Stephen Sondheim’s Art

Stephen Sondheim’s Art

Despite beginning his career at the end of musical theater’s golden age, Sondheim helped bring the form to its artistic zenith.


When I was young, I hated musical theater. This was the product of a particular time in my life, and perhaps in many young lives, when art and culture become increasingly important and you begin to draw lines. I have never been particularly highbrow, but the middlebrow sensibility of Broadway seemed unworthy of a second thought. Besides, I was wary of the cultish behavior of high school drama clubs. I made an assumption that is strangely common, but nonsensical when stated explicitly: Because I didn’t like the handful of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs I’d heard, and because the theater productions I’d seen by the teenagers I went to school with were unimpressive, I concluded that the combination of dramatic performance and popular song was altogether without value.

As I got older, I realized that musical theater was something more than what I had unwittingly reduced it to. In many ways, it has been fundamental to modern culture, providing the base material for jazz improvisation, influencing the emerging nonrepresentational visual aesthetic of cinema, and providing a medium for gay, Jewish, and Black Americans to develop the art of their respective cultures. If many today tend to overlook this history, they are not entirely to blame: During the last few decades of the 20th century, Broadway increasingly began to look like an amusement park, awash with cash-grab nostalgic revues, adaptations of blockbuster movies, and fruitless incorporations of rock music.

Yet even then there was Stephen Sondheim, the lyricist of West Side Story and Gypsy and the composer of A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods, who died the day after Thanksgiving. The beginning of Sondheim’s career coincided roughly with the end of the golden age of musical theater after the advent of rock and roll, and yet he arguably did more to bring the form to its artistic zenith than any other lyricist and composer.

I was in my early 20s when I discovered Sondheim. I was working at a public library in my hometown when Knopf published the first volume of his annotated lyrics, Finishing the Hat, followed the next year by Look, I Made a Hat. The titles refer to a song from Sunday in the Park With George, a later work that investigates the nature of creativity and the artistic process through a depiction of the Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, and those themes were the subjects of the books as well.

As I made my way through Sondheim’s commentary, my assumptions about his chosen field crumbled. The books offered the astonishingly detailed testimony of an artist assessing his own oeuvre. He even took the time to name his tools (Blackwing pencils, yellow legal pads, the 1946 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus). Sondheim’s approach astounded me with its precision; his body of work marked a series of hard-won triumphs over the urge to settle for good enough. He had a systematic approach to prosody and its application to musical lyrics that identified characteristics of language I had never considered and that added up, I began to realize, to an explanation of why I found some songs to be good and others to be bad.

Among other things, Sondheim avoided slant rhymes (in which the ends of words are similar but not identical), wrenched accents (in which a stress is placed on an unstressed syllable in order to fit a musical phrase), and poetic inversion (in which a clause is unnaturally stated in order to fit a metrical structure). He described all of these as akin to “juggling clumsily.” These imperfections abound in rock and country lyrics, not to mention modern poetry. They also appear in some of the best works in Sondheim’s own field—take Johnny Mercer’s rhyme of “whistle” and “trestle” in “Blues in the Night,” which Mercer claimed he didn’t notice until he heard the song sung out loud.

Scholars of modern English poetry might say that these deviations aren’t really imperfections at all, but rather tools that contribute to a formal effect. That can be true enough for the written word, but on a stage, with a singer playing a part set to music, the stakes are different. The intensity of Billie Holiday’s singing might cause you to miss a faulty rhyme; Frank Sinatra might make a misplaced stress sound like it fits perfectly. Yet in the mouths of lesser singers, whom composers for the musical theater are often writing for, these flaws can become glaring.

The value of Sondheim’s precision, for the rest of us, is not necessarily in imitating its strict application, but rather in his attention to detail. If I have any skills as a writer, I owe a great deal of them to my study of his work. As an editor, I believe many of the writers I work with would find his advice beneficial. If you write prose, try thinking as he did. You may never need to make a perfect rhyme, but what effect will it have on a sentence if you end it on a stressed or an unstressed syllable? More broadly speaking, if you had to set your words to music, within the limits of a measure, which words would you keep? Which would force you to change the melody? Merely posing these questions can make writing sing.

My first investigation of Sondheim beyond the page was 1970’s Company, for which there is not only an appealingly groovy, of-its-time “Original Broadway Cast” recording, but a fascinating documentary about its production by D.A. Pennebaker. Company threw me for a loop: It was nothing like what I had assumed musicals to be. I’ve come to appreciate a bit of theatricality, but there was no razzle-dazzle to Company, the story of a single man and his married friends that has less plotting than an Eric Rohmer film. Still, even in the absence of a conventional narrative arc, the songs themselves were hardly superfluous: The duet “Barcelona” depicts an awkward conversation the morning after a one-night stand, turning the logistical question of whether or not to part ways afterward into an inadvertent expression of commitment—or the lack thereof. The narrative stakes of the scene are depicted entirely in the song. Your mileage may vary, but I find it more remarkable than anything by Bob Dylan.

Sondheim was so meticulous that he could sometimes be harsh; his books are unjustly dismissive of Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers’s first collaborator, whose work Sondheim finds lazy and messy. There seems to be a bit of an oedipal struggle at work here: If Sondheim has a direct stylistic predecessor, it is Hart, whose use of wordplay and subtext—often seeming to express his otherwise silenced anguish as a closeted gay man—anticipated Sondheim’s own. But Sondheim was every bit as hard on his own work, chastising himself, for example, for employing a weak bit of filler in order to set up a punch line in Company’s “The Little Things You Do Together” (in my opinion, it was worth it). The occasional stumble was the price of his investigations into both the ambiguity and the sonority of language, his insistence on discovering double meanings in the content of words and the inherent music in their articulation.

While his enthusiasm for language also sometimes led Sondheim to be a bit cute, it more often raised him to the greatest heights. In “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company, I’m not terribly impressed by the famous—though to my ears, somewhat forced—rhyme of “personable” with “coercin’ a bull.” But witness the rhymes that land in the middle of words in “The Ladies Who Lunch” and, as if that weren’t enough, are followed by a third rhyme: “laugh / caf-tans / behalf,” or “gas / class-es / pass,” or “much / clutch-ing / touch.” The first time I heard the song, I breathed a sigh of relief every time he stuck the landing. It’s acrobatic, and yet it never detracts from the realism of the character who sings these words.

If Sondheim was too hard on Hart, he was sometimes too generous to Rodgers’s second collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein II. He forgave Hammerstein’s sins of mawkishness and sentimentality for the relative cleanliness of his lyrics. His generosity is also likely due to mundane reasons: Hammerstein was Sondheim’s real-life mentor. His influence was so profound that Sondheim was fond of saying that if Hammerstein had been a geologist, Sondheim would have been one too.

While Hammerstein may have been ahead of his time in terms of his anti-racism, his noble-savage depictions of the lower classes have ultimately aged less well than the cheerfully aristocratic decadence of Hart or Cole Porter. Yet it was Hammerstein’s influence that taught Sondheim the value of understatement, a technique that can land with as much of a wallop as any clever pun. Consider Company’s “Sorry-Grateful,” a meditation on ambivalence in marriage:

You’re always sorry
You’re always grateful
You’re always wondering
What might have been
Then she walks in.

In Sondheim’s hands, the parts added up to something that elevated the whole category, and after Company, I was hooked. I tore through the filmed stage productions of not just Company but Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, and whatever else I could get my hands on. Eventually I was fortunate enough to see A Little Night Music and Follies onstage, both featuring Sondheim’s own favorite singer of his songs, Bernadette Peters, while the former also included the great Elaine Stritch, a member of Company’s original Broadway cast. As for the latter, a study of mortality and memory that is also a lament for the declining genre to which it belongs, I may even prefer it to Company. I’m still filling in the gaps.

The English language is a difficult tool to work with,” Sondheim once said in an interview with James Lipton. Its application to song is perhaps the most difficult of all, not just in adherence to structure but in avoidance of cliché. “Two of the hardest words in the language to rhyme are life and love,” he added. “Of all words! In Italian, easy. But not in English.”

The critic and lyricist Gene Lees points out in his introduction to The Modern Rhyming Dictionary that the French language has 40 rhymes for amour, compared with a pitiful five for “love” in American English. Of those, it is difficult to establish the relevance of “glove” in the space of a few measures, while “above” and (worse yet) “dove” are shamefully abused. It’s an amusing conundrum that also feels true to the human condition: The most personal things we go through tend to be the least unique.

Ironically, Sondheim was an artist who inspired great personal devotion, but who produced art that had an inherently impersonal purpose. For him, the play was the thing: He insisted that his goal was to write for the characters, not for himself. Yet, while there is no question that he achieved this goal, Sondheim also produced a body of work so singular that it could only have come from an artist expressing himself, at a level so advanced that it’s unmistakably recognizable as his. His work demonstrates the value of caring about something, caring so much that you want to do it as well as it could possibly be done. You might say that Sondheim spent his career searching for new rhymes for “life” and “love.” Somehow, against all odds, he managed to find a few.

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