The Heckler

The Heckler: Why I’m allergic to Stephen Sondheim

The rhymes are inept, the lyrics pretentious and the music unbearable, declares Lloyd Evans

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

I came out in a rash when I heard that Emma Thompson was to star in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Coliseum. Sondheim has that effect on me. And it’s an allergy I bear with pride. I’ve been the victim of a Sondheim evening only once in my life and I emerged feeling as if I’d been shrieked at for three hours by a gorilla with rabies. The show, Sunday in the Park with George, was conceived as an exercise in ‘musical pointillism’ to honour the painter Georges Seurat. Musical pointillism? Come on.

Sondheim has supporters that I admire, like Michael Grandage, and I would put the following questions to these deluded fanatics. Why has Sondheim never had a top 40 hit, apart from ‘Send in the Clowns’ (a mawkishly competent sliver of whimsical self-pity)? Why do today’s star-makers and kiddie-band managers never give Sondheim ‘classics’ to their pop-factory fivesomes? Why did Saturday Night, his first professional outing as composer and wordsmith, have to wait 42 years before receiving its world première? It may be the lyrics. Here’s a number from the show in which a gold-digger laments her entanglement with a pauper.

‘I said the man for me/ Must have a castle./ A man of means he’d be,/ A man of fame./And then I met a man who hadn’t any,/ Without a penny/ To his name./ I had to go and fall/ For so much less than/ What I had planned from all/ The magazines.’

The rhymes are too haphazard to reveal a scheme or pattern. They just crop up at random like serial killers in a rural community. Rap artists use the same method. They improvise their verses while keeping a lookout for verbal replications, and as soon as one appears it gets dumped in the first available slot.

As Sondheim matured he became more pretentious and obscure. Here’s a duet from Follies.

‘What will tomorrow bring? the pundits query/ Will it be cheery? Will it be sad?/Will it be birds in spring or hara-kiri?/ Don’t worry, dearie. Don’t worry lad.’

If you’re filling out a line with ‘dear’ or ‘dearie’, you’re very unwise to draw attention to your ineptitude with rhymes that feel forced. ‘Query’ is an unconvincing alternative to ‘ask’ or ‘wonder’. ‘Hara kiri’ is just bizarre. And ‘dearie’, if we’re honest, is not a word anyone would use except as an insult. The next couplets are even more contrived.

Young Ben: ‘I’ll have our future suit your whim,/ Blue chip preferred.’

Young Phyllis: ‘Putting it in a synonym,/ Perfect’s the word.’

Using a term like ‘synonym’ in a romantic lyric seems a little swottish. But my real objection to the couplet is that it makes virtually no sense.

Sondheim’s fans insist he has merit as a composer. Well, ask a random stranger to hum a Sondheim favourite (excluding those flipping clowns), and I bet you’ll draw a blank. I find absolutely no appeal in his choices of notes and harmonies (I hesitate to say ‘tunes’ in this context for fear of semantic inexactitude). This may be a generational problem. Sondheim came of age during the 1940s when jazz dominated musical taste. To our lot, from the 1960s, jazz seems like a journey without a map to a town that doesn’t exist.

One final question for those fans. Why do your bonces explode when someone says Sondheim’s crap?

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Callipygian

    And ‘dearie’, if we’re honest, is not a word anyone would use except as an insult.
    You’re so right. In fact, the only other instance of ‘dearie’ that I can think of, in life or fiction, is the scathing comment of a woman in the first Columbo film, to her two-timing husband. Guess what happens to her?

    As for jazz: it depends what sort of jazz you’re referring to: generalizing about jazz makes as much (as little) sense as condemning all ‘pop music’ or ‘world music’ or even ‘country music’. The stuff I like is worlds away from the sort of thing that Larkin insisted was the only true and right ‘jazz’: I don’t even find his ‘jazzy’! The stuff I like can best be described by pointing to Wes Montgomery, Monty Alexander, Oscar Peterson, and Diana Krall (though I prefer instrumental jazz and wish she would play without singing). Also I thought Bryan Ferry’s jazz album was terrific. Definitely a ‘there’ there.

  • Devon

    To vapidly compare Sondheim to the dribble that American Idol and X Factor contestants or the typically produced top 40 pop artists sing is both inane and pointless. I challenge anyone in the general public on the street to hum a few bars of Mozart, Shostakovich, even any of the verses from Cole Porter’s great classic tunes. The truth of the matter is that most of the musical public is musically illiterate in many ways. I’m sorry that you dislikes on time and don’t find it appealing for whatever reason. That is certainly you’re right and I defend your right to express yourself. However, the majority of performers who actually have any kind of musical training and understanding of the way music works enjoy the Sondheim’s craftsmanship for exactly what it is. You may as well denigrate Jason Robert Brown and Gershwin and Bernstein and Kurt Weill in the same breath. Further, to cite a work written when Sondheim was 22 years old as a reason to dismiss his entire catalog shows just how little you apparently know of the nature of creative arts in general. Feel free to continue not listening to Sondheim, as it leaves another seat open for those of us (the many many of us) who actually enjoy his works.

    • Callipygian

      OK, Cole Porter — off the top of my head:

      Why can’t you behave? Oh, why can’t you behave?
      After all the things you told me, and the promises that you gave,
      oh why can’t you behave?

      And then there’s Noel Coward:
      The stately homes of England, we proudly represent:
      We only keep them up for Americans to rent….

      Though it has a latin name,
      in town and countryside,
      we in England call it ‘London Pride’…


      • Devon

        Both examples you have are choruses, not verses in any case… Think the verse to My Funny Valentina – “Behold the way our fine feathered friend his virtue doth parade” or Just one of those things – “As Dorothy Parker once you to her boyfriend, ‘fare thee well’…” The point being largely that the typical public critic couldn’t hum through those verses despite them having been recorded hundreds of times. The “author” here is just pissed off that he doesn’t understand music with any content heftier than a Sarah Brightman greatest hits album. Bernstein hired Sondheim to write the libretto for West Side Story for one very good reason – his lyrics are solid, clever, well thought-out and innately musical… Yo generally won’t find top 40 pop drivel in any musical theatre worth seeing.

        • GeraldineClarke

          The libretto to “West Side Story” was written by Arthur Laurents. Sondheim wrote only the lyrics. (BTW, Sondheim has great objections to the phrase “your looks are unphotographical” in My Funny Valentine. He insists that only vampires are unphotographical but, obviously, “unphotogenic” wouldn’t fit into the lyric. It’s not a choice of word that ever disturbed me but Sondheim can quibble with the best of them. )

          • Devon

            Actually “dearie” (and I mean that fondly) Laurents wrote the book (or script/play/adaptation) and Sondheim wrote the libretto (or sung text/lyrics)… I had no intent to remove the importance of Laurents work from the project, but as we were discussing the music and lyrics, it seemed more relevant to the discussion to focus on the libretto rather than the book.

            The use of the two terms goes back to early opera and is a Latin diminution of libro. The libretto is a shorter volume of work as sung text takes more time (usually) to present on stage than spoken text. “Not getting married today” comes to mind as an exception to that rule.

          • GeraldineClarke

            Well, I’ve been called worse than “dearie”, my dear.
            You are half right but “libretto” refers to the ENTIRE text (both said and sung) of a show, usually an opera, and has become a somewhat archaic term that is in transition now or may just disappear. . I don’t know anyone who refers to a lyricist as a “librettist” anymore so I felt the rest of the words needed to be credited. I should have been more precise. I didn’t mean to insult you and, for the record, I do agree with Callipygian’s chortle. Good going there but I don’t think we should get into the Lloyd Webber vs Sondheim ,controversy. I think we are probably both on the same side.

          • Callipygian

            I’m getting quite an education here! : )

        • Callipygian

          The “author” here is just pissed off that he doesn’t understand music with any content heftier than a Sarah Brightman greatest hits album.

      • willshome

        O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
        O, stay and hear! Your true love’s coming,
        That can sing both high and low.
        Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
        Journeys end in lovers meeting,
        Every wise man`s son doth know,

        What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter.
        Present mirth hath present laughter;
        What’s to come is still unsure.
        In delay there lies no plenty,
        Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
        Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

        • Callipygian

          A bit before Cole Porter’s time :^0

        • Dr. Heath

          I’m siding with the author of the piece. Apart from ‘Send in the Clowns’, which is bearable and has some semblance to what most people would describe as music, the rest of Steve’s work is appalling. Maudlin, repetitive, embarrassing, tune-free adolescent piddle. Which is worse in a Sondheim show? The crap, endlessly tedious music or the stunningly precious lyrics? Hmm. Tough question. I’d offer my own answer but this would mean listening once more to the broadcast of a Sondheim extravaganza I endured recently in honour of His Eminence’s birthday.

          Sondhiem has admirers. So do Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. So f&cking what. Pseuds will pretend to admire anything in order to seem clever.

          • GeraldineClarke

            I’m just curious – what DO you find compelling in musical theatre and other arts?

            And I do sorta agree with you about Koons (but I admire his energy) but I’m no “pseud”. As I mentioned in my first post, both act finales of “Sunday” always reduce me to tears as they say so much, so eloquently, about the joy and torture of living a life in the arts. And there is so much more that I could go on about – about how Sondheim has touched and enriched my life but it would just bore you so I won’t.

          • Dr. Heath

            Are you implying that an aversion to Sondheim’s oeuvres is a symptom of tone deafness or, possibly, a complete antipathy to all of the arts? Fans of Sondheim are, I’m willing to accept, sincere in their love of his work. I suspect that, as with other artists, a proportion of his fan base exists only because it consists of pseuds whose enthusiasm is purely for show. Still, a visceral loathing of a particular artist or type of art is as sincere as your love of ‘His Eminence’, Sondheim. I resorted to this epithet in order to avoid the constant repetition of his name.

            On Friday, on the drives to and from work, I listened to Stravinsky’s ‘Orpheus’ and ‘Pulcinella’ [not that anyone really could care less, of course] and ‘Ma mère l’oye’ played by Martha Argerich and Lang Lang. Later in the day, I listened to an unusually beautiful piece of music by Judith Weir that was played on Radio 3. Monday, I think it’s going to be Alonzo ‘Lonnie’ Johnson on the car stereo. I’m a fan of almost all of the plastic arts [Impressionism and Chinese and Japanese painting being my favourites], with the natural exception of the kakky, tenth-rate, found object art associated with, say, Young British Artists and other impostors deeply beloved by pseuds everywhere.

          • GeraldineClarke

            Oohhhh, you were referring to Sondheim as “Your Eminence” Sorry that I didn’t get the reference but that title is such a demotion as New York Magazine has already proclaimed him God.

            Well, I do love Stravinsky, Impressionism and Japanese art so we’re not that far apart on other things.

            And I don’t know who you hang out with but the people I know who love Sondheim as much as I do are NO “pseuds”. (Yes, every fandom does have “pseuds” as I suspect 75% of Lady Gaga’s is.)

            Every performer I know would kill to be in a Sondheim production because there is SO much to sink on’e teeth into and play with, and develop and not just have to present some tuneful bit of fluff with no guts or daring. As an audience member, I feel the same way as I have watched/listened to things a myriad of times and still find something new each time. Sondheim does require some work from his audience so people who are looking for a “Forget your troubles. Come on get happy” sort of evening get irritated. I prefer a lot more meat on the bones of a show I’m going to spend time with.

      • Callan

        How do you solve a problem like diarrhoea,
        How do you treat a convent with the runs,
        It’s too late for “wash your hands Maria”,
        Now she’s infected all the other nuns……

  • SC

    Ask any random stranger who their senator is – who cares what a random stranger thinks about anything? Ask a random stranger to sing Pharrell Williams “Happy” and see what you get. “Dearie” is a perfect word for that lyric because they are a young couple that we are well aware will hate each other when they get older. And no artist could fail to be deeply moved by Sunday in the Park – I’m not surprised, though, that you were not.

    Personally, I think this idea of giving trolls their own columns is not a good one…..

  • GeraldineClarke

    Well, it does take intelligence and literacy to appreciate Sondheim’s work. Sorry that you do not qualify. Anyone who was NOT touched by the first and second act finales of “Sunday” just will never get it.

    To answer your questions:

    Sondheim hasn’t had top 40 hits because he doesn’t give a damn about writing them. Each of his songs are mini-plays that exist to further the plot and character development of the plays and do so in such amazing ways. “Send in the Clowns” was only an accidental hit and is one of my least favorite of his songs because divas insist chewing the scenery with it. In context, it is highly ironically funny and makes so much clear about the characters.

    “Today’s star-makers and kiddie-band managers” have no interest in theatrical music with thought behind it. Such is the sorry state of pop music today.

    “Saturday Night” was written when Sondheim was just barely out of his teens and the show was actually headed to Broadway but the producer died and Sondheim put it on a back shelf as he moved on. (His very next project was “West Side Story”.) I’m so glad it is being revived as I hope to see it someday. The title song shows so much of the brilliance that was to come.

    What’s bizarre about “hara kiri” to people who have large vocabularies? And your appreciation of rhyme schemes has seemed to have stopped with the doggerel varieties.

    I can hum any number of his songs at the drop of a hat and frequently do. And Sondheim was much more influenced by Ravel and the other Impressionists than anything from jazz. (Can you hum Ravel who was noted for his melodies? I can but it seems I have a bigger musical memory than you.)

    “Our bonces explode” because people who have no understanding of his work call it “crap” in forums like these and deter people who don’t yet know his work (and might just love it) from investigating further. (Lots of people make the same “crap” remark about Shakespeare.) Just trying to preserve our cultural heritage here. 300 years from now when all today’s pop and rap hits have been very long forgotten, there will still be productions of Sondheim’s work performed with audiences still loving them.

  • Thomas Pelham

    Lets ask a random stranger to hum anything by Mahler? No? Mahler must be crap! What an absurd argument. Sondheim’s musical craftmanship is a delight to play and to listen to – but it’s subtle. He dosn’t look for easy tunes, but overarching leitmotifs, cultural references (Dies Irea in Sweeney Todd for example). It’s interesting musically, dramatically, and linguistically, and endures for that very reason.

    You’re welcome not to like him, but try and find some convincing musical reasons if you’re going to write about it.

    My head hasn’t exploded – but yours is rather vacuous.

  • willshome

    You’re not alone Lloyd…

  • Freddythreepwood

    ‘This may be a generational problem’

    Of course it is. If Judi Dench performing Send In The Clowns doesn’t move you, perhaps you need the wax removed as well.

  • Callipygian

    i’d like to say in Lloyd’s defence that I would set my own lyrics against these, any day of the week, and also that any song that invokes clowns (unlikeable beings that are as apt to scare children as amuse them), especially a ‘sending in’ of them, is bound to be manipulatively sentimental, in a predictably conventional way. I’ve never heard the song, myself, and don’t think I’ll ever bother.

    • MyUsernameIsaLecture

      Well, that’s convincing – “I’ve never actually heard the song, but I’m sure it must not be good.” Of course, “Send in the Clowns” IS one of Sondheim’s weakest songs (though it certainly still has many redeeming qualities), and I’ve always been a bit baffled by its fame.

      Also, Gordon Lightfoot is wonderful – thanks for reminding me that I haven’t listened to him in a while.

      • Based on Lloyd’s anti-recommendation, I invoke the principle of ‘so much to listen to, so little time’!

        • Eric Henwood-Greer

          You do know that “send in the clowns” is an old theatrical term (that has had life outside of theatre.) Sondheim didn’t coin it, and it makes sense that his character–a fading actress would use it.

          • It sounds idiotic, all the same.

          • Eric Henwood-Greer

            Well in a song written for a character and scene in a musical, context is everything.

          • True.

    • GeraldineClarke

      Thanks for sending that link. Don’t quite understand why you think it pertains to this discussion but it is another song that never fails to bring tears to my eyes and it was good to hear it again. And it was enlightening to be able to read the lyrics as they were sung because I finally heard so many of the words that I had never actually been able to hear before as Lightfoot crammed way too many words into a lyric scheme that couldn’t support them. Don’t get me wrong – I love Lightfoot and this song, as imperfect as it is.

      • Why it belongs in the discussion? Because it is genuinely moving — ‘authentic’ — to use a jargon term much in fashion — rather than ‘manipulatively sentimental’ as Sondheim is said by his detractors to be.

        • GeraldineClarke

          When detractors use that ‘manipulatively sentimental’ phrase, they never cite anything specific so I just don’t know what they are thinking. Anything from “Sweeney Todd”? Well, “Not while I’m around” can become mawkish in the wrong hands but I found it to be a useful tool to use in auditions to judge just how “authentic” an actor can be. “Children Will Listen”? Emotional, yes, but it is an authentic plea from a person who was abused as a child. What else? Come on detractor guys – cite specifics.
          I find Sondheim to be the least sentimental person around, especially since he is surrounded on Broadway by all that egregiously emotionally manipulative Disney drek.

          • Yes, I see your point. In the end it comes down to ‘tastes differ’, perhaps. Lots of people love the heavy Germanic composers — Mahler, Bruckner — but I never seem to have that particular itch. As for the Romantic composers, I prefer the earlier classical and baroque by far. Who knows why? Instro is even more abstract than sung music, and music in general is arguably the most abstract of the arts.

      • P. S. Speaking of lyrics, I find his ‘icewater mansions’ striking and memorable. You must have seen a different upload because I wasn’t aware of lyrics being shown (unless below the video), just the footage/stills (which I think is worth watching).

        • GeraldineClarke

          I watched it several times and discovered that if you click “show more” under the video, the lyrics and the radio transmissions are displayed.

          The pictures of the crew and the underwater footage of the wrecked Edmund Fitzgerald are heartbreaking.

          • Ah right. Yes, the pictures are very affecting.

  • mnbk

    Send in the clown. (Don’t bother — he’s here.)

  • Ken

    Sondheim’s greatest achievement was writing the lyrics to West Side Story – with music by a composer who, unlike Sondheim, could write a memorable tune. I think he appeals to people who probably think Rodgers & H, Cole Porter etc, rather low brow and think that Sondheim has a “message”. In fact, his work is utterly vacuous. And if his tunes (such as they are) are pathetic, his lyrics are worse.

    • MyUsernameIsaLecture

      “In fact, his work is utterly vacuous”

      Is that a fact? I would contend that there’s more emotional and intellectual weight to a single song from “Follies” (an imperfect show, to be sure) then in the entirety of most new shows being produced nowadays. As for his lyrics – I’m more inclined to consider him the single greatest lyricist of the last 50 years. Few can rival his ability to pack so much meaning into a single line with words that are such a pleasure to hear and that (usually) seem completely natural coming from the characters singing them.

      That is of course my opinion, but I’d contend that calling a show like “Follies” or “Pacific Overtures” “utterly vacuous” is about as close to being objectively false as it’s possible to come when talking about art.

      Also, I love Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin, and the Gershwins, and Noel Coward, and Cy Coleman, and Jerry Herman, and Lerner & Loewe, and many, many other legends of Broadway.

      So there’s that “theory” right out the window.

      • Ken

        I wouldn’t abuse the term “art” for Sondheim’s banalities!

    • GeraldineClarke

      Actually, when the WSS Broadway show came out, a very big criticism of it was that the songs were “unhummable” (sound familiar?) and it wasn’t until United Artists spent a million or two to promote the movie soundtrack that the critics changed their minds and other people started recording the songs.

      And Sondheim cringes at a lot of the lyrics he wrote for the show because he was a 25-year-old Upper West Side kid at the time and was pretty ignorant of the people he was writing about. What did he know about gangs? (I do agree with him about “I Feel Pretty”, a pretty dreadful song all around but “Officer Krupke” changed my life.)

  • billypilgrim59

    I thought it was just me. The one time in 40 years of theatregoing I have walked out at the intermission was for Sondheim.

  • ianess

    Fabulous writing, as ever, from Lloyd Evans.

  • Eric Henwood-Greer

    I assume this is meant to be hyperbolic, given that it’s from The Heckler. But one thing not pointed out in the comments yet is that the lyric quoted from Follies is a pastiche song that is meant to play with, and even perhaps gently mock, in this case, 1930s musical “clever” lyrics (it’s from the Loveland section of Follies where the characters all breakdown and perform songs that relate to them but come from their performance past–to oversimplify it. ie Losing My Mind–a wonderful song by anyone’s standards–is a Gershwin pastiche, etc.)

    • GeraldineClarke

      Thank you. Someone needed to point that out.

      With the financial success of “Into the Woods”, Rob Marshall has recently said that he wants to do a film version of “Follies” and I so hope and pray that he will be able to do it.

      “Into the Woods” is a show that (with its two totally different acts which really, really need an intermission between them) was made more effectively into a film as I thought would be possible. But “Follies” just cries out for a transition to film. GO ROB!!!!

  • Pacificweather

    Disney thought Sondheim’s

  • Al Hughes

    Well you’ve blown it now, Lloyd. You will now be cut dead by Sondheim’s small but vicious band of hysterical devotees wherever you go. You will never be anything other than a non-person, as some of the comments below prove.

    I like some of his stuff. He can be clever. But the nagging sense with Sondheim is that tunes are vulgar. Tunes are for the plebs. Tunes are for those who have never walked in the bright, sunlit uplands of Sonheim-land.

    The proof of the pudding is in the box office: the last production of MERRILY was advertised as having “more 5 stars than any musical in West End history”. But it still struggled to fill a small West End theatre for more than a few months.

    The public agrees with you Lloyd. They always have. And Sondheim’s fans hate them for it.

    • GeraldineClarke

      I am endlessly amazed at criticism like this of Sondheim which is ALWAYS all about “tunes”. If you want a concert, then go to a damn concert where you won’t be bothered by plot, character and all those other fussy things necessary for a good play but don’t go to the theatre! Sondheim has never been about hummable tunes.nor has he ever wanted to be. He is about character and story and thought and THEATRE!

      The proof of the pudding is that there are endless productions of his work going on all over the world absolutely every day. There is a huge public that craves his work.

      But I congratulate you, Mr. Hughes, for being the only Sondheim detractor in this forum who has posted under a real name.

  • likeyoudontalreadyknow

    Hear hear!. Except for “Clowns,” Sondheim couldn’t find a melody if it slapped him in the face.

  • Broadway Fan

    If you can’t understand the lyrics in a song, why bother writing the words to begin with? Some words are simply not singable, such as “pundit query” and “hara kiri”. Sondheim really wants to write opera, not Broadway shows (have you ever tried to understand the words in an opera in English such as Billy Budd?). After Hammerstein, the best lyricist is Tim Rice (Jr Superstar and Evita). Sondheim? Hmm.

  • Daniel Savio

    My bones don’t explode, but I laugh at you, because I can demonstrate how most of your points are incorrect. YOU don’t like it because YOU prefer simple rhyme schemes and easier listening tunes that become pop hits. Well, tough luck, maybe Sondheim just isn’t FOR you.

  • Daniel Savio

    “This may be a generational problem. Sondheim came of age during the 1940s when jazz dominated musical taste. To our lot, from the 1960s, jazz seems like a journey without a map to a town that doesn’t exist.”

    Perhaps, although Sondheim actually is more influenced by Debussy, Brahms, Mahler, and Ravel than by the jazz era which he more borrows from through Other musical theater.

    But regarding jazz, Your ignorance of music is hopefully not in fact typical of the audiences attending musicals these days, but from the lineup on Broadway you may be right.

  • Thomas Hartwell

    This is brilliant trollling. Using Sondheim’s debut show and then a deliberate pastiche number to make overarching statements about his lyrics? Brilliant.