Stephen Sondheim: 22/3/30 to 26/11/21

A personal appreciation by Tony Palmer, film director and writer

I had the privilege of working with Stephen Sondheim for the ‘musicals’ episode of my TV series All You Need Is Love (1977).

Unlike many of his songs, Sondheim was lucid and simple, emphasising his debt to, and friendship with, his mentor and ‘adopted’ father, Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein was, with Richard Rodgers, the genius team behind Carousel, South Pacific and most importantly Oklahoma, which Sondheim acknowledged as possibly the greatest musical ever written, because it embodied the fundamental principle that music, lyrics and dance were all equal partners in the narrative drive of the show.

If anything this principle was Sondheim’s own inspiration (and genius), exemplified by one of his many ‘flops’ (his description), Pacific Overtures, which I saw many times in New York and had the opportunity to discuss with him. Like most of his musicals, when first shown on Broadway it was a commercial – if not disaster – at the very least, a disappointment. Partly, as he himself admitted, this was his own fault, in that his lyrics were often too clever-clever and his melodies angular rather than tuneful. But, as every performer of his works will tell you, each song yielded endless riches which rewarded repeated exploring. And the irony is that they often contradicted Hammerstein’s mantra that less is always more, and that simplicity is everything.

Sondheim quoted me the famous opening lines of Oklahoma, sung a capella offstage with no introductory orchestral flourish: ‘Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day’. Impossible to emulate, Sondheim believed. It sets the entire scene in the simplest possible terms.

Hence his distrust of some of his own lyrics for West Side Story, his first Broadway outing. 

‘It’s alarming, how charming I feel…’ Maria sings, a lyric Sondheim now thought was embarrassing. Just so, ‘I feel dizzy, I feel sunny, I feel fizzy and funny and fine.’ ‘Fizzy!?’

Hell no. Who else could have written:

‘Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,

My parents treat me rough.

With all their marijuana,

They won’t give me a puff.

They didn’t wanna have me,

But somehow I was had.

Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!’

And this from a 25-year-old ingenue with little experience of Broadway? Cry your heart out, Tim Rice.

Sondheim’s modesty and good manners made it very difficult to argue with him. But in spite of being acutely self-effacing, he was gregarious and wonderful company.

I’m sad that I never had the chance, or the honour, of working with him again, although we stayed in touch. Personally, we owe him a lot. The musical theatre will forever stand in his shadow.

[Editor’s note: Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story was premiered in New York three days after Sondheim’s death. Spielberg said that Sondheim had read the screenplay from its first drafts and attended every recording session for the new film. Sondheim said of the 1961 film, ‘I don’t think West Side Story a good movie at all because it’s not a movie. It’s a photograph of a stage.’]

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