The Art of Making Art
With Stephen Sondheim’s second collection of his lyrics, the hyper-articulate, neurotic, modernist master Broadway songwriter takes a curtain call
In Meryle Secrest’s 1998 biography Stephen Sondheim, the great composer and lyricist recalls an episode from 1957, on the second night of the original Broadway run of West Side Story. Sondheim, watching the show from the back of the theater, was basking in justified pride. He was just 27 years old, and he had written the lyrics for one of the most important musicals in Broadway’s history, holding his own with the show’s larger-than-life composer, Leonard Bernstein, and choreographer, Jerome Robbins. Two minutes into the first number, however, Sondheim’s complacency was punctured when he saw a member of the audience get up and walk out. He caught the man’s eye: “He knew I must be connected with the show, because I was standing there instead of sitting in a seat, and he just said, ‘Don’t ask.’ ”
“I had the whole picture,” Sondheim explained. “He’s a tired businessman on his way home to Westchester, and he thinks, I’m going to stop and see a musical. The curtain goes up and six ballet-dancing juvenile delinquents in color-coordinated sneakers go, ‘Da da-da da da,’ with their fingers snapping. And he thinks, ‘What—? My God!’ … I can’t blame him! But that’s when I knew my career was in trouble.”
Another kind of Broadway artist might have seen this as a warning; for Sondheim, it seems to have been a challenge. If that “tired businessman” found the Jets and Sharks too unconventional for a musical, just imagine what he and his descendants thought about the stories Sondheim would go on to bring to the stage in a career that has spanned almost 60 years. There have been shows about marital anguish and loneliness (Company, Follies), about artists who sell out (Merrily We Roll Along) and cut themselves off from love (Sunday in the Park With George). Then there are the evenings devoted to the opening of Japan to the West (Pacific Overtures), presidential assassinations (Assassins), and serial murder and cannibalism (Sweeney Todd). It’s all a long way from “In your Easter bonnet/ With all the frills upon it.”
Yet this month, as Sondheim publishes the second volume of his lyrics—Look, I Made a Hat, with the subtitle Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) With Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes, and Miscellany—it comes as the latest crown on a career full of honors. The first volume of Sondheim’s lyrics, Finishing the Hat, was a best-seller and a cultural event when it appeared last year. (The titles come from a song in Sunday in the Park With George, in which George Seurat sings about the costs and pleasures of artistic invention—making a picture of a hat “where there never was a hat.”) His 1971 show Follies is currently back on Broadway, the latest in a string of successful Sondheim revivals. Next year, City Center’s Encores! series will produce Merrily We Roll Along, a legendary flop in 1981 that, like so many Sondheim scores, has steadily gained in popularity thanks to recordings. He has won seven Tonys, seven Grammys, an Oscar, and a Pulitzer Prize.
No wonder that in 2010’s Sondheim on Sondheim—the latest of several revues drawn from his catalog of some 800 songs—Sondheim contributed a tongue-in-cheek number poking fun at his status as Broadway’s “God”:
I mean the man’s a god.
Wrote the score to “Sweeney Todd,”
With a nod
To de Sade—
Well, he’s odd.
Well, he’s God!
It’s strange to think that a man so honored could remain a minority taste. Yet that is clearly the image of himself that Sondheim cherishes, and he insists on it in the two volumes of his lyrics, which double as a kind of self-portrait. In particular, he is obsessed by the longstanding charge that he is a cold artist, admirable but not lovable. As he goes on to say in “God”:
The lyrics are so smart!
And the music has such heart!
It has heart?
Well, in part.
Let’s not start—
Call it art.
Arthur Laurents, the writer-director who worked with Sondheim on West Side Story and Gypsy, told Secrest, “I don’t think there’s any question that he is the greatest lyricist there’s ever been.” Leave it to such a lyricist to capture the whole dynamic of his career in a simple, even banal rhyme, “heart/art.” For the struggle Sondheim records in his collected lyrics is precisely the attempt to shift the musical from an affair of heart—naive beauty and emotion—to one of art—deliberate construction, in which every lyrical and musical choice serves the overarching theme.
Sondheim was not the first Broadway composer to make this shift. He refers often in his collected lyrics to the “Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution”—the attempt, starting with Oklahoma in 1943, to give the musical comedy the integrity of a play, by grounding the songs more deeply in plot and character. Musicals before Oklahoma—with the notable exception of Show Boat, which was also written by Oscar Hammerstein II—are almost never revived today; their songs may be standards, but their plots and characters were deliberately disposable. It is the decades after Oklahoma, the 1940s through the 1960s, that gave us virtually all the musicals now considered classics, from Carousel to Fiddler on the Roof.
Sondheim worked on two of these classics as the lyricist, West Side Story and Gypsy, and his lyrics for Gypsy are one of the high points in Broadway history. In Finishing the Hat, he remembers the time he played “Together Wherever We Go” for Cole Porter. When he reached the wonderful quadruple rhyme—
Wherever I go, I know he goes.
Wherever I go, I know she goes.
No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos—
—he recalls that Porter gasped with pleasure and surprise at that unexpected fourth rhyme. “Any time I need an ego boost, I conjure up that gasp; it may well be the high point of my lyric-writing life,” Sondheim writes.
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