Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Hearing with the Heart

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Hearing with the Heart

Article excerpt

My midlife obsession with Stephen Sondheim began on a Friday night in April 1996, when my daughter Kate persuaded me to take her to her school's spring musical. She was 12, a seventh grader dreaming of the day when she would be cast in one of the school's productions. I was 44, a lifelong jazz snob, who viewed the prospect of watching teenagers perform a musical with dread. We were going to see something called Sweeney Todd. I'd never heard of it. Music and lyrics by Mr. Sondheim. I had no clue.

I can't recall the exact moment, but at some point during the first act I turned to my daughter with an astonished grin. The melodies were so rich, the harmonies so gorgeous, the lyrics so inventive and lush. I had never heard anything like it in my life. (And this was a high school production!)

I soon learned that the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., was also staging Sweeney Todd. I practically ran to see it. I didn't quite trust what I'd heard with Kate. But at the Goodspeed I was once again dazzled, transported, besotted with the experience of seeing - and hearing - Sweeney Todd. When I fall for something, I fall hard. Yet I don't think I've ever fallen as hard for anything as I did for Mr. Sondheim's music. His songs and shows became central to my life, insinuating themselves into my heart and mind. I'm a business writer, but I'd often find myself, in the middle of trying to write a tough-minded article, haunted by some Sondheim song that I couldn't get out of my head.

My appreciation for jazz had always been a cerebral thing. My reaction to Mr. Sondheim's admittedly cerebral music, however, was deeply emotional. And a good production of the shows I liked best - Sunday in the Park with George, Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd - could leave me feeling drained. My former wife once asked me what it was about Mr. Sondheim's music that I found so compelling. I shrugged helplessly. "He makes me cry," I finally replied.

Having come to Mr. Sondheim's music late, I raced to catch up. I spent the next half-dozen years buying every Sondheim album in sight - Stavisky, anyone? - and seeing as many of his shows as often as I could, in any city I could get to. I was like an addict searching for his next fix. I saw Company in New York, Boston and Wilmington, Del.; Into the Woods in Providence, R.I.; A Little Night Music in Seattle and Great Barrington, Mass.; Sweeney in Weston, Vt., and at Avery Fisher Hall. I went to London in 2000 to see the wonderful Donmar Warehouse production of Merrily We Roll Along, and to LaGuardia High School in Manhattan to see the wonderful 2002 Merrily reunion concert. In Los Angeles I saw Pacific Overtures performed by an all-Asian theatre company. In Chicago I saw the first American production of Saturday Night, the long-unproduced musical Mr. Sondheim worked on in 1955, when he was 25.

Back when I worked at the Time-Life Building, I used to sneak off in the middle of the day once or twice a year to the nearby Museum of Television to watch an old tape of Evening Primrose.

That's an hour-long musical Mr. Sondheim wrote for ABC Television that includes memorable songs like "I Remember" and "Take Me to the World." (It's now on DVD.) Anthony Perkins, who co-wrote the 1973 film The Last of Sheila with Mr. Sondheim, is the star. It goes without saying that I've seen The Last of Sheila.

Inevitably my cravings for his music lessened. But they never went away entirely. And they were rekindled in the last few weeks as I read his newly published book, Finishing the Hat. Ostensibly the first of two volumes of his collected lyrics, the book is a lot more than that. Finishing the Hat is filled with ruminations on the craft of lyric writing, shrewd essays on other lyricists and anecdotes galore. Mr. Sondheim writes about things he wishes he'd done differently, about his various collaborations, about why a lyric was changed, a song cut, a scene revamped. …

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