As the houselights went down at “The Company”‘s first performance since the COVID shutdown, an old man, wearing a ratty sweater, slipped into the theater from a side entrance.
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If he expected to be unobtrusive, he failed. The audience immediately recognized him – Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the show’s score. The crowd jumped, because of its rumble a Minor earthquake jolts Times Square.
You couldn’t see Sondheim’s face—masking is strictly enforced on Broadway—but I have no doubt that it was that sly smile that always said (to me at least), “Thanks for the recognition, But let’s not go far.”
Sondheim, who died at the age of 91 on Friday, was the most accomplished musical theater veteran since Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. From the time he was 60, every major birthday (and some minor ones) was celebrated in grand style – at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Royal Albert Hall, the Library of Congress.
“I think my actual funeral will be later,” he once joked to me.
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If he was a little cynical about the never-ending stream of tributes, it’s probably because it took him years, and a lot of setbacks, to become a Broadway icon.
His first Broadway show was “West Side Story”, for which he wrote lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s symphonic score. The New York Times did not mention him while praising the show.
Critics praised the lyrics for his next show – “Gypsy” – but saved most of his praise for his more famous collaborators – composer Jule Stine, director Jerome Robbins and leading lady Ethel Merman.
Sondheim then wrote the music and lyrics for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, a sensational musical comedy with a cheerful, melodious, joyful score.
He could have made more shows like “Forum”, but it was not in his nature to repeat himself. And so, with director Hal Prince, he began a series of theatrical shows that transformed musical theater from entertainment to art.
Shows—”Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd”—are now classics. But with the exception of “Night Music”, everyone lost money and left the audience and many critics cold.
“Sweeney Todd” about Fleet Street’s Damon Barber didn’t leave the audience cold. This angered them. During the intermission of the first preview in 1979, a lovely matinee lady turned to the producers and shouted, “Cannibalism – on Broadway? I never!” Then he hit the producer with his purse.
The rap against Sondheim at the time was that while his lyrics were clever and witty, his sophisticated music lacked catchy melodies. (His only pop hit, in fact, was the incomparable “Send in the Clown” from “Night Music”.)
The rap was wrong and inappropriate. The tune – fast, gentle, witty and warm – flows through all of his scores. “Side by Side” from “The Company” is a showstopper. “Losing My” “Brains” “Follies” will break your heart. “Every Day a Little Death” from “Night Music” has haunted me for years. And what’s more in all musical theaters than “A Little Priest” from “Sweeney Todd” Have a fun song musically and lyrically?
Todd and Mrs. Lovett are discussing what kind of people they are going to kill and grind into pieces of meat.
She: “Here’s a politician who’s so oily, he’s served with a doily. have one.”
She: “Put it on a bun. Well, you never know if it’s going to last or not!”
Sondheim did not sit at the piano and was hit out. He couldn’t “pee a melody,” as Richard Rodgers once bragged that he could. For Sondheim, the songs came slowly, sometimes painfully, and were always rooted in a dramatic moment from the show.
James Lapin, who wrote the screenplay for “Sunday in the Park with George”—for which he and Sondheim won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984—in his memoir “Putting It Together” described scenes, ideas, and snatches of dialogue he did. Number Sondheim to supply Sondheim before sitting on the piano.
“Sunday,” one of his best songs outside of “Finishing the Hat,” may sound shocking. But in the context of the show it shimmers with beauty, and captures, perhaps better than anything else ever written, an artist’s passion for getting the job done right.
Personally, Sondheim was as complex as his show. Close friends say that he was kind, intelligent and generous. But, depending on his mood, he can be prickly. In the number of years I’ve covered Broadway, I’ll never know. He claimed to be above the kind of showbiz gossip I did, preferring the company of his acolytes in the New York Times. But whenever I emailed him a question for an article or a book I was working on, he always came back to me with a helpful answer.
Still, the prick was not far below the surface. A few weeks ago, I received the sheet music for “Send in the Clown,” which I learned to play on the piano as a kid. I asked if he would sign it for me. He immediately wrote back: “I once asked you not to print a letter I wrote to Arthur [Laurents] Who criticized Leslie Uggs because I didn’t want to publicly hurt her feelings. You printed it anyway. That’s why I am not inclined to do you any favors.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but when I rummaged about the Post’s website, it was: a crooked column I wrote in 2014.
Fair enough, I thought. But a week later, I got a call from the press agent for the new movie “West Side Story.” Sondheim was arranging a private screening for some theater people and wanted to join me.
Just the other day I wrote him a note about the film. Sadly this time there was no reply.