'd asked me this question a few years ago, my two personal favourites to follow in the footsteps of Stephen were Laurence "call me Larry" O'Keefe and Andrew Lippa. Lippa, another Jew, wrote the incredible The Wild Party, taking inspiration from Kander and Ebb, twenties Jazz, Salsa and Sondheim himself to create a wonderfully dark and sordid tale of sex, drugs and violence- it's still one of my favourite musicals. He went on to write a musical adaptation of A Little Princess, one of the most memorable books from my childhood, from what I've heard of it this was equally as clever and lyrical as the Wild Party. Lippa's latest venture is The Addams Family on Broadway and it is here where my love of his music takes a dip. I've heard some pretty bad things about this show and fear this may be where Lippa loses his credibility which would be a shame. Laurence O' Keefe has also followed in a similar vain, Bat boy was a terribly witty and self knowing show based on some crazy source material. Although I am biased as this was the first show I performed in, it is still one of the shows I haven't tired of. O'Keefe's big break came with Legally Blonde, co-penned with his wife Nell Benjamin. Whilst I do have a soft spot for the show and it is still the witty, clever musical you'd expect from Larry, it is wrapped up in a huge mountain of fluff and pink. Sadly, in this climate, the balance between economical success and critical acclaim is hard to achieve.