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Monday, December 5, 2022

Stephen Sondheim was a brilliant composer as well as a brilliant lyricist

When I happened to stroll by the theatre where “Sweeney Todd” was playing on Broadway one Saturday afternoon in June 1979, it had only been on the stage for a few months. The lunchtime performance of the newest musical by Stephen Sondheim had already been sold out, so I decided to take a risk and see if I could acquire a ticket to the evening show instead.

To my surprise, there was a fantastic seat available in the fourth row centre. I was dressed in pants and a T-shirt with a filled rucksack, and I was unshaven. I couldn’t care less. I sat down in my chair, ecstatic.

After that, who steps in and takes up a position just in front of me? John Lennon and Yoko Ono are two of the most famous people in the world. Would their presence cause me to get distracted?

Not in the least. Even two cultural gods were rendered insignificant before the devouring opening sequence of “Sweeney.”

Early on in the piece, bizarre, chromatically wandering organ music by Sondheim (who died on Friday) creates the gloomy, gothic vibe that would pervade the whole piece.

Immediately drawn in by the music’s dark, tense drama, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. My inner musician was already clamouring for additional information even in those first moments of discovery. What were those harmonies, what were those chords that the rippling figure was sketching, exactly? So, what were those sounds that appeared to erupt from the orchestra and poke me in the ribs with dissonant stabs of sound? When the bass line that serves as the foundation of the music made a dramatic downward dive, it seemed for a short moment that the harmonic floor had opened a gap. It was necessary for me to get the score and listen to it carefully in order to determine what was going on.

Twenty-two years later, I found myself sat at a piano, playing the opening music of “Sweeney Todd” in front of its composer, Stephen Sondheim, and asking him questions about it. At the time, I was the top classical music critic for The New York Times. While performing at the 2001 Times Talks event in New York, I also included other remarkable passages from the show, such as the one early in the show when Sweeney, while obliquely telling the young sailor Anthony the storey of his tragic life, sings, in understated phrases, “There was a barber and his wife,” over a slow accompaniment that echoes the show’s prologue. “There was a barber and his wife,” I explained.

However, as we will see, it was the young woman’s attractiveness that attracted the attention of the lecherous and powerful Judge Turpin. Sondheim recognised in our discussion that the moment included this undercurrent, but he disputed that he had calibrated the impact; he said that he had just followed his musical instincts rather than a script.

A few selections from “Merrily We Roll Along,” which was never his most successful work but is arguably my favourite Sondheim musical on a desert island and has one of his most engaging, inventively complicated, and touching soundtracks. According to the liner notes for the original cast CD, all of the songs are “interconnected by portions of melody, rhythm, and accompaniment.”

I attempted to demonstrate to the audience how those portions might be broken down and put together. He generally simply smiled and listened, nodding his head in agreement and said something along the lines of: “Yeah, that’s it.” He was adamant about never discussing the inner workings of his music in front of an audience. He considered himself to be in the business of selling cars.

Throughout the period between my first viewing of “Sweeney Todd” – I saw it twice more! — and coming to know Sondheim personally in the late 1990s, Sondheim was a defining influence in my life and career. During my time as a music theory professor at Emerson College in Boston, I used Sondheim songs such as “The Miller’s Son” (from “A Little Night Music”) and “Barcelona” (from “Company”) as examples of how he, while adhering to a tonal musical language, activated harmonies and folded elements of jazz and Impressionist styles into his own distinctive, exhilarating voice.

Since his passing, I’ve been thinking about a trip to the Bronx Zoo that my husband and I did with Sondheim and his spouse, Jeff Romley, in the spring of 2019. My cousin Kathleen LaMattina works at the zoo with her husband, Jim Breheny, who is the zoo’s director. They were both animal enthusiasts, and they were both enthusiastic about animals. These distinguished visitors were given the opportunity to touch sloths and penguins, and even get up up and personal with a cheetah, all under the supervision of a trained staff member. I have photographs of Sondheim feeding giraffes with the leaves of a tree limb.

As I write this, I’m looking at the piano-vocal score to “Sweeney Todd,” which Sondheim autographed for me the first time he came to dine with me, back in 1997.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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