I don’t think my hesitation around show tunes and musicals is unique. For a long time, I associated musical theater with Disney movies and classics like Annie and The Wizard of Oz. I found their optimism sickening, their themes – redemption through romantic love, the centrality of family, the importance of virtue, the final victory of the good over the bad – tired. I was not interested in what seemed to be pure artifice with no connection to reality. I thought the sparkling perfection of singing and dancing performances was too much the product of the practical need for musicals to be commercially successful, to become hits. I was losing my patience when I felt the songs didn’t advance the plot, and half the time I didn’t care what happened to the characters. I didn’t want a hero, and I didn’t want to feel right with him, and I didn’t want to learn an interesting little lesson at the end.
Lucky for me, neither does Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim ushered musical theater into a new era, breaking out of peddling old-fashioned family values and fantasies about romantic love and instead exploring darker and more real themes, to present characters who were no longer there. ‘not get a happy ending, who learn their lesson but only after two acts of struggle, which maybe not learning their lesson at all.
One of his most famous works, Society, reaches his resolve not when Robert, the central character who complains about being thirty-five and has never been in love, finally finds The One, but when he fully achieves what he wants. : not the fair one – the love of the glass slipper for fairy tales, but the often excessive, demanding, mortifying love of real life. “Someone needs me too much / Someone knows me too well,” he pleads in the series’ climaxing tune, “Being Alive.”
Sondheim’s description of real, adult love is more complicated than the easy feelings of unbridled happiness and optimism that all will be well holding the hand of your one true love. True love is a challenge Robert will face.
When “Being Alive” finally comes to an end, we feel all the complications of love at the same time: the destabilizing force of intimacy (“makes me confused”), that feeling of making fun when someone shows us how well he gets to know us (“mock me with praise”), the complicated desire to be reduced to one object in the service of another (“let me be used”), the possibility of magic in the everyday (“Vary my days”). Then, at the very end, when he’s done advocating for what he wants, he takes his share of the blame: “I’ll always be there / as scared as you / to help us survive / be alive.”
Much of Sondheim’s job is also trying to find true connection in an alienating world. In Follies, two former showgirls reunite, years after their prime to find out that they are both in unhappy marriages and that one is in love with the other’s husband. “Did you say you love me, or were you just nice?” Sally sings, but it’s not a complaint – she’s really trying to figure it out.
In We ride happily, a show which initially aired only sixteen shows and whose negative critical reception caused Sondheim to announce he was leaving the musical theater, Beth sings to Frank as they divorce, “You are somewhere a part of my life / and it looks like you I’m going to stay. She continues: “I keep thinking when does this end? / Where’s the day I started to forget?
Assassins, a show that explores the motives of nine people who assassinated or attempted to assassinate a U.S. president, concludes that more than acting out of particular political conviction, its protagonists just wanted to feel like their lives mattered, like they were tied to something in the world, as if their actions had had some impact. But at the same time Assassins sympathizes with his characters, he also berates them for their selfishness. His latest issue, a cover of his first, brings the American belief in individual freedom to its logical and sinister conclusion: “Everyone has the right to their dreams,” sing the assassins – even when that dream is to assassinate the head of state.
Sondheim wasn’t interested in the happy ending, the hero’s lonely journey. He avoided the kinds of intrigue that can make plays and musicals seem like they are cut off by a one-way arrow propelling the viewer towards a grand and singular goal. He knew that life was much bigger than that. What happens once we get or don’t get what we think we want? The moment the curtain closes on most other musicals is the moment Sondheim’s opens.
His break with conventions and experimentation make it difficult not to consider him as a singular and solitary genius. I once read that he liked to compose while lying down, creating in my mind an image of himself alone on a sofa, a sheet of music propped up on a pillow, a pen sticking out of his mouth.
Such a photo of Sondheim does exist, but there are many others that capture the opposite of this sort of solitary act of creation: Sondheim at the piano, surrounded by a swarm of singers; Sondheim alongside his longtime collaborator James Lapine, working on a score; Sondheim discusses how to record Sunday at the park with George with Bernadette Peters, standing on the edge of the stage, bending over, her hands on her knees to be at eye level. Every score, every song, every lyrics, every harmony, every melody needed Sondheim to write it just as much as he needed singers to sing it, musicians to play it, producers to record it – and life to inspire him.
Sunday at the park with George, which won the Pulitzer Prize for theater in 1985, illustrates this best. Georges Seurat watches the people in his life come and go, make decisions without him and ultimately leave him behind as he pursues his profession. At the end of “Finishing the Hat,” Georges, played in the original production by tall, bearded Mandy Patinkin, holds out his notepad and exclaims, “Look! I made a hat! Where there has never been a hat!
The scene captures a moment that seems both momentous and trivial: you’ve completed something, done something that wasn’t there before, something maybe better than anything you’ve ever done. But also, it’s just a hat.
This is the loneliest song of a show that struggles with the artist’s duty to interpret life, the loneliness needed to do the performing work, and the interaction needed to have something to perform first. place – and then to understand if what you’ve interpreted is meaningful to someone other than you.
Sunday at the park with George Sondheim explains himself as an artist, especially if we understand that George is his replacement. But it also explains to ourselves, artists or not. We struggle with our place in the world, our relationship to ourselves and to others; we “want to know how to get out of it.” . . to something new, something [our] clean ”, as George sings in Sundaypenultimate issue of “Move On.” Only we can live our individual lives, but we never do so truly isolated from others. If we are lucky and if we are open to it, we find companionship and support. encouragement as George gets from Dot, who tells him “whatever you do / let it come from you / then it will be new”.
There is no nice little end to Sunday at the park with George. Instead, the musical ends with a cover of its biggest and most radical song: “Sunday”. As “Sunday” swells, the harmonies of the company are huge and soar, we understand that it is also life: abundant, enormous, devoid of orderly conclusions and full instead of a perpetual opening of “so much. of possibilities ”.
It would be too easy to say that the same is true of Sondheim’s life and work, but it is. There’s a reason they call the revival of a play a “revival.” The magic of theater is that a musical can live on forever, brought to life by groups of people, over and over again refreshed and renewed. It took Sondheim to make these songs, and it will take hundreds of people to join us and move us. No one, to borrow from the penultimate number of In the woods, is alone.