Stephen Sondheim: the essential musical playwright who taught us to hear


On their own, his verbal agility and musical sensibility, although prodigious, would not have produced great characters like Sweeney in “Sweeney Todd”, Desiree Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music” and Fosca in “Passion” (which rhymes barely ). Innately understanding how the building blocks of musical theater could be turned into drama was his primary gift, and in that sense he often appeared as both a magician and an archaeologist. A rhyme in “Follies,” blossoming from a newly discovered pairing into a triple surprise flower, causes the psychology of Phyllis, his sophisticated principal lady, to focus deeper and deeper. “She made conformity / In a science. / One of the giants,” the chorus of her sings, and a brittle queen becomes a neurotic superstar.

Also of note: the song “Ah, mais below” is just one of three he wrote for the same place in the series, each one as insightful as the previous one but with a concept and scheme of. completely different rhymes, bringing out different elements of Phyllis’ personality.

What’s especially noteworthy about Mr. Sondheim’s almost unprecedented emotional insight into his characters is that he didn’t seem emotionally comfortable in person. I have often noticed in interviews that he turns his head to the side, like a sleeping bird. (Bradley Whitford, who plays Mr. Sondheim in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Tick, Tick… ​​Boom!” Perfectly reproduces this gesture.) He didn’t always seem to understand other people’s feelings in situ.

But in words and on stage, he was Freud himself, bringing to American musical theater his most successful psychological portraits. Despite their Grand Guignol acts and music hall style, Sweeney and his accomplice Mrs. Lovett – he kills his barber shop clients, she bakes them into pies – are up there in a dramatic fashion with Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth. In this greatest of Mr. Sondheim’s works, which many say is America’s best musical, we are forced to understand and, more perversely, to seek out some of the worst actions ever imagined for the stage.

Certainly Mr. Sondheim did not realize this illusion by working from his own knowledge of cannibal revenge. Years of pleasure listening to the score and playing it on the piano and seeing each of its covers, revisions and miniaturizations have led me to think that intuition comes from the other direction: from a will, like that of ‘a scientist, to assume the position of no knowledge at all. When musical theater writers approach material they think they already understand, they most often write what was already understood, and with the same old words. That was the limit of Mr. Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II.

But Mr. Sondheim never ceased to be a student, starting at the very beginning, every time he wrote, with sounds, letters and words. He discovered what he needed to bring his characters to life under the hitherto unexplored traps of the musical scale, in the secret seams of the dictionary. He stayed in that childish sense, with an almost magical belief in discovery. (This is why he was also a great teacher.) The joy he must have felt in finding that he could rhyme Armfeldt (a name he did not choose) with “felt charm” – and so defining a character in a verse – was the same joy it gave us. People could remain amazing forever, his life’s work showed us that, as long as words and music did too.