America’s Greatest Living Writer: He Shows Us to Ourselves as We Are

From a Wall Street Journal story by Adam Kirsch headlined “America’s Greatest Living Writer”:

Five years ago, when Bob Dylan became the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in a quarter-century, there was some debate about whether he was an appropriate choice for an honor traditionally given to novelists and poets. But now that the precedent exists, the next songwriter who should be on the Swedish Academy’s list is clear. The Nobel should go to Stephen Sondheim, one of the greatest living American writers in any genre.

Sondheim, who turns 91 this month, can hardly be called underrated. The musicals he has written, as a lyricist, composer or both, include some of the most beloved in the repertoire: “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “Company” and “Into the Woods,” to name just a few. He has won 8 Tonys, 6 Grammys, an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize; there are theaters named for him on Broadway and in London’s West End.

But as a serious artist working in a popular form, Sondheim has always occupied an unusual niche in American culture. His shows have never been as commercially successful as Broadway megahits like “The Phantom of the Opera” or “The Lion King.” That’s because the Broadway musical thrives on stories that are brightly colored and larger than life, while Sondheim is drawn to complex emotions and adult situations that require shades of gray and sometimes turn dark. “There is a tonic in the things men do not wish to hear, it’s been said. But not much money,” Sondheim wrote….

Modern literature is full of difficult, challenging artists who toiled in obscurity until the public caught up with them and made them famous. Sondheim presents the much rarer case of an artist who started out at the heart of the establishment and moved away from it as his work became more ambitious and complex. The first Broadway show he helped to create, in 1957, was “West Side Story,” writing the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s music. Two years later, he wrote the lyrics for “Gypsy,” with a score by Jule Styne. More than 60 years later, these are still considered two of the greatest musicals ever written. As a lyricist, Sondheim had achieved more by the age of 30 than most writers do in a lifetime.

But it was always his ambition to write music as well as lyrics, and it took another decade of hits and misses before he created the first show that sounds like Sondheim. “Company,” in 1970, kicked off a quarter-century in which he wrote 10 outstanding musicals, collaborating with the directors Hal Prince and James Lapine as well as a variety of book writers. The subjects of these shows range widely, from the American opening of Japan in the 19th century in “Pacific Overtures” to the travails of former showgirls entering middle age in “Follies.”

What unifies them is a musical and lyrical sensibility that is essentially literary. Sondheim’s real peers were the novelists and essayists of the period, who were drawn to urbane skepticism and disillusionment. Joan Didion’s influential essay collection “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” with its atmosphere of alienation and ennui, and John Updike’s novel “Couples,” a frank look at adultery in a respectable New England town, both appeared in 1968. “Company” belongs to the same world, defined by a sexual revolution that was transforming marriage and relationships.

The main character, Bobby, is an early example of a type that has since become common: a no-longer-young man who flees commitment, paralyzed by his wide-open romantic options. The music in “Company” is angular and syncopated, the lyrics sharp and neurotic….

The show also thrums with the dark energy of New York City at a turning point. Sondheim, a lifelong New Yorker, started his career in a confident postwar city that had taken over from Paris as the cultural capital of the free world. His later work registers the contrast between that early Cold War New York and the city of the 1960s and 70s, when it became a byword for urban dysfunction….

“Company” won the Tony for Best Musical, but many reviewers didn’t know what to make of it. “I didn’t like the show. I admired it…but that is another matter….

The complaint is easy to understand if you judge “Company” against brassy comedies like “Hello, Dolly” or wholesome, inspiring fare like “The Sound of Music.” For that matter, Sondheim was just as remote from the Age of Aquarius sensibility that was making its way onto Broadway in shows like “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It’s not that he was emotionless: There are Sondheim songs that can make just about anyone laugh or cry. But even in those songs there is a reflective, self-conscious mind at work, in a way that’s more characteristic of novels than musical theater.

Sondheim’s characters often end up acting like dopes, but they do it in the way we do in real life: without realizing it, betrayed by their ingrained habits and unacknowledged motives. A good example is “Send in the Clowns,” from the 1973 show “A Little Night Music,” which is probably Sondheim’s best-known song—a hit for both Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins. In the show, it is sung by Desiree, an older woman whose marriage proposal has just been rejected by Frederik, her former lover, who is now in love with someone younger.

In a different show, Desiree would sing a sad song about unrequited love, like Fantine in the “Les Misérables” tear-jerker, “On My Own.” Instead, Sondheim has her downplay the whole thing as a faux pas, as befits a woman of the world….

If Sondheim’s combination of irreverence and moralism is typical of his literary generation, so too is his playfulness with genre. Starting in the 1960s, American writers like Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth experimented with “metafiction”—stories that acknowledge they are stories, playing knowingly with their own conventions. Some of Sondheim’s best shows are also constructed to emphasize that what we’re seeing on stage isn’t “really” happening. “Follies” (1971) uses pairs of actors to portray the same characters at different stages of life, allowing the disillusioned middle-aged versions to confront the young, innocent ones. “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981) moves backward in time, starting in the present and following the main characters back to their high school days in the 1950s….

The truth about life, Sondheim suggests, is that there is no happily ever after. There is rarely even the kind of grand, tragic ending we get in “West Side Story,” his first show, which is based on “Romeo and Juliet.” For all Sondheim’s narrative inventions, he is the great realist of musical theater, a writer who shows us to ourselves as we are—self-destructive, conflicted and vain, but also capable of insight, forgiveness and laughter. No matter how different the world is 91 years from now, that much will still be true—which is why we’ll still be listening to Stephen Sondheim.

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