Stephen Sondheim, as Great a Composer as He Was a Lyricist

This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater

Written by: Anthony Tommasini

Our chief classical music critic remembers playing and teaching the unforgettable scores of “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and other shows.

“Sweeney Todd” had been open for a few months on Broadway when, one Saturday afternoon in June 1979, I passed by the theater where it was playing. I assumed that Stephen Sondheim’s latest musical was sold out, but I decided to take a chance and see if I could get a ticket to the matinee.

Amazingly, there was a great one available — fourth row center. I was unshaven, in jeans and a T-shirt, carrying a stuffed backpack. I didn’t care. Elated, I took my seat.

Then who walks in and sits directly in front of me? John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Would I be distracted by their presence?

Not a bit. Even two cultural gods faded before the engulfing beginning of “Sweeney.”

Sondheim, who died on Friday at 91, establishes the work’s dark, gothic mood in strange, chromatically wandering organ music right at the start. Then the deafening blast of a factory whistle breaks in, and the orchestra starts the prologue, a subdued, murmuring minor-mode riff over which the hushed chorus sings: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”

I was immediately riveted by the grim, suspenseful drama of the music. Even in those opening moments, the musician in me wanted to know more. What were those harmonies, the chords that the rippling figure was tracing? What were those notes that seemed to escape from the orchestra and jab me with touches of dissonance? When the bass line that grounds the music took a sudden low plunge, it seemed, briefly, like the harmonic floor had opened a chasm. I had to get the score, to study the music, to see if I could figure out what was going on.

Twenty-two years later, by then the chief classical music critic for The New York Times, I found myself seated at a piano, playing that opening music to “Sweeney” in front of its composer and asking Sondheim questions about it. During that Times Talks event in 2001, I also played other extraordinary passages from the show — like the moment early on when Sweeney, obliquely telling the young sailor Anthony the story of his tragic life, sings, in understated phrases, “There was a barber and his wife,” over a slow accompaniment that echoes the prologue.

Then, Sweeney adds, “And she was beautiful.” At that final word — “beautiful” — the chord below, which repeats three times, is piercingly, hauntingly dissonant. A graduate seminar in music theory could devote considerable time to deciphering the elusive harmony. It has always struck me as a counterintuitive touch. Shouldn’t the wife’s beauty be conveyed through something more melting, more radiant?

Yet, as we learn, it was this young woman’s beauty that made her the prey of the lecherous, powerful Judge Turpin. In our interview, Sondheim acknowledged that the moment had this subtext, yet denied that he had calibrated the effect; he said he had just followed his musical instincts.

I also played excerpts from “Merrily We Roll Along,” never his most popular but perhaps my desert-island Sondheim musical, and one of his most appealing, ingeniously intricate and moving scores. All the songs are “interconnected through chunks of melody, rhythm and accompaniment,” as he put it in the liner notes for the original cast recording.

I tried to show the audience how those chunks break down and fit together. Sondheim mostly just smiled and listened, nodding and saying, basically, “Yep, that’s it.” He never liked to discuss the inner workings of his music in front of the public. This was his business, he felt.

He did offer detailed analyses of several of his works in a series of interviews in 1997 with Mark Eden Horowitz, a music specialist from the Library of Congress, later published as an essential book, “Sondheim on Music.”

If you want specifics, this is your source. Of a passage in “Passion,” Sondheim says that two chords “represent the entire progression” of the sequence.

“I write long-line stuff in either whole notes or half notes,” he added. “A whole note could represent four bars, eight bars, 12 bars, 16 bars,” but the “glue has to be harmonic” — “has to be spinning out the triad and spinning out the harmony.”

Between my first time seeing “Sweeney” — I went back twice! — and getting to know him personally in the late 1990s, Sondheim was a singular presence in my life and work. When I taught music theory at Emerson College in Boston, I used Sondheim songs like “The Miller’s Son” (from “A Little Night Music”) and “Barcelona” (from “Company”) as illustrations of how he, while hewing to a tonal musical language, activated harmonies and folded elements of jazz and Impressionist styles in his own distinctive, exhilarating voice.

In the early ’90s, at several memorial services for friends who had died of AIDS, I played “Good Thing Going,” a wistful song about recalling imperfect but cherished relationships. “Marry Me a Little,” cut from the original production of “Company” but beloved in later revivals as the protagonist’s statement of determination and despair, was another piece I relished performing; I still use the demanding perpetual-motion piano part as an exercise to keep my finger technique limber.

In 2010, I made an 80th birthday tribute video to him for the Times website, in which, among other excerpts, I played and analyzed the wondrous chords at the start of “Sunday in the Park with George.” Here, the hero, Georges Seurat, speaking to the audience, explains the elements of painting, how the artist must bring “order to the whole” through design, composition, balance, light — and, finally, harmony. Each word is accompanied, almost musically illustrated, by a variant of a five-note arpeggio figure that uncannily embodies each concept. The chord for light is so piercing and bright you almost want to squint.

In 2016, I posed to Sondheim the question of why such a master composer so seldom wrote a purely instrumental work. Yes, he was one of the greatest lyricists in the history of musical theater. But wasn’t he tempted to put words aside now and then, and just compose, say, a piano sonata?

He answered that it wasn’t really the words that generated his musical ideas. “I express the character,” he said. “Let’s see what happens to him. I express it musically.” He was endlessly fascinated by the “puzzle of music,” he added. But when he gets solely into music, the “puzzle takes over.”

I’ve been thinking since his death about a trip to the Bronx Zoo my husband and I took in the spring of 2019 with Sondheim and his husband, Jeff Romley. They were passionate animal lovers, and my cousin Kathleen LaMattina works and lives there with her husband, Jim Breheny, the zoo’s director. In a special room, these honored guests could pet sloths and penguins, and even get close to a cheetah, under a staff member’s calm control. I have pictures of Sondheim feeding leafy tree branches to a giraffe.

I’m looking as I write this at the piano-vocal score to “Sweeney Todd” Sondheim signed for me the first time he came to dinner, in 1997.

“To Tony,” his inscription reads. “With thanks for the enthusiasm.”

That enthusiasm will never diminish, and the thanks will always go the other way.

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