Why Broadway Hates Stephen Sondheim

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Ron Sachs / CNP / Corbis

Correction Appended: June 22, 2010

Oh, the glory of Stephen Sondheim! The lyricist-composer, who turned 80 this year, is all over Broadway: the revivals of the 1957 West Side Story and the 1973 A Little Night Music, plus the retrospective-cum-autobiography Sondheim on Sondheim. For the Tony Awards this Sunday night, A Little Night Music has four nominations (including Catherine Zeta-Jones for Actress and Angela Lansbury for Featured Actress), Sondheim on Sondheim two. This spring the invaluable Encores! series at New York's City Center staged a whirling concert version of Sondheim's 1964 Anyone Can Whistle, and a few weeks later put on a gala tribute to a career as lengthy as that of the old musical master Richard Rodgers (with whom Sondheim also wrote a show). Fifty-five years on Broadway and he's still the defining musical voice of his generation and those that followed.

You know you're an institution when things are named after you. There's a Stephen Sondheim Award presented annually by the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia; the first one went to Lansbury, who made her musical debut in Anyone Can Whistle, won Tonys for his 1979 Sweeney Todd and a revival of the 1959 Gypsy and can be heard this week on Broadway in A Little Night Music. A 43rd Street theater once called the Henry Miller reopened this spring as the Stephen Sondheim, with Dame Edna Everage (aka Barry Humphries), belting out "Ladies Who Lunch" from the 1970 Company. Music, words and bitter emotions by S. Sondheim.

If you didn't catch a Sondheim show in its original incarnation, no matter; he's has more resurrections than Freddy Krueger. In the past 21 years, Broadway has mounted nine Sondheim revivals (Gypsy three times, Company, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd twice, and Follies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park With George and West Side Story once). There have also been three shows of the composer's songs (Putting It Together, Mostly Sondheim and Celebrating Sondheim).

With all this renewed attention, it's a shame Sondheim isn't alive to enjoy it. Oh, wait, he's still going strong! He hasn't stopped working, in fact. But to the people who put up the money for new shows, he may as well be dead or retired. Since 1987, when Sondheim capped his fourth decade on the job with the magical but grim fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, he has completed three new shows; only one — the 1994 Passion — made it to Broadway in its original production. Two others, Assassins and a Mizner-brothers biography, variously titled Bounce and Road Show, played in off-Broadway houses. Oh, the frustrations of Stephen Sondheim!

Rarely if ever has a living Broadway composer been honored so much for his past and so little for his present. He's the musical theater's ultimate example of an oldies act. Nobody wants to sponsor his latest, possibly most mature works. Only the classics, please. Play Gypsy for me.

Or "Send in the Clowns." That number, from A Little Night Music, was recorded by Judy Collins and became a pop standard. Other early Sondheim songs, from West Side Story and Gypsy, remain indelible entries in the Great American Songbook: "Maria," "Tonight," "America," "I Feel Pretty," "Somewhere," "You'll Never Get Away from Me," "Small World," "Together, Wherever We Go," " Let Me Entertain You." But it was Sondheim, still in his twenties, who wrote the lyrics, and Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne who wrote the melodies that keep playing on the collective iPod. As for Sondheim the total songwriter, "Send in the Clowns" stands as his sole greatest hit.

When he became his own composer, Sondheim had a different, more ambitious musical agenda. Traditionally, Broadway songwriters angled their numbers at least partly towards the non-Broadway listener; a show ran longer if some hit songs could be extracted. But Sondheim didn't care about writing hits; his lyrics were meant totally as the expression of the characters singing them, and his melodies were composed to suit the time the characters lived in. Thus the 1970 Company, a contemporary ensemble piece about married couples and one single man, took its cue from Burt Bacharach's angular songs and off-kilter tempos. The 1971 Follies, set partly in the Ziegfeld Broadway of 1940, was a pastiche of up-tempo vaudeville numbers ("The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues") and plaintive ballads ("Losing My Mind"). A Little Night Music, set in turn-of-the-century Sweden, had an operatic tone — and that one hit single.

The mature Sondheim, from then on, didn't write songs; he wrote scores. His melodies, borrowing more from serious modern music than from the pop idiom, were meant to challenge the ear, not soothe it. Producers begged him to write some "humma-mamumma-mamum-mable melodies" (his derisive phrase from a number in Merrily We Roll Along), but he'd throw in a catchy tune or sentimental ballad only at gunpoint. When they do appear, it's usually toward the end of a show — "Our Time" from Merrily, "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park, "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods — and, if you're in the audience, you can feel the people around you relax in gratitude on hearing simple, lovely tunes in a major key. After the daunting homework of the rest of the score, these songs are the reward: musical sherbet.

The Sondheim conundrum is that his lyrics are often so complex, they have to be heard twice — on the cast album, after the show has closed. The corollary is that his musicals are more acceptable as revivals than as originals. Revivals are to Broadway what sequels are to Hollywood: a way to mint money from familiar material. The problem with Sondheim is that, having torpedoed so many of his later projects, Broadway has run out of original Sondheims to revive. In their defense, producers would point out that his shows were rarely moneymakers. The longest-running show for which he wrote words and music was his first: Funny Thing in 1962. That ran for two years and four months; none since has lasted as much as two years. The original Anyone Can Whistle closed after nine performances. Merrily We Roll Along rolled off in two weeks. And once a show closes, it's just about dead to posterity. It's not like some indie movie that builds a cult reputation after its release. You can't rent Pacific Overtures on Netflix.

But you can play the albums, listen over and over to the numbers, let them grow on you and into you. Sondheim shouldn't be judged on whether millions of people remember simple tunes. He might be the most influential composer of the past 50 years, if only because so many younger composers borrowed from his astringent style. Of that period, he surely is the great American playwright.

The merciless, poignant psychological profiles in Sondheim songs describe modern man and woman with an acuity no other theater writer can touch. A lifelong homosexual who in Sondheim on Sondheim says he didn't find lasting love until he was 60, he is still the great chronicler of married life in all its ambiguities ("Sorry Grateful" from Company), cynicism ("Now You Know" from Merrily) and bitterness ("Could I Leave You?" from Follies). His lyrics sing and sting, as his characters soar and collapse. This is popular art for grownups with sutured hearts, and Sondheim is their confessor, surgeon and priest. He is the poet of domestic tragedy. That Broadway hasn't given him the chance to keep writing songs for new shows — well, that is a tragedy too.

The original version of this article mistakenly stated that the Stephen Sondheim Award is presented by the Arena Theatre in the Washington D.C. It is in fact presented by the Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia.