Thoughts on Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim passed last Friday, and I’ve been trying to figure out what to say about it.

His influence on me is hard to overstate. I fell in love with his music when I was in college, and ended up writing my master’s thesis about it. I even tried to be him at one point, with predictable results. But even as I’ve learned to let that go and try to find my own voice, the doors that he opened to my imagination are still the ones that I want to walk through.

I’ve tried to think of which songs of his to post that I think sum up the importance of his work for someone unfamiliar with it. But with any song I think of, my next thought is “but you had to have seen the rest of the show up to that point” or “you need to understand the character’s backstory or it won’t make sense”.

The difficulty here is that Sondheim was first and foremost a composer for the theatre. His songs were always in service to the story being told onstage, which means that they’re often hard to appreciate out of context.

There isn’t even a real Sondheim “style” that you can identify. He would build a sonic universe from scratch with each show he worked on, so that the sound of the music was a reflection of the world being created onstage. You could listen to two of his shows back to back and have no idea that they were written by the same person.

Even the individual songs themselves don’t fit traditional patterns. The songs were structured to serve the dramatic idea he was trying to convey, and you don’t get the classic AABA or AABB song forms of the theatre composers before him. (Unless, of course, he was deliberately trying to imitate that style, a trick he used to great effect.)

I saw an interview with him where he said that if someone asked him to write a love song, he wouldn’t be able to do it. But if someone said to write a song about a woman who’s been jilted by her lover, and she walks into a bar wearing a red dress, and she orders a drink and starts to sing, then that’s something he could do. He needed that level of specificity in order to write.

This is one reason why so few of his songs have had lives outside of the shows they were written for. Many of the songs written by composers in the generation before him have become standards. “My Favorite Things” makes sense without knowing that Maria is trying to comfort the Von Trapp children during a thunderstorm. “Finishing the Hat” needs some context.

So as much as I’d like to post something and say “this is the song that sums up Sondheim”, I can’t really do it. But I do want to offer something.

Among the many videos I’ve watched since hearing he had passed, this one in particular stood out. It’s a great example of his theatricality as a composer, and has a knockout performance by Donna Murphy. Plus, unlike so many of his songs, it’s fairly easy to set up in a sentence: a wealthy New York socialite is in a loveless marriage that’s been deteriorating for decades, and she’s just not having it any more. (There’s more to it than that, but that gives you enough of the gist)

This song is a feast for an actor: the specificity of the lyric, the wordplay, the emotional backbone the music provides, the journey from offhanded quips to becoming nearly unglued, this is as good as theatre music ever gets.

I’m sad that we now live in a world without Stephen Sondheim, but grateful that we had him for as long as we did, and have a treasure trove of musical gems like this one to enjoy for a lifetime. Thank you, Steve.

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