Six By Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim has never been one to hide himself away and make people wonder what he is like. There are many interviews with him that the filmmakers used here, stretching all the way back to his early career, in venues like The Mike Douglas Show. And boy, the man can talk. He is articulate, thoughtful, erudite, insightful, a perfect interview subject. There is never a hem or a haw. You ask him a question about his work, the process of writing music and lyrics, his way of working … anything, and he will tell you, and it is immediately clear that he has already thought it through, years ago.
The format here is an interesting one. They have picked six songs he wrote, and he speaks about whatever comes to his mind concerning them. The six songs are:
“Something’s Coming,” from West Side Story. He and Leonard Bernstein wrote it in one night. Sondheim clearly wishes he could have written both words and music, but he knows he was the new guy, untested, and is grateful to be able to work with such a giant talent. I sure as hell wish I could have been a fly on the wall to witness that night’s work. He surprised me by saying that that show was not a big hit at first. The complaint was that there were no “hummable” songs in it. Really!?!? A show that includes “Tonight,” and “Maria”? But it seems that was the case. Those numbers didn’t become standards until after the movie came out.
“Opening Doors,” from Merrily We Roll Along. Clearly not one of his better-known songs. The show was not a hit, and never became one. I was lucky enough to see a very good production of it at the University of Oregon. The gimmick is that it tells the story of four very successful composing and writing friends, starting at the end, when they can hardly stand each other. Each succeeding scene jumps back in time a little more until we see them as bright-eyed, talented youths. It is not entirely successful, but I’m glad I got the chance to see it.
“Send in the Clowns,” from A Little Night Music. This is by far Sondheim’s most popular song. He is adamant that he never intends to write hit songs, and points out the difference between a songwriter and a composer of musicals. His job is to write songs that move the story along, and he is part of a team. There is a lot going on other than the music and lyrics in a Broadway show. He also insists that he is not a poet. Poetry can be lingered over, re-read while you are sitting there, its meaning pondered. A song in a live show is an ongoing thing, the lyric is there, and then it’s gone, moved on to the next verse. You can’t rewind it. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but he is right. This one was written for Glynnis Johns, who starred in the show, and was written explicitly for her, as many numbers are in many shows. Like, you wouldn’t write the same sort of number for Ethyl Merman to belt in Gypsy as you would write for a marginal singer like Johns. That it took off and became popular was unexpected. It’s been covered many, many time.
“I’m Still Here,” from Follies. I have never seen this show, either on stage or video. But Sondheim takes it apart and puts it back together again, accompanied by a rather strange rendition by a male singer. It was inspired by the career of Joan Crawford, from silent movie actress, to big Hollywood star, to a parody of herself in films like Straitjacket. But she’s still here!
“Being Alive,” from Company. Here we get excerpts from an excellent “Making of” documentary that I saw many years ago. But it’s the making of the original cast album, in a studio, not of the play itself. It was eye-opening for me, because when they did the first run-through I thought it was great. Sondheim didn’t. He kept demanding more, more, and even more from the big cast of singers. Soon everyone was eager to kill him. Elaine Stritch almost had a nervous breakdown. And yet … it kept getting better, and better, and better. By the end he had made them all much, much better than they had been, better than they even had suspected they could be, and you could see why these people loved him. They would have settled for less, but not him. This is the territory where genius resides. A revelation to me was that Dean Jones, star of a lot of silly Disney comedies like The Love Bug and That Darn Cat! was a terrific singer. I had no idea!
“Sunday,” from Sunday in the Park With George. This is probably my least favorite of his later, more mature works. Ironically, it is his favorite. My opinion is that it suffers from Sondheim’s biggest persistent problem, which is a weak second act. In fact, I thought the second act was pretty bad.
I could have wished they had concentrated on other songs, but that’s a matter of having my own personal favorites. And this film deals with much more than just these songs. We see bits from some of his other work. I have been fortunate enough to see Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures on stage in Portland, Into the Woods on Broadway, and a touring company of West Side Story at Michigan State. I have always been entertained. Sadly, Sondheim hasn’t had a hit show in almost thirty years, and no show of any kind since 2008. But he’s still working, and who knows? We may still get some more of that Sondheim magic. I sure hope so.