Sondheim sings an ambiguous tune

At 83, with more recognition than ever, the lyricist hints at a comeback

Sondheim sings an ambiguous tune

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Just like his musicals, Stephen Sondheim’s Look, I Made a Hat has an ambiguous ending. The book, a sequel to last year’s Finishing the Hat, completes the annotated collection of lyrics by one of musical theatre’s greatest figures. But the book contains little recent material, and Sondheim, who hasn’t had a Broadway show since 1994, seems unsure if he will create a new one. In the book’s epilogue, he notes ruefully that “most theatre songwriters sound old-fashioned after the age of 50.” The bad boy of musical theatre, who appalled Broadway escapists with challenging shows like Sweeney Todd and Company, sometimes seems to be coming to terms with being an elder statesman.

To the disappointment of some fans, Sondheim spent the last decade mostly revising existing works, such as Road Show, a troubled musical he first tried to launch in 1996 and that had a series of short-lived, out-of-town and off-Broadway productions until 2008. Mark Horowitz, a music specialist at the Library of Congress who interviewed the 83-year-old lyricist for his 2002 book, Sondheim on Music, says that Sondheim hasn’t “made any conscious decision to focus on revising,” but that it’s mostly a result of the increased cost of getting anything produced on Broadway. Still, Horowitz adds, “I do know that he feels it’s hard to live up to the expectations other people have of him.” After all, Sondheim has won an Oscar, eight Tonys and shared a Pulitzer Prize for drama for the 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George.

But there has been a happy twist: the longer Sondheim stayed away from Broadway, the more mainstream he became. For most of his career, Sondheim was a cult figure, the subject of arguments among theatre buffs and critics. Some considered him a genius, others argued that his shows lacked memorable melodies and heart. (Even Sondheim writes in Look, I Made a Hat that he thinks some of his scores have “a quality of detachment.”) But over the last decade, a series of revivals have increased Sondheim’s stature; he’s arguably more famous now than Andrew Lloyd Webber, a much bigger name back in 1994. “Sondheim, mostly through exposure, has now worn down most of his critics,” Horowitz says.

Not only are Sondheim’s shows frequently revived now—including the current Broadway run of Follies and an upcoming attempt to bring back his biggest flop, Merrily We Roll Along—but Stephen Kitsakos, who teaches musical theatre at the State University of New York, says that licensing agencies have made headway outside of New York and London. “His catalogue is alive and kicking in regional theatres, colleges, high schools and community theatres all over the U.S.A. and abroad.” Songs like Losing My Mind from Follies have joined his one pop hit, Send in the Clowns, as Broadway standards, and Tim Burton’s film version of Sweeney Todd increased the popularity of what was once his most controversial show. Best of all, in a recent episode of South Park, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone featured him as “the greatest Broadway songwriter of all time.” Since Parker and Stone have a smash-hit show on Broadway themselves now called The Book of Mormon, it showed the reach of Sondheim’s reputation: he was once accused of, in his words, “representing the death of the American musical,” and now the creators of popular musicals pay homage to him.

Still, with Sondheim less active, Broadway has mostly moved away from the type of serious musical he specializes in; Horowitz notes that current hits tend more toward “pop, parody and jukebox scores,” like the musical-comedy spoofs that make up the scores of Book of Mormon or Spamalot. The lack of Sondheim successors may explain why fans want him to write a new show so badly, and why he has become increasingly open to the idea of trying something. He told Playbill that after three years working on the books, he wants to “resuscitate a couple of ideas from the shallow drawer on my desk.” In Look, I Made a Hat, he writes that self-doubts “occur with increasing frequency the older I get,” but he also ends by saying that it’s “time to start another hat.” His fans can only hope.

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