There’s A Giant In the Sky
A Personal Tribute On The Passing of Stephen Sondheim
I am reluctant to write this column because it falls well outside the purview of writing on television and barely touches on writing on film. But the news of Friday, though it was less of a surprise, hit me and no doubt millions of others incredibly hard — even harder than the loss of Alex Trebek around this time last year. So I feel obligated that I must write this column.
Stephen Sondheim, one of the greatest composers in the history of music, passed away Friday night. Words seem utterly inadequate to describe him — legend, genius, and icon: they all seem woefully inadequate. Ironically the man who would probably be able to come up with the word has left us. Everybody knows the lists of Sondheim’s accomplishment when it comes to Broadway, music, and culture. So I’ll just describe his effect on me.
Growing up in my house there was always music playing in the background. Most of it was classical and instrumental but there was a fair amount of Broadway. I remember growing up with the scores of Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, and yes, West Side Story in the background. But to be the honest, the first Broadway show that ever really connected with me was Into the Woods. Part of this is due to the reason it gets played in schools all over the country: it’s one of the most accessible musicals ever composed. And I’ll admit part of it is because it is the very first show on Broadway my parents ever took me to — I can’t remember if I was eight or nine at the time. But part of it was because, even at this very youthful age, the power of words and music being combined was becoming something that I could embrace and realize the genius of.
And I don’t even have to strain my mind to think that hard where I really knew just how brilliant that combination could be. It’s in the opening scene of Into the Woods when the Witch is describing to the Baker and his Wife what his father was doing in his garden that night:
“He was robbing me, raping me
Rooting through my rutabaga, raiding my arugula
Raiding my rampion, my champion, my favorite!”
That combination has stuck in my head for decades and not merely because my father made us repeat every so often at dinner. I don’t really have to say why. I am a good writer and on my best day, I don’t even have a millionth of the ability that Sondheim did when he came up with that combination of phrasing.
Into the Woods was, effectively, my gateway drug into Broadway. I would see a lot of imaginings of musicals from Hollywood’s golden age (the movie musical was, save for Disney, essentially dead for most of my childhood and well into my adulthood). And slowly, most through cast recordings and the occasionally PBS broadcast of a live performance, my impressions of the Sondheim show would slowly be formed. After reading countless books about Sondheim over the years, a fundamental pattern would be formed: extraordinary scores, mediocre books and more often than not, financial failure. Most of this is due to the fact that Sondheim was almost always writing about dark and depressing subject matter — considering the world we live in you might say he was of his time. Company: a dissection of the institution of marriage. Follies: the reunion of an old girls dance corps where two failed relationships is forced to reunite. Pacific Overtures: a Kabuki style story of the Japanese view of America’s ‘invasion’ of Japan. Even his successes are depressing: Sweeney Todd, the story of a barber seeking revenge and the baker of pies who finds a use for the corpses he makes. Into the Woods: the second act features many of the characters dying due to the collective actions of the first act. Don’t even get me started on shows like Assassins.
It’s not that these shows weren’t critically successful — three of them won Tonys for Best Musical and Sondheim himself won six Tonys. He is to date the only composer to win three consecutive Tonys for Best Score: Company, Follies and A Little Night Music. But with few exceptions, most of his shows were either box office failures, if not complete disasters. I have a feeling that’s why so many people focus on collecting the cast albums of his shows where all ‘the good stuff’ really is. But as someone who has seen, in some form, all but two of his musicals, it’s not like these were terrible shows. (Well, Road Show was, but that’s mainly because there was no story there.) The biggest crime in my opinion, mostly in television but also pertaining to the movies and the theater, is complete lack of ambition or originality. Sondheim’s shows are many things, but the one thing you can’t accuse them of being is not ambitious or trying to rip something of.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on the show of his that has one of my favorite scores: Pacific Overtures. What Sondheim, producer Hal Prince and writer John Weidman tried to do was tell a story of the Japan in 1853 before and immediately after the arrival of Commodore Perry. They tried to tell this story by doing entirely in Kabuki style and casting it entirely with Asian actors. This would’ve been hard to do today: in the 1970s, it was nearly impossible. Casting alone was a nightmare, it took them nearly two years to find enough actors to play all of the roles and that was with an endless amount of duplication. When they finally did get it cast, out of town tryouts were disastrous, there were actually bomb threats and when they finally got it on Broadway, it received mixed reviews and barely ran six months.
Multiple times over the decades, various producers tried to revive by making alterations. One production had it done with an all-Caucasian cast. One production did it with all the dialogue and songs translated it into Japanese. One production tried it with no scenery at all. I saw three of these production and I can tell you why all of them failed: There’s no there there. There are no real characters. There’s barely a plot. The biggest role is the Reciter (Narrator) and he doesn’t work at all. I respect what Sondheim and his team tried to do: it’s admirable and especially today, it’s the kind of show we need in theory. But in practice, it’s basically blank.
And I consider that a tragedy because in my opinion, it contains some of the greatest songs and lyrics that Sondheim would ever write. There’s ‘Please Hello’ a show where ambassador from new nations come to ‘request’ trade with a Japanese lord, each singing in a different style of music, but each ending with an increasingly louder cannon. There’s ‘Someone in a Tree’, in which several Japanese men try to describe from various points of view what happened the day of negotiations. There’s ‘A Bowler Hat’ where we witness through lyric the gradually Westernization of a minor Japanese lord over a period of ten years. But in my opinion, one of the greatest songs Sondheim ever wrote is Chrysanthemum Tea, a song in which the Mother of the shogun tells him about how they might want to deal with the arrival of the Westerners. Some of my favorite Sondheim lyrics of all time are in this song:
“It’s the Day of the Rat, my Lord
There’s but four days remaining
And although you’re entertaining
It is time for a chat, my lord.”
“There are ships in the bay in contemptuous array.”
“Have some tea, my Lord, some chrysanthemum tea
It’s an herb that’s superb
For disturbances at sea.”
And one of the funniest lyrics he ever did:
“It’s a tangled situation as your father would agree,
And it mightn’t be so tangled
If you hadn’t had him strangled.”
Forget ‘I Feel Pretty’, forget ‘Send in the Clowns’, forget ‘Comedy Tonight’ In my opinion, that lyric sums up all that is great about Sondheim — and the show that its in, everything that was wrong with the production around them. (Personal note: the last production of Pacific Overtures didn’t have Chrysanthemum Tea. Had I not been with my family at the time, I would’ve walked out right then.)
Like all of the great composers, there is no chance of Sondheim disappearing. His shows will always get remade and reinvented. We have the images of so many televised recordings of his musicals and there are some decent films out there. (I will also be grateful that I heard Anna Kendrick play Cinderella in the flawed but spirited filmed version on Into the Woods.) But it’s hard not to feel Sondheim’s loss and not paraphrase Billy Wilder when a movie legend died: “No more Sondheim.” “Worse. No more Sondheim shows.” And yes, I know we hadn’t had one for more than a decade and that one was a mess. But at least we had the possibility of ‘one show more’ (sorry, wrong composers). Now it’s gone forever.
It will be a long time before theatre produces a second Sondheim. Then it’ll be just that: a second Sondheim. We’ve heard the first…and only. Maybe the musicals that follow will be more cheerful but Sondheim’s gift was that he made you enjoy the world of the darkness. So to those of you who decide to go to Steven Spielberg’s new version of West Side Story think of it not just as going to see a great musical by a great director, but to see the origin story of a true legend. It may not be as impressive as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but trust me that you are seeing something more remarkable: how a young twenty-seven year old managed to find his voice and become a true hero to millions, not because he could fly or walk on walls but because he did something even harder: create a world with words.