The Sondheim Secret

A critic’s reflections on the composer and lyricist, who died at 91

| 28 Nov 2021 | 09:08

Master composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim once revealed the secret that every Broadway wannabe should know — but most don’t. It came one day years ago, when he was speaking to a small group. How I wish I’d heard his words when I was still a hopeful performer. But I was like most starry-eyed dreamers: I spent a small fortune in money and time “perfecting my craft” — studying jazz and ballet, voice and acting.

Not that getting good at what you do is unimportant. It’s just that, according to the legendary Sondheim, when it came to choosing, when it came to picking “the one” out of the hundreds who would audition for him, he simply took it for granted that they could all sing and dance and act well enough for what was needed.

What he was looking for, what he always was searching to find, was a particular “quality,” that certain something that would, in his estimation, be right for a role.

While those words can be experienced as devastating — after all, no one can prepare to have the “quality” that someone is looking for — they can also be liberating: When someone auditioning hears the feared dismissal, “Thank you,” instead of feeling rejected and not good enough, they could realize that they simply didn’t match whatever “quality” someone like Sondheim was looking for, for that particular role.

When I learned that Sondheim died on November 26th, my tears were a surprise. In a career as theater critic and arts writer, and a life immersed in Broadway shows, what my tears came from was the realization that some of my most memorable theater evenings have been at Sondheim shows. (You can find the entire list of Sondheim’s works in the many encyclopedic obituaries of the 91-year-old.)

For me, one example was Elaine Stritch’s explosive performance in the original “Company.” She built to the climactic cry of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” sweeping the entire audience to our collective feet and leaving me amazed and thrilled.

Another was experiencing the skillful way Sondheim used music to reveal character in “Follies.” The different musical styles he used. Some of the songs reflect early 20th century composers, like George Gershwin. Others are pastiches, like one that mimics vaudeville music for chases but, Sondheim has said, with lyrics that have “the sardonic knowingness of Lorenz Hart or Frank Loesser.” “Follies” is a cornucopia of musical styles. The leading characters’ emotional problems are shown in a string of vaudeville-style numbers, with the magical direction of Hal Prince and Michael Bennett for the original Broadway production.

And then there was a song from “Sweeney Todd,” which has been recorded by Bernadette Peters, Barbra Streisand and Josh Groban. The unlikely lullaby duet is sung by the murderous Mrs. Lovett and her young helper, Tobias. It is so haunting and beautiful, coming, as it does, in the midst of the murder and mayhem. The lyrics say, “Nothing’s gonna harm you, Not while I’m around.”

It’s a song to savor away from the show, an unforgettable, tender ballad.