Sondheim Looks Back

Stephen Sondheim is such an engaging and peppery talker about his own work that any run-of-the-mill documentarian—one unafflicted by genuinely terrible bad breath, anyway—could probably get gold just by turning on the camera. But Six by Sondheim, which airs on HBO on Monday, isn’t run-of-the-mill at all. Directed by the composer’s longtime stage collaborator, James Lapine, this openly celebratory doc is elaborately built around a half dozen capstone songs in Sondheim’s career, from Company’s “Being Alive” to (duh) “Send in The Clowns” to Sunday in The Park With George’s climactic ode.  Several of the numbers get full-on restaging—Todd Haynes guest-directs a stone-brilliant version of Follies’ “I’m Still Here”—and the interview segments are stitched together from TV Q&A’s stretching over five decades along with Lapine’s own.

This kind of homage can easily turn precious and/or smug, of course. To tell the truth, that’s what I was betting on. Luckily for viewers, Sondheim himself is neither of those things; there’s a toughness and restlessness about him that prevents mushrooming self-love. While he certainly appreciates his own achievement, that’s hardly unjustified. When he uses the A-word about his work—as in “Art is the other way of having children,” one of his tenderer observations—nobody who knows anything about Broadway musicals can doubt he’s earned it.

True, “reluctant” would be the best word for my own knowledge of stage musicals (movies are another story). But thanks to the only woman on the planet still under the impression that her favorite Broadway composer is heterosexual—that is, my mom—I saw and heard enough Sondheim in my younger years to grasp what an innovator he was. Aside from melodic gifts even my dumbass ear could tell he often kept weirdly boxed in to avoid mere prettiness, his way of structuring songs was unmistakably and audaciously original.  So were the increasingly unusual dramatic formats and subject matter that became his other signature, no doubt to his producers’ despair; few of his shows have been big moneymakers, even when they were winning every award in sight.  

All in all, I was interested enough to check Six by Sondheim out. But that I stayed interested—engrossed, even—was unexpected. Offhand, I can’t think of another living American artist I’ve heard talk so entertainingly and illuminatingly about the nature of his craft.  If it’s fascinating to learn that the lyric of “Send In The Clowns” is written in short phrases with hefty pauses in between simply because actress Glynis Johns didn’t have the lung power to handle long ones, it’s just plain enjoyable to hear Sondheim wearily refute the standard charge that his melodies are unhummable by saying that they turn out to be hummable enough once they’re hits.  

 His aesthetic sense is always crisp. Asked why he doesn’t consider his lyrics poetry, he explains that audiences can’t cope with too much verbal complexity while they’re trying to absorb lyrics in tandem with music, actors, costumes, and so on. Poetry, on the other hand, “need not—and maybe should not—be easy,” he says, and never mind that his own lyrics are notoriously chockablock with tricky language. “What makes him look reptilian is the brilliantine” is only one example, and it’s from a minor Sondheim tune—the one “I’m Still Here” was hastily written to replace before Follies reached Broadway, in fact.

Oddly or not—maybe it was the beard—I was reminded at times of a late-life interview I’d seen some time back with Sondheim’s near contemporary, the late Maurice Sendak. Also Jewish, also gay, Sendak was also a genius in a field that all sorts of clods had never even suspected was an art form until he came along and obliged them to.  Yet the comparison doubles as a reminder that there are two kinds of artistic innovators: those whose example launches a new tradition by stimulating everyone who comes after them to go forth and do likewise, and those whose work—in hindsight—represents the end of the line for the tradition it supposedly broke with.

Sondheim is in the latter category. You can hardly open a children’s book even now that isn’t in some way a beneficiary of Sendak’s liberating influence, but contemporary Broadway hasn’t exactly been Sondheimized. Despite being acknowledged (not without annoyance) as a giant, he’s also perceived (not without relief) as a fluke. Partly because his work has rarely been adapted to film—the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp botch of Sweeney Todd is the major exception there—non-Broadway audiences don’t know it in the comfortable way they still know Oklahoma! or The Music Man.

He does have inheritors—sight unheard, my guess is that Rent probably qualifies. But most of the successful American stage musicals of the past 30 years have been Andrew Lloyd Webberized instead. Part of what initially got people excited about Sondheim was that audiences back then could recognize the well-worn Broadway idioms he was tweaking or subverting or pointedly junking, but Webber severs the link outright by deriving from Old World operatic kitsch. Arguably, he’s the kind of innovator whose work launches a new tradition, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Yet in every popular art form, sophistication can only get so intricate before the audience’s appetite for less complicated pleasures reasserts itself. That’s by no means an unhealthy thing, considering that this stuff is supposed to be crowd-pleasing. Great popular artists of a certain stripe—Madonna or Francis Ford Coppola, for instance, though not Elvis or George Lucas—test themselves by exploring how adventurous they can be and still please crowds, but pleasing them remains the yardstick that counts.

Far more unhealthy would have been the sterility and decadence Sondheim might have risked falling into if he’d gone on contriving ever more formally difficult musicals—Prizes And Empty Houses, maybe?—just because that was his brand. Since “sterility” and “decadence” were both critical code words for The Homosexuals Are At It Again back when Eisenhower was in charge and Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story music, I guarantee they’re being used in an untainted way here. Nonetheless, it’s true that gay sensibility no longer needs masks to express itself—it’s gone both proudly overt and enjoyably mainstream—and that’s another way Sondheim represents the end of an era.

No doubt he knows all this, and that must be why he pretty much quit writing musicals after Passion—talk about a final flowering of masked gay sensibility, not to mention Sondheim getting just a bit Lloyd Webber-ish on us—in 1994. I’m glad to report I saw it at the Kennedy Center with my mom, and even gladder to quote her comment afterward about her favorite Broadway composer: “But the funny thing is I don’t know anything about his personal life. Marriages, children?” What I didn’t know then was that Sondheim himself might have answered the second question by saying, “Quite a few.”

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