Friday, 26 March 2010

Happy 80th birthday, Stephen Sondheim!

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Last week I listened to Radio 3's Composer of the Week series on Stephen Sondheim. I have strayed from the true path in recent years, but this series has reminded me how much I love some of his writing.

Stephen Sondheim and I have a long history. I first became aware of him when I was a teenager. I listened to "Songs from the Shows" on Sunday evenings on Radio 2, and had a huge crush on the - I think - sexy voice of the presenter (David Kernan). The first cast recordings I bought - because I knew he was in them - were "Side by Side by Sondheim" (which I still love) and the Original London Cast (OLC) of "A Little Night Music." The first song of Sondheim's that I remember falling in love with was the beautiful "Take me to the World" from the little known "Evening Primrose."

From there, I became completely obsessed. If you look at the contents of my ipod now, you would find quite a variety of classical, pop, audiobooks and musicals. But when I was at university I was a Sondheim purist and hardly ever listened to anything else (my husband would have hated it - he is highly musical adverse, and I've never managed to get him past the opening song of "Sunday in the Park with George").

I am not a musically technical person, so I came to Sondheim through loving his lyrics. I normally find it hard to cope with the saccharin sweetness and cloying sentiment of many musicals - but Sondheim's musicals tend to have a healthy cynicism, intelligence, and a strong vein of (sometimes black) humour.

Sometimes with Sondheim a love song is not a love song - or is not just a love song. Things are more complicated when in context. "Not While I'm Around" is a beautiful song ("Nothing's gonna harm you / Not while I'm around"), and yet in "Sweeney Todd" it is subverted when Mrs Lovett reprises the song to try to convince Tobias that he is safe (he really isn't). While walking to work today I listened to "Assassins," which has a love duet called "Unworthy of Your Love." The man and woman in this song are not in love with each other, however - one is John Hinkley, who is singing about his obsession with Jodie Foster (which contributed to his attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan), and the other is Lynette Fromme who tried to assassinate Gerald Ford (and she is singing of her love for mass-murderer Charles Manson). Even if you aren't aware of the context, the song itself is uncomfortably fervent - in context it is downright creepy and disturbing. I love that things are not always as straightforward as they seem.

I've seen a few of his shows on stage, but I'm very excited that we are going to New York next week and we are going to see "A Little Night Music" on Broadway. It's starring Angela Lansbury - which I am excited about as a Sondheim fan, and as someone who loved "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" as a child.

I'm now a bit torn between thinking if you get to 80, maybe you should have the right to retire - but I'm also thinking that it would be great to see a new Sondheim show. He seems to have spent an unconscionable amount of time flogging an idea about the Mizner Brothers, which I have never really taken to in any of its incarnations. I'd love to see him work on something new....

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