Yes, I rise to yet a new level of pretentious admonition. I admire the greatness of Stephen Sondheim as much as anyone. Sadly, that greatness vastly diminished after Sweeney Todd (1979), through the impossibly unengaging Merrily We Roll Along, with a great score and a not great book.
On a PBS program covering his 80th birthday celebration, I felt such a sadness. He has lived so many years, striving to recapture his glory years (the 70s), when, in fact, there is little evidence ofa ny Broadway composer delivering first rate work once he leaves his early 60s.
Sondheim, I have often wondered, collaborated with at least two terribly ineffectual librettists, Geo Wideman (Pacific Overtures, xxxx), when he should be working with the most practical and pragmatic of dramatists, as a challenge and counter force against Sondheim's dense cerebral inclinations.
On a News Hour interview tonight, Sondheim explained how a lyric could not be "packed" with too many words or ideas (something like stuffing an omlet), and yet this is very tendency to overwrite and overreach has hampered many of his later works, riddled with obtuse lyrics flailing intellectually in too many directions. More than once during Into the Woods -- a veritable smorgasbord of dispirit ideas -- I asked myslef, what exactly is he NOW saying?
My favorite of Sondheim shows i Follies. Even watching a bus and truck production of the show in Northern California many years ago, the challenging questions it raised about how dreams end up as bitter-suite memories -- held me in thrilling thrall.
Because the man is such a theater giant, I am touched seeing him, so vital and alive still, knowing the roads he did not travel are the roads he will continue to travel, even more adamantly abstract, I fear.
Most of the songs sung on the PBS birthday celebration where the great ones. Elaine Strich nearly self-resurrected with her riveting of "I'm Still Here." We understand the words. We follow the feelings clear through to the end. We are not stranded as the show goes on trying to figure out in our minds what exactly is being said.
After his string of great works culminating with Sweeney, Sondheim began reaching to deeply into his mind (Sunday in the Park With Geroge), as if he had to continually go deeper, and in that futile excrecise and self indulegne, he committed the very sin that tonight he was preaching against: the overly loaded lyric. Is there anybody within the city limits of New York City willing to call the genius on this?
Please, Steve, get back to the basics. Believe in what you did in West Side Story and Company, and find yourself a grounded book writer. Stop dwelling on esoteric rhymes and the thousand degrees of ambivalence. You need to once gain tell us how "it's alarming how charming I feel." Might not make literal sense, but in a theatre, the rhyme scheme flys.
I would love to see you deliver another Big One and trump the historical odds against a composer of your age engineering so epic a comeback. Perhaps YOU are the one to do it.
The truth is, genius is a fleeting state of being. E.M Forster turned out four great books in not much more than a decade. F. Scott Fitzgerald turned out only one bonnafied mastepiece, Gatsby.