Sondheim’s Missteps


While everyone else is mourning the recent passing of legendary composer Stephen Sondheim and perhaps compiling lists of their favorite Sondheim moments, I thought I’d take a break to list what I think are Sondheim’s mistakes. After all, isn’t that what Sondheim did—not do what everybody else was doing?

(And please don’t get me wrong—like many others, I consider Sondheim possibly the greatest composer of my lifetime, as well as a pretty good musical theatre lyricist.)

Take, for example, the lyrics to the West Side Story song “Tonight”. 

Today the world was just an address

And later— 

Tonight there will be no morning star

I love the tune, but those lyrics always make me cringe. I mean, when was ever a morning star seen at night? Or any star, for that matter, by inhabitants of Manhattan?Actually, Sondheim himself has heaped scorn on his early efforts, pointing out that it was Leonard Bernstein’s preference for overheated poetry that inspired those words. Later on, when the 25 year old Sondheim had gained a bit more confidence, he penned the words to “Something’s Coming”, which are much more appropriate for the character of ex-gang member Tony.

(As an aside, in the early 1990s I took an evening class on Sondheim’s work that was helmed by a fellow who liked to hear himself speak. When he pointed to the lyric of “Tonight” as an example of what he thought Sondheim should have done more of, I knew I was in for a bumpy night—or rather ten weeks of one bumpy night per week.)

And then there’s “Silly People”, a song dropped from A Little Night Music after one performance. Oh, the lyrics are fine and I certainly agree with the sentiment, the world is filled with a lot of silly people, but I think it’s one of Sondheim’s weaker efforts; it deserved to be dropped from the show.

Or take “Children Will Listen” which closes Into the Woods. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the song, especially the lines

Careful before you say “Listen to me” 
Children will listen!

But I don’t know what it’s doing in that show. It just seems to be tacked in there because—because it’s a great song? That said, it is a great song and its presence never interferes with my enjoyment of that show.

But then there’s Company.

While it’s not one of my favorite Sondheim shows, it’s still a wonderful achievement, and I like almost all the numbers—except the closing number: “Being Alive”.

For the life of me I can’t figure out why So Many People (the title of a great early Sondheim song) seem to drool all over themselves heaping praise on that song.

First of all, I don’t understand what the motivation is supposed to be. There’s the alcoholic Joanne coming on to Bobby saying she’ll take care of him. To which Bobby replies, “But who will I take care of?” And then the company launches into another round of “Bobby bubi” which leads to Bobby (or maybe Robert, since he’s just grown up in  that moment) to sing about what he thinks marriage will entail.

Someone to hold you too close
Someone to hurt you too deep
Someone to sit in your chair
And ruin your sleep

And we’re given to believe that that is now exactly what Bobby/Robert is going to be searching for. Oh, and then he caps it with “Somebody crowd me with love”, which until I actually came across the printed lyrics, I though was “Somebody crown me with love.” 

Sorry, but I just don’t get it. Not that I care that much for the two songs that previously held that closing position. Maybe it’s just that the tune is so great that most people don’t think about the lyrics too closely? Or at all.

And I think that’s about it. Oh, there are a couple other songs here and there that were dropped from shows or were written for particular occasions that I don’t think are up to Sondheim’s usual standards, but really given all the great works that Stephen Sondheim has given us in a career spanning over 60 years, that’s a remarkably few clinkers.

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