From top: Composer Stephen Sondheim; Derek Mooney
As you can tell from the title, this week’s column will differ from my usual offering. No politics this week. This is not the column I was planning on Friday afternoon. That one, which will likely resurface next week, dealt with my usual flair, Irish politics.
The news on Friday night that Stephen Sondheim had died, aged 91, changed that.
This is not an obituary, potted biography, mawkish tribute, or amateur analysis of Sondheim’s towering contribution. How could I compete the many great tributes that have appeared in recent days, including this excellent 2013 article by Frank Rich which the New York magazine re-ran on Friday?
What I offer instead is a personal reflection, an explanation of why Sondheim’s music and words has made me laugh and cry more easily and more frequently than almost any other writer, never mind composer.
Though I had kinda’ known in my late teens there was an American composer by the name of Sondheim, he was someone I imagined was, like Oscar Hammerstein, long dead. An impression due, in no small part by the success in 1977 of Side by Side by Sondheim.
The show, a musical revue built around the songs of Stephen Sondheim, had a Dublin run in the Gaiety theatre and starred Gay Byrne as the show’s narrator. I assumed it was some sort of posthumous tribute. It was a few years before I realised the man was very much alive and still producing lyrics that both encapsulated and celebrated the disappointments, joys and constant inconsistencies of life.
My entrée to the Sondheim oeuvre (how about that for a self-fellating phrase) was his comedic songs, starting with The Little Things You Do Together, from the show Company. It includes this delicious line, sung by Joanne, a cynical and frequently divorced older friend of the main character Robert, as she comments on the curious things their mutual friends do to make their marriages work:
It’s the little things you share together
That make perfect relationships.
The concerts you enjoy together
Neighbours you annoy together
Children you destroy together
That keep marriage intact
The first time I heard it was on Bob Monkhouse’s 1980s BBC chat show, where Monkhouse performed it as a duet with Julia McKenzie. The breezy innuendo, snappy lists and sharp wordplay had me in stitches.
It was a few years before I realised the song was not a duet, but an ensemble piece with folks talking over and across each other. Not that any of this detracted from the comic impact of the song.
It was also a few years before I realised that Company contains several more great Sondheim comedic songs, including the tour de force which is “Getting Married Today” in which a panicked Amy pleads with the audience to go away as she prepares to jilt her lover just before they walk down the aisle
Goodbye! Go and cry
At another person’s wake
If you’re quick, for a kick
You could pick up a christening
But please, on my knees
There’s a human life at stake!
There is also the great “The Ladies Who Lunch”. But, like “Getting Married Today”, it is unfair to list this as just a comic song. Like much of Sondheim’s work the comedy is tinged with both tragedy and poignancy. The lines are funny, but the plot has shades of both reality and sadness – which are often the same thing?
That said there are some Sondheim songs that are just pure unadulterated comedy. One such is: “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid” from his first solo effort as both composer and lyricist, the wonderfully titled: A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.
This musical, which opens with the great comedic anthem “Comedy Tonight,” is based on Plautus’s ancient roman farces and centres on Pseudolus “the lyingest, cheatingest, sloppiest slave in all of Rome”. The superb Zero Mostel played the part in both the original Broadway production and the movie version.
Another such song, though not from a musical but a revue, is the hilarious camp parody of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Bossa Nova classic: “The Girl from Ipanema” called “The Boy from…” – or – to give it its full title: The Boy from Tacarembo La Tumbe Del Fuego Santa Malipas Zatatecas La Junta Del Sol Y Cruz.
Sung breathily, it contains a strong hint that the singer’s love for her Spanish idol will go unrequited:
Why are his trousers vermillion?
Why does he claim he’s Castilian?
Why do his friends call him Lillian?
And I hear at the end of the week
He’s leaving to start a boutique
Other great Sondheim comic lyrics include these lines from “Hello Little Girl”. (from the show “Into the Woods”) sung by the Big Bad Wolf to (and about) Little Red Riding Hood:
Think of those crisp, aging bones
Then something fresh on the palate
Think of that scrumptious carnality twice in one day–!
There’s no possible way to describe what you feel
When you’re talking to your meal!
While the song “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd features a torrent of puns and outrageous trick rhymes as the murderous Todd plans how he and Mrs Lovett will dispose of his victim’s corpses by baking them into her pies and offer them for sale:
[Mrs. Lovett]: Have a little priest
[Todd]: Is it really good?
[Mrs. Lovett]: Sir, it’s too good, at least!
Then again, they don’t commit sins of the flesh
So it’s pretty fresh
[Todd]: Awful lot of fat
[Mrs. Lovett]: Only where it sat
[Todd]: Haven’t you got poet, or something like that?
[Mrs. Lovett]: No, y’see, the trouble with poet is
How do you know it’s deceased?
Try the priest!
Both Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods show Sondheim’s delight in constructing major Broadway musicals around stories and topics you’d not consider suited to the genre. But this was Sondheim’s genius.
The standard Broadway musical formula had been: Boy finds girl. Boy loses girl. Both sing about wanting the other. They find each other again. All ends well. Instead, Sondheim told us about the characters. Their fears, their loves, their doubts, their hesitations. While some of his musicals have dark overtones – Assassins, for example, is about the eleven people who attempted, some successfully to kill US Presidents – they still tackle the bitter sweet joys of living, the desire to be wanted and loved.
As Sondheim frequently observed:
“Ask me to write a love song and I don’t know what to write. But ask me to write a love song about a woman who has just been jilted by a guy and walks into a bar in a red dress and orders a cocktail… and I know…”
And Sondheim really knew how to write love songs. His love songs are not doe-eyed or dreamy, they are about real love. They are among the most haunting and touching tunes you will ever hear.
Thus, the added joy of a Sondheim musical was to be taken from laughter to tears, from dark to light, in just a few minutes. You see this in Follies and Company, shows that include two of his greatest love songs.
In “Losing My Mind” from Follies, Sally sings about the man she has long idealized and still loves, but didn’t marry:
Doing every little chore
The thought of you stays bright
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor
Not going left
Not going right
I defy anyone to listen to the Barbara Cook singing this song and not be moved.
While in “Being Alive” from the previously mentioned Company, Bobby, who we first see as an unattached carefree man-about-town, announces that more than anything he wants to be loved and in love. The love he wants is not idealised, it is real and compelling:
Someone to crowd you with love
Someone to force you to care
Someone to make you come through
Who’ll always be there, as frightened as you
Of being alive
“Somewhere” / “There’s A Place for Us” from West Side Story is amongst Sondheim’s greatest love songs. With music by Leonard Bernstein, it re-tells the Romeo and Juliet tale in a modern-day New York setting. Though we already know the story, and thus the ending, we know their love is doomed, yet the song makes us hope that they can find their somewhere together:
There’s a place for us
A time and place for us
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
Though written as a duet, Tom Waits haunting solo rendition, with a soaring orchestration, gives it an even greater depth.
Last, but not least, is Sondheim’s torch song masterpiece: “Send In The Clowns” from the show: “A Little Night Music.”
Probably no other single Sondheim song has been more written about than this one. As Sondheim himself explained, the word “clown” should not be taken literally. It does not refer to the circus variety, but rather to foolishness. In the show the song is sung by an aging actress, lamenting the love she let pass, so it’s a theatrical reference meaning “if the show isn’t going well, let’s send in the clowns”… i.e. “let’s do the jokes.”
Frank Sinatra’s recording made it a global hit. The song became a constant in Old Blue Eyes concert playlist. Showing his huge respect for the lyrics, Sinatra preferred to perform it with just one accompanist, sometimes his pianist Bill Miller or sometimes, his guitarist, Tony Mottola.
Across Sondheim’s career the most frequently uttered criticism of his work was that his tunes were not hummable. No one leaves a Sondheim musical, said the critics, humming the show’s big songs. It was a criticism that Sondheim rejected, saying that hummability was an illusion and that songs only became hummable based on familiarity or close resemblance to other songs.
Time has proven him right. His songs are among the most hummable, not just because they are now so familiar to us, but because they tell our story, in our voice.
The sadness is that the man himself is no longer with us, but the great joy is that his music, his words and his take on the vicissitudes of life will remain long after him.
Thank you Mr Sondheim.
PS **I created a Spotify Playlist to accompany this column. It includes songs mentioned here, plus a few other personal favourites.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney