“Everything depends upon execution; having just a vision is no solution.”Stephen Sondheim
Heading into 2024, one of the most noticeable things about the ties that unite the live theater-scape, from the Great White Way through to touring houses around the country, is how it is happily riddled with all that is Stephen Sondheim. Beyond the artistry of innovation that is Sondheim’s tone when it comes to making the conversational theatrically confrontational and the discordant contagiously musical is how that creative economy’s engine — a winding ride through favored complex topics such as neurosis, gender, imperfection, loneliness, obsession, and ambivalence — will surely continue to roar with America’s most reflective composer and lyricist.
Sondheim’s music and words ruminate, reverberate and cerebrate the America we are now.
Though his continual commercial success ebbed and flowed since his hits of 1957 and 1959 (respectively, West Side Story with composer Leonard Bernstein and Gypsy with composer Jule Styne), the genius of Sondheim has been given greater weight since his 2021 death. The passing of time since the lousy reviews (The New York Times’ Walter Kerr critiqued the original 1976 production of Pacific Overtures with, “No amount of performing, or of incidental charm, can salvage ‘Pacific Overtures.”) and early closings of, say, 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along (closed after 16 performances and 44 previews) brings with it massive success (sold out on Broadway through July 2024) and wild acclaim.
To paraphrase screenwriter Robert Towne from 1974’s Chinatown, “Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Sondheim, too, belongs on that list. For every time he confounded a critic or confused an audience in the past, his body of work now is as if you invested in Apple or Google stock the day each went public: paying off big-time.
Look at 2023 going into 2024. From Lincoln Center’s concert version of The Frogs to the Off-Broadway display of his posthumous musical, Here We Are at The Shed. Spin from one side of Broadway to another mere blocks away and revivals of Merrily We Roll Along and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Leapfrog from Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center and its upcoming West Side Story to the Pasadena Playhouse’s six-month-long Sondheim Celebration to the rolling train of Company and its gender-switch along the East Coast: Sondheim’s portraits of the discomforting human experience with its unresolved chords, inelegant jazz, and punctuating dissonance are ripe for the racket that surrounds us daily — the currency of conflict.
“Assassins may tell individual historical stories, but is also the story of our country which has changed so much since 2007 when we first produced the show,” said Producing Artistic Director Terrence J. Nolen, of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre, a visionary whose company has produced at least one Sondheim work each season since its 1988 start. Commenting on a winter 2023 revival of Assassins whose wily, self-diluted characters are famed presidential murderers and attempted killers, a song such as “Everybody’s Got the Right” speaks to the present, where any gold star and height worth climbing — even cold-blooded assassination — is attainable and well-deserved.
“Sondheim was a collector of curious objects, someone who was unique visually,” said James Lapine to this writer on the occasion of publishing Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created Sunday In The Park With George, and how the composer’s visual language translated into a musical dialogue. Though rhapsodizing about their first meeting at the composer’s apartment and its owner’s predisposition toward brain-teasing puzzles and vintage board games, Lapine could have been describing the eternal flummox of Sondheim’s highly-visual dot-connection between his musical and lyrical themes — the eternal vexation of it all.
Sondheim’s unresolved chords and sonic dissonance appear, musically, because his characters are unresolved and dissonant.
With all that, the composer’s blood-thirsty revenge avenger Sweeney Todd isn’t just a stone-cold killer. He is a victim of the system and of the self — a plea so often heard among those who practice leftist ‘woke’ politicism and are too willing to allow the guilty excuses for their bad behavior. Merrily, We Roll Along captures the dated-but-beloved “greed is good” mentality so preciously held by the non-woke right, a laisse faire louche-ness that finds eternal friendship and moral value thrown over for avarice and cash. Currently touring in a gender-role-reversal of its main character — the original ‘Robert’ of 1970 has been ‘Bobbie’ ever since its 2018 revival — Company’s unwillingness to compromise one’s self for a crack at the brass ring of love is right on time for those who chose solitude over romance.
“What separates Sondheim from other composers is that he’s unafraid of making his audience uncomfortable,” said vocalist-actor Beth Stafford Laird, the Bobbie of Company’s current touring company. “Sondheim’s lyrics ask the difficult questions because they’re so pointed and get at deep-core emotions. Pairing these lyrics with equally challenging melodies — they’re not always beautiful, rather they’re crunchy and distorted — highlight the more difficult aspects of humanity.”
Even in his last (nearly lost to death) act, Here We Are, Sondheim remained true to his sly commentary’s cleverest sensibilities and complicated arch musicality. In taking on the cinematic master of mise-en-scène, Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s films The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel in one satirical, Surrealistic stereotypical ruling class dis, the rich and the powerful get roasted — from bloodily rare to crisply blackened — all to the accompaniment of the composer’s usual sonic tropes.
Rather than find the Sondheim of Here We Are and his repeat career critiques trite or reiterative (taking down the high-and-mighty was something of a giddy lyrical obsession for the composer), critical estimation of his last, posthumous productions are worth a second coming-of-sorts. While some critics have been underwhelmed in spots by the entirety of Here We Are, all are, ultimately, overenthusiastic in their rush to praise this genius of musical theater as a well whose brilliant cool water ran out too fast.
Sondheim’s music and words ruminate, reverberate and cerebrate the America we are now, and, as a lover and solver of puzzles, Sondheim’s every executed vision was its own solution.•