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
The trajectory of Sondheim’s own career suggests that his drive toward artistic autonomy was most fruitful when it was not allowed free rein. To his own discomfort, Sondheim first became well-known as a lyricist, writing words for other people’s music. When he did get the chance to write his own scores, in the 1960s, he produced Anyone Can Whistle, a flop, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—a huge hit, but one in which the music and lyrics were much less important than the book.
The first show in which Sondheim was really successful as both composer and lyricist was Company, in 1970. As he writes in Look, I Made a Hat, “My voice snuck up on me. … [It] all came together in full-throated fruition in Company. I heard it at the sitzprobe, the rehearsal where orchestra and singers go through a score together for the first time. ‘Oh,’ I thought at the end of the opening number, ‘that’s who I am.’ ”
His best shows are the ones he wrote in the next decade or so, especially Follies and Sweeney Todd. These shows, which were covered in Finishing the Hat, are formally more conservative than the ones that would follow—they have “numbers,” and stories (if not traditional plots), and characters. What makes them radical is, rather, their dark, astringent sensibility, their focus on various kinds of ambiguity, alienation, and misanthropy. These, one feels, are Sondheim’s real muses—thanks in part to the shockingly unhappy childhood chronicled in Secrest’s biography. The misery of relationships in Company, the misery of aging in Follies, the misery of success in Merrily We Roll Along, the misery of mankind in Sweeney Todd—these propel Sondheim to some of his best and, ironically, most appealing songs.
With Look, I Made a Hat, we enter a later and less satisfying phase of Sondheim’s career. The debacle of Merrily We Roll Along in 1981 marks the dividing line: This failure broke up his very fruitful partnership with the director Hal Prince. With his next show, Sunday in the Park With George in 1983, Sondheim began working with the playwright James Lapine. At the same time, he began to premiere his works Off Broadway, at Playwrights Horizons. These changes made it possible for him to pursue formal autonomy much farther than ever before, and the work, to my taste anyway, suffers as a result.
In Sunday in the Park and Into the Woods, Sondheim crosses the line from sophistication into preciosity and whimsy. His accounts of the production of these shows suggest how very little attention he was now paying to structure, theme, or audience appeal. For instance, he shares a memory about how at the San Diego previews of Into the Woods, a large tour group once left the show at intermission, thinking it was over; someone had to follow them into the parking lot to get them back into the theater. Sondheim treats this as a joke, but surely it is a damning comment on the show’s lack of narrative suspense and coherence.
This, too, is part of the familiar story of the modernist artist. Once he wins the autonomy he longs for, he finds it to be a poisoned chalice. Cut off from the need to engage an audience, he ends up creating art about the one subject that he really cares about most—creating art. It is left to later generations of artists to revitalize the genre by violating the modernist rule of impersonality, turning to their own private lives for subject matter. In the 1950s and after, novelists and poets often found the personal, confessional mode a source of new artistic energy.
It’s tempting to ask why Sondheim didn’t follow this path—as later composers and lyricists have done. In particular, it’s striking that in the whole corpus of his work, he virtually never addresses either Jewishness or homosexuality, even though not just Sondheim himself but a huge number of his collaborators were gay Jews (including his three collaborators on West Side Story—Laurents, Robbins, and Bernstein). Indeed, in the first volume of his collected lyrics, Sondheim had some notably sharp words for Noël Coward and Cole Porter, two of the rare lyricists whose homosexuality shaped their public image. His mini-essay on Porter is titled “Camp and Dazzle,” and it deprecates “the gay sensibility that surfaces in the brittle camp of his patter lyrics … or in the overheated fervor of songs like ‘Begin the Beguine’ and ‘Night and Day.’ ”
So, it does not quite satisfy when Sondheim begins the second volume of his lyrics by complaining that critics of the first wanted him to write more “about my personal life, ‘personal’ being the euphemism for ‘intimate,’ which is the euphemism for ‘sexual.’ ” The issue is not “prurient” curiosity, as Sondheim says, but artistic curiosity: If gayness shapes Porter’s art, one wonders, how does it shape Sondheim’s? His refusal to acknowledge this as a legitimate question is of a part with his insistence on modernist impersonality, and also of his generational reticence on sexual matters. As he told Secrest, “I don’t think I knew more than maybe four homosexuals in the fifties who were openly so. … Everybody knew the theater was full of homosexuals, but nobody admitted to being so.” Yet it is very easy to see Bobby in Company, the perpetual bachelor among a crowd of smug marrieds, as a commentary on gay experience.
Still more striking and pervasive is the Jewish atmosphere of Sondheim’s work. Like his near-contemporaries Philip Roth and Woody Allen, Sondheim is a chronicler of urban neurosis and sexual angst, in a hyper-articulate, Freudian mode that reads as culturally very Jewish. It would be a stretch, but not perhaps an unjustified one, to read Sweeney Todd as a post-Holocaust exploration of human depravity. Yet just as Benjamin Stone, in Follies, sounds like a name changed from something more Jewish-sounding, so the Jewish themes and inflections in Sondheim’s work are never explicit.
In this, too, Sondheim is a true heir of the Broadway tradition, which is so much the creation of Jewish artists, yet turns so resolutely toward universally American experience. The golden age of any art, perhaps, is the time when its contradictions are not yet perceived as such. It is when an artist like Sondheim comes along, who is afflicted by those contradictions and attempts to resolve them, that an art form reaches maturity—and begins to look back longingly at its vital, lawless, unrecoverable youth.
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