4 min

Anyone can whistle

But only Sondheim can do Sondheim

Credit: Xtra files

John Lahr nailed it. In the recent PBS documentary, Broadway: The American Musical, he describes Stephen Sondheim as having an avant-garde sensibility in a popular art form. In reference to Sunday In The Park With George, Lahr says, “When we start to see musicals about pointilism and making art, the musical has gone a long way from its original popular roots… and that is the strength and the weakness of Sondheim.” In other words, Sondheim is way smart for a Broadway guy. His cerebral cortex was celebrated in 1976 by the concept revue Side By Side By Sondheim (a new CanStage production opens this week) and less clever writers have been imitating him badly ever since.

And yet this super brain is truly Broadway’s child. Indeed, his mentor and surrogate father was lyricist, bookwriter and producer Oscar Hammerstein. (When Sondheim was a teen he attended an out-of-town tryout of Carousel. At the end of the first act he wept into Dorothy Hammerstein’s ermine.) Before Sondheim was 30 he had written the lyrics to West Side Story and Gypsy, the latter demonstrating what, I think, are his most electrifying lyrics. Near the climax of the show, a trio of strippers coaches a rookie Gypsy Rose Lee in “You Gotta Have A Gimmick.” Sondheim took this lesson to heart when he started creating his own shows. At the prime of his prime – the 1970s, the era heavily sampled in Side By Side By Sondheim – he became the master of gimmicks, of innovations only a cryptic-crossword-expert genius like Sondheim could implement.

Take A Little Night Music. This 1972 show started with a gimmick. Back in 1957, Sondheim and director Hal Prince had discussed the idea of creating a musical made up entirely of waltzes. Fourteen years later they found their property: a light comedy by Ingmar Berman called Smiles Of A Summer Night. Perfect… a smarty-pants fairy tale through which Sondheim could meet this three-quarter challenge. “Send In The Clowns” (gasped by Liz Taylor in the movie) is the hit song, but for pure tour-de-force writing “A Weekend In The Country” is stunning. Hermione Gingold’s rendition of “Liaisons” on the original cast album is adorable. And the number “The Sun Won’t Set” contains one of my favourite lyrics: “The hands on the clock turn/ But don’t sing a nocturne/ Just yet.”

Playing with time clearly delights Sondheim. Merrily We Roll Along, based on the 1934 Kaufman-Hart play, begins in 1980 and travels backward to the finale in 1955. Sondheim challenged himself to write a score that, when listened to in reverse, would develop traditionally. He succeeded. By making the lead character a songwriter, he could play the game full force. Merrily We Roll Along, cast entirely of teenagers, closed after two weeks… maybe because its indictment of the 1970s “me generation” proved a little strident. But the score is charming; it features a reunion-show standard “Old Friends,” and a revue-style number “Bobby And Jackie And Jack” in which we hear the gem: “We’ll get Leontyne Price to sing her/ Medley from Meistersinger.”

A thoroughly fulfilling adventure in time travel occurs in Follies, the 1971 extravaganza set in a Ziegfeld Follies-type theatre just before its demolition. As the title suggests, Follies is a show about regret. What keeps it lively is the time game; it jumps back and forth between 1971 and the follies’ 1920s, and it’s an exhilarating ride. We get Sondheim’s trademark cynicism juxtaposed with some Gershwinesque pluck. This score is packed with boozy-old-show-biz-broad classics: “Broadway Baby” (delivered deliciously by Elaine Stritch on the 1985 concert album), “I’m Still Here” (used as a self-parody by Shirley MacLaine in Postcards From the Edge) and “Losing My Mind” (appropriately recorded by Liza in the late ’80s).

Speaking of Stritch, her four-in-the-morning croakings of “The Ladies Who Lunch” are featured in Original Cast Album: Company, a 1970 documentary available on DVD and worth experiencing. It’s an intense 60 minutes. Sondheim had a lot riding on Company. It marked his departure from the Hammerstein school and his first big innovation: the removal of plot. Company is a series of musical vignettes satirizing married life in upper middle-class Manhattan. (As Sondheim explains, what a Broadway audience would go to the theatre to avoid, Company threw right back in their faces.) I’ve never seen a production – the original had a jungle gym set – but the soundtrack album, filled with self-contained numbers, succeeds as its own entity. Stritch calls “The Ladies Who Lunch” her three-act play. “Another Hundred People” conjures a New York “city of strangers” in heartbreaking detail. And “Getting Married Today” is patter heaven (especially when it’s performed by Vera from TV’s Alice).

Arguably Sondheim’s crowning achievement is Sweeney Todd. Here the gimmick is simple: a musical comedy designed to horrify. Sondheim loves to explore the dark side and he went all the way with this 1979 masterpiece. Sweeney Todd tells the story of a 19th-century London barber out for revenge. It’s got murder, madness, cannibalism and a frighteningly brilliant score. The original production was taped for television and it’s worth locating for Angela Lansbury’s inspired performance as Mrs Lovett. The first-act closer “A Little Priest,” in which she and Todd imagine what their victims will taste like, is sublime.

Sondheim wrote one other musical in the ’70s… but an all-male Kabuki cast isn’t a gimmick that grabs me, so I’m not a connoisseur of Pacific Overtures. After his collaboration with Hal Prince ended in 1980, Sondheim considered becoming a mystery writer. (In 1973 he had co-penned, with fellow puzzle-fan Tony Perkins, the screenplay to The Last Of Sheila – a clever whodunit about a game freak.) But when his partnership with bookwriter/director James Lapine began in 1984, the egghead musical theatre hijinks resumed. Let’s hope they continue. It’s been only five years since Sondheim officially came out, so the possibilities are endless.

* The CanStage production of Side By Side By Sondheim stars Dan Chameroy, Mary Ann McDonald, Julain Molnar and Jay Turvey; Eda Holmes directs with musical direction by Paul Sportelli.