The Arty Semite

Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim!

By Liam Hoare

  • Print
  • Share Share
Getty Images

Stephen Sondheim turns 83 today — a birthday always worth noting, though this time it will pass without an entire year of galas and concerts, as was the case on the composer’s 80th. Even considering the Jewish contributors to modern American musical theater — Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Leonard Bernstein (and many, many more) — it is Sondheim who has done the most to explore what is possible within the boundaries of the musical form. He is constantly pushing and reinventing, making musicals about ideas, themes, and plots that few other composers would have taken on. As such, I have selected what I consider to be his three finest musicals, though dissent in the comments section is welcome.

“Company” (1970)

“A man with no emotional commitments reassesses his life on his 35th birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and girlfriends. That is the entire plot.”

In fact, there isn’t really a plot at all to Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” which is what makes show such an important break in the history of the American musical. “Company” derives its content from a series of one-act plays written by George Furth, all about a couple in a relationship and an outsider. In the finished piece, the outsiders were composited into a single character, Bobby, with each song a one-act play in itself, a window into the life of Bobby and his relationships with these married couples.

Although without a plot, “Company” does have an evolution or end point: Bobby’s realization that to be alone is to not be alive. At the opening of the show, in keeping with the Bobby’s skeptical attitude towards marriage, Sondheim’s lyrics can be very caustic and knowing. In “The Little Things You Do Together,” one of the wives of the piece, Joanne, sings, “The concerts you enjoy together, neighbours you annoy together, children you destroy together, that keep marriage intact.” “It’s not so hard to be married,” she says, “I’ve done it three or four times.” But by the end of the second act, Bobby appears to come to terms with his fear of commitment, and depending on how you read it, his own sexuality.

“Somebody crowd me with love, somebody force me to care, somebody let me come through, I’ll always be there as frightened as you, to help us survive being alive.”



“Merrily We Roll Along” (1981)

When it premiered, “Merrily We Roll Along” was a total flop, closing after 16 performances and a long and torturous period of previews, rewrites and more rewrites. A show about a composer, lyricist and writer, the musical reverses the traditional linear narrative and tells the story starting from cantankerous, washed-up middle-age and leading to the naivety and hopefulness of youth. It is undoubtedly clever and ambitious, but Merrily’s fault is that it places too great a demand on the audience to sympathize with a character whose opening lines are: “Life isn’t about doing the best; it’s about doing the best you can. A goal is something you aim for more than something you achieve.”

But that flaw is what makes the score at once beautiful, imaginative and revolutionary, since Sondheim was required to invert the traditional musical form of original and reprisal. “What were vocal lines in their early lives could become accompaniments for other songs in their inner lives, undercurrents of memory,” Sondheim noted, “but the audience would hear the accompaniments first.” As an example, the song “Not a Day Goes By” is heard twice in the show. In the first act, it is performed furiously and passionately, a song about the death of a marriage: “As the days go by, I keep thinking, when does it end? Where’s the day I’ll have started forgetting?” But in the second act the original version (as it were), is performed at that couple’s wedding, and the change of context and a lyrical adjustment alters the whole tone of the song: “I keep thinking, when does it end? That it can’t get much better much longer. But it only gets better and stronger and deeper and nearer—”



“Sunday in the Park With George” (1984)

Sondheim asserts that he has never written a personal show, or deliberately created a character that is a cipher for himself. But it is difficult to listen to “Sunday in the Park With George” and not conclude that the struggles of the two male protagonists, Georges Seurat and his great-grandson, George, are imbued with Sondheim’s own artistic experiences.

“Finishing the Hat,” which Seurat sings in the first act, is about how the creative process envelopes the painter — “What you feel when voices that come through the window go until they distance and die, until there’s nothing but sky” — and how the artist can never be fully present, even with someone they love, when they’re working. “However you live, there’s a part of you always standing by, mapping out a sky, finishing a hat.”

But “Sunday” also addresses the challenges of creativity, what to do when the artist is stuck in a rut. At the end of Act II, George is visited by an apparition of his great-grandmother, Dot, and a lesson occurs where Dot sings the wisdom and George imbibes it. George says, “I want to move on. I want to know how to break through, through to something new, something of my own,” having always practiced art in the shadow of Seurat. “Stop worrying if your vision is new. Let others make that decision — They usually do. You keep moving on,” Dot says. Given that “Sunday” was the first show Sondheim produced after the failure of “Merrily” and the end of his creative partnership with the director Hal Prince, Dot’s final lines are somehow both personal and universal. “Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see.”



Happy birthday, Steve!


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Theater, Musical Theater, Stephen Sondheim, Music, Birthdays, Liam Hoare

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.