The Three Faces of Steve: On Stephen Sondheim
Finishing the Hat, the first of two long-awaited volumes of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, wit and wisdom, reminds me of another exacting exercise in self re-evaluation: the New York Edition of the fiction of Henry James. In the eighteen prefaces he wrote for the twenty-four-volume set, James revealed the sparks that found ready kindling in his imagination, and shared his many struggles to coax them into stories and novels. James could detect a spark in something as fleeting as casual conversation: “A mere floating particle in the stream of talk.” Because the Broadway musical is a collaborative effort, many of Sondheim’s shows have been set alight by other people’s sparks; but regarding Pacific Overtures (1976), for one, Sondheim shares a truly Jamesian moment of inspiration. He recalls coming upon a Japanese screen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “It was like a sudden explosion; it seemed to grow as I looked at it.” The screen, Sondheim suggests, was not just a piece of japonaiserie; rather, it was an aesthetic commandment to honor the principle of “less is more,” not as an abstract idea but as an emotional imperative.
Spanning the first three decades of Sondheim’s career, and revealing more of his creative process than James’s prefaces did of his own, Finishing the Hat includes rejects, rewrites and substitutes of lyrics from thirteen shows that together illuminate the dark, devious road leading to Broadway hits and flops. Like James, Sondheim transformed a popular genre often aimed at the young into an art for, and about, adults. Writing for a smart audience, James and Sondheim have no qualms about appearing smarter-than-thou, but Sondheim is smart about being smarter. Whereas James allowed his followers to call him The Master, Sondheim wrote a tongue-in-cheek song for the revue Sondheim on Sondheim (2010) in which the cast hails him as God. Sondheim, like James, is also ruthless when assessing the talents of famous predecessors. In sidebar “heresies” planted throughout Finishing the Hat, he pillories Ira Gershwin (“His work bespeaks a generous, warm and talented man, but his brother was a genius”), Lorenz Hart (“the laziest of the pre-eminent lyricists”) and Noël Coward (“the Master of Blather”). Sondheim sounds mild compared with James, who practiced summary executions: “Our Mutual Friend…is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion.” “Mr. Trollope is simply unable to depict a mind in any liberal sense of the word.” Not even Tolstoy is spared: “From no other great projector of the human image and the human idea is so much truth to be extracted under an equal leakage of its value.”
These judgments would sound coldblooded if they were not part of an encompassing project of self-criticism. Following a common aesthetic commandment—thou shalt not tell, but show—the work of both artists reveals the inner life of characters rather than showcasing the cleverness of its creator. This approach requires scrupulous revision and refinement. It demands technique. Technical acuity, moreover, is not empty virtuosity but a form of knowledge and, eventually, sympathy. Every page of Finishing the Hat is marked by Sondheim’s belief that being an artist requires intellectual vigilance. As James famously advised, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” Sondheim’s sympathies, deep rather than broad, extend mainly to other perspicacious characters; yet his best work strips bare the pitfalls of intelligence, especially when it is allied with the imagination. Intelligence, he shows, is amoral. The painter George in Sunday in the Park With George (1984) and the serial killer in Sweeney Todd (1979) are versions of the same character: brilliant, obsessed and blind to the sources of their own cruelty.
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Art isn’t easy, as Sondheim wrote, especially art based on a highly self-conscious aesthetic; and over the years Sondheim has taken on projects whose difficulties would terrify most composer/lyricists, let alone their financial backers. A Japanese musical (Pacific Overtures)? A show about presidential assassins (Assassins)? Critics—champions of Sondheim as well as skeptics—have often oversimplified the shows on the assumption that Sondheim is a perennially clever kid rather than a stern ethicist. John Lahr, for one, described him as peddling “boulevard nihilism” in Sweeney Todd. It’s not hard to find a character in the shows who sees the world through the eyes of Holden Caulfield—life sucks, everyone’s a phony, we die alone—but that view is part of the story, not an op-ed published under Sondheim’s byline. One could just as easily accuse Sondheim of dabbling in “boulevard idealism” in Merrily We Roll Along (1981), which tracks the relation of innocence and experience in reverse chronology, ending with a bright-eyed affirmation of youthful idealism as corny as Kansas in August.
With an initial run of just sixteen performances, Merrily ranks among Sondheim’s most humiliating flops, even though it boasts no fewer than three of the greatest “showbiz” numbers of all time (“It’s a Hit!” “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and “Opening Doors”) and one classic ballad (“Not a Day Goes By”). Unfortunately, but perhaps understandably, Finishing the Hat does not shed much light on the show’s failure other than to say that its faults were remedied by casting older actors and the several rounds of rewriting suggested by Sondheim’s current collaborator, James Lapine. Sondheim explains that the show, like several of its predecessors, re-enacted the moral fable of Allegro, the notorious flop by Sondheim’s mentor Oscar Hammerstein (the 17-year-old Sondheim served as Hammerstein’s assistant on the show). In Allegro, a precursor of the “concept musical,” a doctor repeatedly attempts to escape the moral compromises of bourgeois existence, and eventually succeeds. Merrily, based on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, tells the story backward, beginning in 1981 and ending in 1957, and spotlights not a doctor but a songwriter and movie producer, Franklin Shepard, whose moral compromises, never redeemed, leave a trail of broken marriages and soured friendships. The theme of art versus life would return in Sondheim’s work with Sunday in the Park With George, but there, at least, the audience has the assurance of knowing that the George of the first act is the painter Georges Seurat, whose La Grande Jatte attained masterpiece status, thereby, or so many critics assumed, justifying the artist’s thorny life.
Merrily recalls Thomas Mann’s unsettling tales about artists: we don’t know if their art is any good, so we can’t tell if it will atone, even slightly, for the long list of misdeeds committed while making it. For the novelist this ambiguity can be a potent source of irony, but in musical theater irony can be slippery because keeping a show’s point of view clear is difficult. Shepard is rich, but is he a good composer or just a lucky hack? On the original cast recording the overture sounds tinny and tacky. Its tunes could have been fished from the wastebasket of the Broadway songwriter Jule Styne, which would make the overture a bizarre hommage to Sondheim’s collaborator in Gypsy. But perhaps it’s an exposé of Shepard’s mediocrity, assuming that the overture is by Shepard, not Sondheim.
Finishing the Hat allows us to compare the Merrily lyrics from the 1981 disaster production with those from the more successful revised production staged first in 1985 and again a decade later (although without showing us the revised script). The differences contradict the oft-repeated accusation that Sondheim is not interested in his characters. The original production of Merrily opened with a high school anthem, “The Hills of Tomorrow,” composed by the teenage Shepard. It sounds a lot like “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide, but not as good—which may have been the point. Frank’s first hit song, “Good Thing Going,” which shadows him through the score like a guilty conscience, sounds like “Small World” as rewritten for the Carpenters. It’s hard to say how that irony works. The song also sounds very much like one that could launch a successful showbiz career.
The problem with Merrily, as Sondheim and Lapine came to realize, was a matter of emphasis. The story that needed to be told was not a younger generation’s rejection of their parents’ values, timely as that tale might have been, but rather Shepard’s awareness of the choices in life that had led him into the abyss. It’s a Jamesian angle. The central action of the show, Sondheim realized, took place within Shepard’s mind, and exploring it demanded empathy, not irony. No wonder the show was hard to write, and harder to stage. Rescuing it from disaster required a ruthless reappraisal of the original, a new script, new characters, new songs and no distracting anthem, however pretty. Most of all, it required a sharper definition of the lead characters and their motivations: aren’t both Charley and Mary, the two creative partners Frank betrays on his way to the top, in love with him? I’m not convinced that every problem was solved, or is solvable, but I find the revised version (which can be heard on an imported Jay/TER CD) a far richer backstage drama, dramatically and musically, than even A Chorus Line. Sometimes ambition trumps perfection.