Which of the hundreds of songs that Stephen Sondheim has written took him the least amount of time to complete?
We’ll never know, but my supposition would be “No Life” from Sunday in the Park with George.
You may assume I think this because it’s one of Sondheim’s shortest songs, clocking in at a mere minute and twenty-three seconds. No, the brevity is not the reason for my guess. Nor is the soul of his wit, for that matter.
I say that the song came more easily to Sondheim because he could relate to its situation in which two mediocrities criticize a genius’ work. Such barbs aren’t far afield from those audience members who have for decades complained about the alleged inaccessibility of Sondheim’s music. Thus, Sondheim must have related to painter Georges Seurat, who had to watch his contemporary colleagues fare far better than he.
Look at the box score: Sondheim has written the entire scores for thirteen Broadway musicals, eight of which have seen at least one Broadway revival. He’s done lyrics for three other Broadway musicals, had full scores in two off-Broadway ones, revised lyrics for Candide and seen three Broadway revues forged from compilations of his songs.
He’s had more than three dozen Broadway productions, and not a one has ever managed to crack 1,000 performances.
In the sixty years that Sondheim has been on the scene, seventy-eight other Broadway musicals have reached four figures. Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menken, Jerry Herman as well as Kander and Ebb have each passed the mark at least three times.
Sondheim can of course console himself with having won more Tonys than all of them put together. He’s the only one to receive a Pulitzer Prize – for Sunday, in fact (although, to be fair, the British-born Lloyd Webber isn’t eligible for this Americans-only prize). And Sondheim has made a comfortable living, which (literally) poor Seurat didn’t; he never sold a painting in his life, as James Lapine’s book for Sunday informs us.
That can be the fate of an innovator, which Seurat was by virtue of his pointillism and Sondheim has been in his songwriting. As he wrote in another context, “I Never Do Anything Twice.” Sings George, “There’s only color and light,” but, no, there’s Sondheim, too.
The titles of Sondheim’s two collections of lyrics — Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat — also imply that Sunday means the most to him, for the former is also the title of a Sunday song and the latter is a lyric in it.
In the revival of Sunday now at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway, Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t get the juice out of the line “Look, I made a hat” that Mandy Patinkin did in 1984. Listen to “Finishing the Hat” on the original cast album and get to the point when George shows an unknowing dog his sketch pad. Patinkin mews out “Look, I made a hat,” making what he did sound namby-pamby and perfunctory – until a certain thought hits him that makes him infuse the next line with respect and wonder: “Where there never was a hat.”
Similarly speaking, Annaleigh Ashford in the current revival throws away one of Sondheim’s cruelest-but-most-hilarious lines. I saw Bernadette Peters, Maryann Plunkett, Jenna Russell and even high-schooler Jackie Romankow get a big laugh out of it: Dot, Seurat’s mistress and model, rationalizes in “Everybody Loves Louis” about the glories of her second-choice beau before conceding “Louis drinks a bit. Louis blinks a bit.” Ashford tosses off the latter line as if it had not much matter.
Sondheim loves odd sounds in his songs: Sweeney Todd’s oh-so-shrill whistle that starts the show; the electric chair doing its thing at the end of “How I Saved Roosevelt” in Assassins; the busy signal during the title of song of Company. He put a good one in at the end of “Everybody Loves Louis.” Hear Bernadette Peters on the original cast album, and you’ll realize that she’s taken advantage of one of Louis’ creations when she ends the song by talking with her mouth full. Here Dot saves it for later.
Am I nit-picking? Yes, but they are nits to pick. God – and Sondheim – are always in the details. Otherwise, both Gyllenhaal and Ashford are superb.
Actually, Gyllenhaal and Patinkin sound quite a bit alike. Don’t misunderstand: Gyllenhaal isn’t imitating Patinkin; their voices and styles are just similar, that’s all, even down to the falsetto in which George gives voice to the dogs.
I happened to be seated close to Gyllenhaal, and on his left, so I could see that he’s sketching in earnest, too, and in the style that Seurat used when employing pencil and pad. So he does get that detail.
He also beautifully delivers one of Sondheim’s most important lyrics, after George tells Dot that he must work and won’t take her to the Follies. She’s disappointed, of course, leading to “They have never understood,” he grouses about the entire female sex, before conceding “And no reason that they should.”
This humanizes George, for we see it’s not that he loves Dot less but that he loves his work more.
Ashford and/or her director Sarna Lapine got something so right that we might all smack our heads and say “Of course! Why didn’t anyone think of that before — including her Uncle James?” For Ashford gives Marie a Southern accent. Considering that Mr. Lapine had established that Marie had been brought by Dot and Louis to South Carolina when she was only a few months old, she’d certainly pick up a drawl.
Just as Seurat “made a hat where there never was a hat,” put Sunday in the Park with George on your shelf of recordings where there never was a show like this. Can you think of any other Broadway composer-lyricist who would have been more right for this project than Sondheim — or anyone else who could have even done it?
Sondheim has often told the story of being fifteen, writing a musical, bringing it to Oscar Hammerstein and hearing his mentor say that it was “the worst thing I ever read.” That show was called By George, but thirty-nine years later, Sondheim did splendidly by Georges Seurat.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.