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Stephen Sondheim: Too clever by half or a modern Shakespeare?

Stephen Sondheim, New York, 1987. (Photo by Oliver Morris/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Stephen Sondheim, more than any other contemporary composer, is credited with raising the musical to new levels of complexity and sophistication.

But even today, his focus on form and content, rather than building shows around a succession of set-piece, take-away hit songs divides opinion.

The generalised perception of him as the thinking-person’s composer, disrupting a supposedly lightweight form of entertainment and raising it above its station, is tiresome and patronising. It reduces the richness and variety of his source material and the range of his musical influences, classical and popular, to a simplistic trope: that Sondheim is too clever by half!

The truth is, without his pioneering exploration of diverse cultural references, and his use of different forms to build credible characters who reveal their nuanced, conflicted personalities through song, the breadth of subjects developed by new generations of composers would be considerably diminished.

Certainly, he has mined a rich seam of inspiration in American culture, from the interminable clash between corrupt corporate power and idealistic resistance (Anyone Can Whistle), to the way America’s public figures throughout history have provoked fanatical reactions (Assassins), the acute social plight of the Manhattan bachelor (Company) and the corrosive effect of artistic success on friendship (Merrily We Roll Along). But the extent to which many of those references ultimately look to Europe is striking.

Take A Little Night Music, based on a classic early Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night; Passion, inspired by Tarchetti’s novel and Scola’s film; Sunday in the Park with George, a musical realisation of Seurat’s talent, which culminates in the staged recreation of one of the artist’s most famous paintings; and of course Sweeney Todd, Sondheim’s Grand Guignol masterpiece, which evokes the horrors of 19th century London through a potent – often terrifying – combination of operatic arias, street cries and English folk songs. Or Follies, which reveals the extent to which one of America’s most popular art forms before the explosion of cinema was a product of multiple European influences colliding in an immigrant culture.

In every case, the source material ultimately provides the framework for Sondheim to reveal profound truths about his characters. This correlation gives a big clue as to why his work has often found its most admiring and affectionate audience in Britain and why, in 2010, he was given the ultimate accolade of a Prom to mark his 80th birthday. While his shows have occasionally been mounted handsomely across Europe – most notably in a sequence of magnificent productions at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris – it is here that Sondheim has forged a particularly strong emotional connection with theatregoers and performers.

When I interviewed him back in 1997, he observed a shift in critical perception about the capacity of musicals to dig more deeply into the human condition. Throughout his career, some critics have found this degree of complexity uncomfortable and expected the form to adhere to its more traditional role of light-weight entertainment. This was changing, he said, but has always been less true in Britain.

‘There’s a tradition of language in Great Britain which there is not in an immigrant country like the United States, and word-play and the playfulness of the language, with its enormous variety and richness, are appreciated and enjoyed more by both British public and critics than by Americans,’ he told me.

‘What interests me is the complexity of human beings in situations. That’s what interests any playwright, and I’m a playwright in song. I was trained that way by Oscar [Hammerstein], who was also a playwright in song, and subsequently by my collaborators like Arthur Laurents, John Weidman and George Furth, all of whom are writers of plays. The realism in what I do has to do with the fact that I come from a playwriting tradition rather than a songwriting tradition, and that’s the crucial difference.’

Follies charts an evening of reckoning as two former show-girls and their husbands meet at the final reunion before their old theatre is pulled down to make way for a car lot. The collision between past and present, between actual events and the distortions of memory and misunderstanding, and the dawning awareness that they have each in their way been living a lie, unravels through Sondheim’s brilliant pastiches of song-forms from the golden age of George White and Florenz Ziegfeld. The main drama is punctuated by turns from faded stars as they seize the spotlight for one last time, each apparently enjoying a more sanguine relationship with the past than the hapless quartet at the centre of the story.

For director Dominic Cooke, stepping out of rehearsals at the National Theatre for the first major London production of the show since 1987, the idea of Sondheim as a playwright cuts to the heart of his appeal for British audiences.

‘The incredible relationship between form and content is like Shakespeare,’ he says. ‘The only other writer I really know who also does this – trying to find a form that suits the content line by line – is Caryl Churchill. In Shakespeare you have the verse structure that tells you something about the psychology of the character. With Sondheim, you have the correlation between the music and the lyric which absolutely tells you, moment by moment, what’s happening, and the actor can trust each moment that he’s written. It’s really remarkable.’

Cooke says the songs in Follies are like Shakespeare’s soliloquies in the way they move the character on. ‘A character starts with a problem and they may, like Hamlet, come back to the same one at the end, but they’re always trying to move it forward,’ he says. ‘Each of these songs is there to try and solve something, and there’s nothing illustrative about it. It’s dramatic and active.’

He doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the show is one of Sondheim’s best loved by British audiences.

‘I think there’s probably in the writing a slight cynicism or anti-idealistic strain in his work, which appeals to us here,’ he says. ‘It’s challenging and he doesn’t present easy answers. And although the forms might be populist the content or tone is often much more double edged.’

The form of Follies – as Cooke puts it, a hybrid of European tradition and American entertainment with an aspiration to take something popular and introduce an element of art – also plays to Britain’s love affair with American cinema, for so long the main transatlantic channel for our cultural fascination with the United States.

‘We might not have a direct knowledge of the follies in this country, but we understand the language because I think those early days of cinema are still very much in our blood collectively,’ he says. ‘And I think when Sondheim and James Goldman wrote the pastiche elements in the show, they were also looking at movies and how those strands came through into the popular consciousness.’

Follies is set in 1971, 30 years after the show’s singers and dancers last trod the hallowed boards. Cooke says this is significant – a pivotal year at the end of three decades which saw the slow, steady loss of innocence for American politics, beginning with Pearl Harbor and leading up to the corrosive shock of Watergate. John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King had all been murdered, and it was increasingly hard to sustain the idealistic notion of America as a beacon on the hill, lighting the way for the rest of the world. Through the character of Ben, the politician whose ambition has long since curdled his wife’s affection, Follies offers an oblique angle on a critical moment for national identity.

‘Whilst it’s not absolutely at the front of the show, it’s very much in the bones,’ says Cooke. ‘I think Sondheim and Goldman chose those dates very deliberately and we’ve tried to deliver on that. Whilst the universal is there, we’re not pretending that Follies is a universal piece all the time.’ Even so, you hardly have to scratch the glittering surface of the show to discover, like the four central characters, that its themes and the way it handles human dilemma were remarkably prescient in 1971.

This is Sondheim’s gift for providing an enduring relevance beyond his original intentions as a playwright. It also helps to explain why his best-known songs have found a separate life beyond the precision of their original dramatic context. Even if you’ve never seen A Little Night Music, you’ll have heard somebody’s version of Send in the Clowns. And I’m Still Here from Follies has become an all-purpose survival anthem, rather distant from the astringent pragmatism the character who sings it in the show.

Sondheim himself is no stranger to the demands of reimagination and reinvention, whether of individual songs or complete shows. He has, for example, reportedly given his blessing to Marianne Elliott’s forthcoming London production of Company, which will feature a female bachelor Bobby. And he has been a highly valued collaborator on Follies, says Cooke, firm on what he considers deal-breakers essential to making the show work, but open and keen to hear new ideas. He also brings the wealth of knowledge acquired during more than four decades of different productions, which have included the addition of many new songs and tweaks to the book.

‘I do like to oversee any major new recordings or productions of my work,’ Sondheim told me. ‘Simply to see that no matter what liberties are taken, it’s in the service of the piece rather than the individuals who are putting it together. I take great objection when specific musical or lyrical liberties are taken. By that I mean the changing of notes or words rather than phrasing, which is up to the individual.’

Cooke and his team at the National decided early on to return to the original book, bringing in ideas from later versions but retaining the cinematic feel of the first production, which was impressionistic and fragmented, more reflective of the fractured state of mind of the protagonists than the polished, glittering offerings of subsequent stagings. Cooke suggests that the piece is partly a psychoanalytical take on how persistent the past can be, if you try and run away from it. Block it out, and it becomes very aggressive. The four main protagonists are all in opposition to it, and now the ghosts of their young selves are banging on the door, demanding to be acknowledged. In this production, they are ever-present from the start, already occupying the territory into which their unwary mature characters stumble.

‘In 1971, there wasn’t much theatre that did this kind of parallel reality,’ says Cooke. ‘Now, I think audiences are much more ready to go with that conceit. Also, in terms of the characters themselves, to empathise with how tough it is to keep relationships together, to live in the contemporary world, to make sense of it as you get older. All those subject matters are more available to us today.’

As for contemporary relevance, Cooke says that audiences will inevitably bring a whole load of other meaning to the work – as they do with any good drama. As a director, he is primarily concerned with getting inside the material absolutely, and trying to deliver it for the sensibility of the time.

Cooke recently finished making a film of Ian McEwan’s novel On Chesil Beach, and sees a parallel theme with Follies – the dark side of nostalgia – which chimes with his personal response to Brexit and the rise of the Trump administration.

‘I realised how much it’s a book about toxic nostalgia, and how dangerous it is to live with false ideas of the past – and that is what [Follies] is also about on a personal level,’ he says. ‘I think that nationally, we’re suffering from it so badly, this notion of the past being better than the present. Well maybe, for a very, very few people. For most of us, if you really went back to live in a repressed world where people didn’t have options, where they were categorised before they’d even started their life, things were not actually better. So I think the notion of how we collectively and individually live with the decisions of the past is very meaningful.’

For those discovering Sondheim for the first time or expecting to revisit a favourite show, however, his main hope is that they see Follies for what it is and are surprised by it. This, he says, is the nub of Sondheim’s relevance to his audiences.

‘His work is endlessly surprising and quite edgy, isn’t it? He has the ability to go inside someone’s mind, inside a situation. Great writing does that in all sorts of ways, but when you add musical brilliance, it gives you an extra dimension.’

Piers Ford is an arts writer and journalist. His music blog is

Follies opens at the Royal National Theatre on September 6; previews begin on August 22

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