All the Talk of Stephen Sondheim Misses the Heart of the Matter

For all his complexity, he reveres Broadway-musical traditions

STEPHEN SONDHEIM is credited - or in some quarters decried - for taking the American musical where it's never been before. With two successful shows in New York right now - ``Passion,'' winner of this year's Tony Award for best musical, and ``Merrily We Roll Along,'' a much-praised, significantly revised Off-Broadway version of Sondheim's 1981 Broadway failure - we are hearing this talk more than ever.

Sondheim's shows are undeniably daring. Consider his subjects: a ghoulish tale of an avenging London barber and his pie-baking paramour who slice-'n-dice then bake-'n-serve their victims; a carnival arcade show of presidential assassins; a disturbing look at the obsessive passion of a homely and shamelessly manipulative woman for a handsome young Italian Army officer.

Sondheim is a compositional innovator, a true modernist. Yet, for all the craft, complexity, and rhythmic vitality of his music and the beguiling brilliance of his lyrics, Sondheim reveres the Broadway musical tradition. Other cultures may have produced grand opera and epic theater. What our American musical meisters did was to take everyday words and accessible music and combine them in ways that are ingenious and entertaining. Sondheim, who was tutored by Oscar Hammerstein and collaborated as lyricist with composers Jule Styne, Richard Rodgers, and Leonard Bernstein, remains at heart a words-and-music man.

Though seldom noted, every Sondheim show seems to have at its core a purely musical agenda. Sondheim is something of a neoclassicist. His music is ``about'' other genres. The score to ``Follies,'' a show about a reunion of former Broadway showgirls, is a virtual catalogue of classic Broadway song types. ``Company'' was Sondheim's spin on 1970s pop. ``A Little Night Music'' evokes 19th-century European art songs, waltzes, and lieder. ``Pacific Overtures'' is as much about Gilbert & Sullivan patter as it is about Japanese exotica.

``Sunday in the Park With George'' is Sondheim's take on contemporary concert-music idioms. His harmonies, drenched in Ravel and Debussy, evoke painter Georges Seurat, the show's protagonist, as he tries to bring order to the chaos of his life and vision. The hints of 12-tonish pointillism in Sondheim's songs - with their zig-zagging melodies and motoric rhythms - perfectly capture the painter's radical dot-dot-dot technique.

``Sweeney Todd'' is an homage to the English melodrama with an ironic modern twist. It begins in utter bleakness. But as Sweeney's story unfolds and his agenda of revenge, murder, and cannibalism becomes clear, the music gets lighter so as to cushion the gore. Except for those moments when the Greek chorus of downtrodden Londoners pops up to warn us about him, the dramatic-musical perspective is Sweeney's. The music wants us to see him as a man driven to crime by vicious injustice.

If the Act One finale, ``A Little Priest'' were a vengeful song about cutting up powerful people (or nobodies) and baking them into pies, the audience would get up and leave. Instead, it's an undulant waltz with lyrics that recall vaudeville repartee - bad puns and all that. Only at the end when Sweeney is caught do the choristers win out. The bleak music from the show's beginning returns to condemn Sweeney.

Which brings us to ``Merrily We Roll Along'' and the new revival. In a late scene, which is in fact an early scene chronologically (the show, like the Kaufman-Hart play upon which it is based, moves backwards through time), the slick producer, Joe, admonishes Franklin and Charley, the songwriting team whom we follow (in reverse) from youthful idealism to cynical middle age. Joe thinks their new songs are too highbrow. ``There's not a tune you can hum,'' he says. ``Why don't you throw them a crumb.''

Sondheim is making fun of himself here, for this is exactly the admonition that has been leveled at him. The initial failure of ``Merrily'' was painful because Sondheim, for once, thought he was writing a tuneful, sassy, bittersweet score.

The music overflows with ingenuity. All the songs are derived from the same few melodic motives - a musical analogy to the way the main themes of a person's life get recycled through episodes of exhilaration, folly, and despair. But the craft is hidden. His listeners are invited to sit back and enjoy the tunes.

The revival, with George Furth's reworked book, excises the framing device and helpfully fleshes out the characters' complexities. In the New York Theatre Company production (in the intimate ambiance of St. Peter's Church), the show's poignancy and spunk come through beautifully now. In the lead roles Malcolm Gets, Adam Heller, Amy Ryder, and Anne Bobby are miraculous.

``Passion'' does not fit so neatly into a neoclassical analysis. The score recalls the Ravelian harmonies of ``Sunday in the Park With George'' without its quirky pointillism or songs of comic relief. The score is spiked, though timidly, with military drum- and-bugle music to conjure the world of the Italian Army officers. Director and book author James Lapine (Sondheim's collaborator on ``Sunday'' and ``Into the Woods'') has encouraged Sondheim's natural inclination to meld his music into the drama. This makes ``Passion'' a compelling evening of theater. Fosca's consuming love for Giorgio is not explained. This is irrational love that does not need to be returned. Nor does it regard its object's feelings. In the lead roles, Donna Murphy and Jere Shea are triumphant.

But this time Sondheim may have done too good a job of melding his music into the drama. The music held me as I heard it, but disappeared soon after. (Second and third hearings of a Sondheim score, however, can be revelatory.) Sondheim may be at his best when he looks over his shoulder to his musical roots as he drags the musical form beyond its familiar parameters. And ``Merrily'' is Sondheim at his best. As Charley says of Franklin, ``He does the music thing very well. No one does it better.''

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