This time, something slightly different from my usual SF/writing-related blog posts, my personal tribute to Stephen Sondheim. I've long been an admirer of his genius, which won't be a surprise if you've spotted the occasional reference in my novels, more of which later. First, why am I writing this?
After hearing the news of the death of Stephen Sondheim yesterday evening, I went to bed with so many wonderful memories coursing through my mind, tinged with the sadness of his loss. I'd just watched Tick, Tick... BOOM! a couple of hours before, with Sondheim as a character, including a phone message voiced by Sondheim himself, so it hit me particularly hard. I started today reading every obituary and tribute I came across, and it left me wanting to say something personal. But what to say that hasn't already been said by others more eloquently than I ever could? Then I remembered the lyrics in Move On:
George: I've nothing to say
Dot: You have many things
George: Well, nothing that's not been said
Dot: Said by you, though. George
I decided to take my usual approach: make it all about me. It's not entirely self-obsessed. As a writer, if I could affect one person in the way Stephen Sondheim has touched millions, I'd be happy. The best tribute I could make would be to describe how the great man's works have inspired me, and impacted the way I see the world.
Growing up as a poor techie nerd, I didn't use to be into musicals and couldn't have afforded to see them if I was. After I was married and earning better money, I started being dragged along to the occasional show in my thirties, and gradually grew to appreciate them more. The crowd-pleaser, Les Miserables, was the first to make me sit up and take notice of the story-telling possibilities of the art form. I became fascinated by the creative process behind the flawed musical Martin Guerre, which I saw several times – always significantly different. Then I discovered Stephen Sondheim.
I was distantly aware of several of Sondheim's songs, but not really his shows. The day that all changed was 7th June 1998, when I saw the man himself.
We were lucky to get tickets to the first night of the Hey, Mr Producer! concert, Cameron Mackintosh's heartfelt tribute to Cameron Mackintosh. We went to the night without the Queen, although I did sit near Anneka Rice, which is just about the same.
The cast was incredible, full of West End and Broadway luminaries from the sublime Julie Andrews down to Christopher Biggins. Possibly the main person I'd never heard of was some young upstart called Hugh Jackman. Besides yet new versions of songs from Martin Guerre, the highlight of the show for me was a section of Sondheim music, including Judi Dench singing Send In the Clowns. I was fascinated and enthralled. To cap it off, Stephen Sondheim then appeared on stage to introduce a filmed duet between him and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I believe the photo of Sondheim above is from Hey, Mr Producer!
It looks like the full concert is on YouTube, with the Sondheim section starting just after 1:44:15:
I quickly built up a CD collection of original cast recordings of his musicals, researching the plots, and following the shows through the songs. The music was wonderful, but the craft behind the lyrics was incredible. Songs felt like one-act plays on their own. The way he can encapsulate so much of the human condition in a couple of lines never ceases to amaze me.
I've got a Sondheim playlist playing at the moment, and no matter how often I've listened to a song, some rhymes still make me laugh. I've just heard the ridiculously perfect: What's the muddle in the middle? That's the puddle where the poodle did the piddle.
A lyric from the same show, Sunday in the Park with George, continues to resonate with me. It's from Move On:
I chose and my world was shaken
The choice may have been mistaken
The choosing was not
You have to move on
I regularly use it to justify the terrible decisions I've made down the years. Hey, at least I made a choice. Move on.
I then grabbed every opportunity to see a Sondheim musical that came past, whether the West End, the London fringe (e.g. the Menier, Bridewell), Chichester, the Watermill in Newbury, wherever I could sensibly travel. Over the years, I've seen nearly every Sondheim show, and a few compilation musicals. There are two remaining holes in the repertoire.
One is understandable as productions are rare: The Frogs, although I did have tickets to the National concert version that was cancelled. The other is more irritating. I've never seen Company on stage. Through a combination of circumstances, I've managed to miss the productions that have been around. I did have tickets to see it for my 50th birthday but decided to get divorced instead (see Move On above). Oh well, one day, hopefully. At least there's the DVD of the Michael Cerveris Broadway production to watch.
Yes, I'm a Sondheim fan who's seen Saturday Night, but not Company. Can't be many of those around. Mind you, I nearly missed out on Saturday Night too.
I bought tickets to see it at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London, made the ninety-minute journey there, only to be called into a side room when we arrived to be apologetically told there'd been a computer system mix-up, and they'd doubled-booked our seats. Our tickets weren't valid, and to cap it off, the entire run was sold out. Rather than getting an immediate refund, we gave them our number to call us if tickets became available. Then, one Saturday morning a few weeks later, we got the call. We just had time to dash into London to arrive before the show started. Another one ticked off the list!
The show I've seen the most down the years is probably Sweeney Todd. There aren't many shows that work in a grand opera house (although the Royal Opera House's production was disappointing, hugely outclassed by the Opera North production) down to the tiny Watermill in Newbury. My favourite version was probably the Michael Ball/Imelda Staunton production in Chichester.
My favourite production overall? It has to be Sunday In the Park with George at the Menier. I've never had a show bring tears to my eyes through its sheer beauty. In the small, intimate environment of the theatre, as the song Sunday began to swell, with the projections swirling around the back of the stage, and Daniel Evans as George moving Anna-Jane Casey and the other actors into position for the final tableau, it was an emotionally overwhelming and perfect climax to the act. I was lucky to see it there a second time, and also when it transferred to the West End with Jenna Russell.
I managed to slot a tiny tribute to this in one of my SF novels, A Vision of Unity. That's why there's a virtual environment used in one chapter that features Georges Seurat's painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, with Sondheim's Sunday playing in the background. I even based a couple of my lines on Sondheim's lyrics.
If you've never seen it, this is the version of Sunday from the original Broadway production, minus projections, but plus Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin.
Other favourite productions that stand out in my mind are the Royal National Theatre's Follies (anything with Philip Quast always gets my vote), the Watermill's version of the wonderful A Little Night Music a few years back, Passion at the Donmar with Elena Roger, and Assassins at the Menier. Assassins feels to me as the zenith of his ability to perfectly combine setting, lyrics and musical style to the service of the story.
An honourable mention has to go to Jérôme Pradon's performance in Pacific Overtures at the Donmar, especially as the Shogun's mother in Chrysanthemum Tea. Brilliantly done. Jérôme Pradon brings us full circle back to Martin Guerre, just before my obsession with Sondheim started.
That's probably enough of my self-indulgent trip down memory lane in remembrance of Stephen Sondheim.
RIP Stephen Sondheim. You've left a legacy that will survive down the years and continue to give pleasure and inspiration for generations to come.