Networks and Labyrinths
Edited by Laurine Heerema
The Grand Interconnectedness of Sondheim’s Work
“As we pass through arrangements of shadows / Towards the verticals of trees / Forever”
Sondheim’s best-known protagonists are united in their separation, their desire to extricate themselves from the chaos of the world, to observe, to create. “Stepping back to look at a face / leaves a little space in the way like a window” George sings when weighing the demands of his relationship with Dot and what his art requires from him. His conclusion? That window, that pocket of space that lends him objectivity: “it’s the only way to see.” He will call off the relationship with Dot, he will step back, he will paint. Act 1 of Sunday in the Park with George ends with the window being maintained, a final jolt of music signals that the painting is finished. So, it hangs suspended before the audience, waiting for the curtain to fall. It’s the only way to see.
This tension appears frequently throughout Sondheim’s work, and it's one I feel uncomfortably attuned to. Loving art over people is alluring but it is also a silly, disappointing waste of time, not just because art cannot love you back, but, as Sondheim patiently reminds us again and again, art and people are the same thing. Act 1 may end with the painting, but Act 2 opens with the layered voices of the painted subjects, dipping and sliding around one another in a cacophony of complaints.
Sondheim also grapples with this in Merrily We Roll Along. When we meet him, Frank is coming to terms with the friendships that dissolved after a life swallowed by his career. Once again, Sondheim wields the musical theatre form to trace the ways in which we are welded to the world and to each other. Slowly, the Frank we first encounter is peeled back, shown in relation to the friends he grew up with, as the story of his life is told backwards. By the end, he is young, and he is singing that it is “our time” and there is a winning naivete spilling from the promise “me and you, man, me and you.” It feels uncomfortably intimate when compared with the vagueness coating Frank’s first number where he hopelessly tries to pass on generic-sounding wisdom to disinterested students, (“compromise? I haven’t even started.”)
It feels akin to the shift from second person to first person pronouns in Company’s ‘Being Alive’, “someone to need you too much…someone to hold me too close…” With this, Bobby realises that he is already inextricably caught in a web of relationships, and there is no way to transcend connection. For Bobby, we know he still has time to redesign his own future, to follow his own advice, but Frank doesn’t have that same assurance. The collective is reduced to a singular, tinting Merrily We Roll Along’s conclusion in a tragic idealism.
Sondheim is always navigating the sprawling impact of the relational sacrifices made in the pursuit of individual desires. My favourite Sondheim song (well, my favourite right now,) is ‘We Do Not Belong Together’ from Sunday in the Park with George. Dot and George are fighting, he storms back to his painting to work, refusing to dress the wounds he has inflicted. Dot turns to the audience, a last resort, sobbing and belting: “no is you and no one can be, but no one is me George, no one is me!” (A side note: while I would encourage the original cast recording for every other number, Annaleigh Ashford in the 2017 revival imbues this line with a righteous passion, punching that final “me” with a special emphasis before letting it sink into the next line).
I always loved that sly piece of direction, Dot turning to the audience, not out of desperation exactly, but perhaps out of a desire to be recognised, to be given the last word (which she eventually is, resurrected to make a case). She was solidified as the object of audiences’ intrigue and now she is the subject of their sympathy - Dot is not paper fine but weighed down by disappointment. Her turn is a distillation of the musical's ethos, a wonderfully astute observation on the difference between seeing and understanding. James Lapine’s piece of direction animates the gendered implications of being a voiceless muse, forcing the audience to confront the way they have been watching the musical and more specifically, her.
But it is Sondheim who skillfully traces the threads of disagreement that are woven through this argument. They are both grieving, mourning the ineffable feelings that are going unheard. There is nowhere to go, their desire and disgust rooted in unlivable love. Initially the song is a volleying of declarations, “I” being thrust forward with no attempt to integrate the other person, they wrap themselves up in mutual disgust, the all-consuming desire to be known being snuffed out. To quote another Sondheim musical: “everybody makes one another’s terrible mistakes.”
Indeed, those lines, from ‘No One is Alone’ - the emotional climax of the unrelenting second act of Into the Woods, carries Sondheim’s unwavering empathy, this willingness to extend understanding to every party in a disagreement. An inferior musical would have used this number to deliver a lesson on self-belief, to be courageous in the blandest, most individualist sense. Instead, it is a pause, a lesson in honesty. In these final moments, the last remnants of fairytale are upended, Sondheim understands that the idea of a villain is self-constructed and ultimately self-defeating. It’s the truth that he has been toying with ever since he agreed to write the lyrics for West Side Story.
A few months before his death, in an interview for the New Yorker, D.T. Max asked Sondheim “For you, which comes first, the music or the lyrics?” In response he answered, “Oh, they come together.” It’s an unremarkable comment, a slight aside, but it highlights his power as a composer, his ability to fold a show in on itself, forcing the characters to look inward, balancing every note and lyric against its counterpart. Sometimes that is just in the clever construction of a sentence, (“just remembering you’ve had an and when you’re back to or, makes the or mean more than it did before” from Into the Woods,) or profound in its internal logic, (“being sure enough of you makes me sure enough of me” from Anyone Can Whistle). Musical theatre is frequently mocked for its obviousness, manipulating music to elicit some desired feeling, but with a Sondheim show, everything feels earned, nothing feels incidental, the music and lyrics arrive in tandem or not at all.
Good art makes you think you have seen something new, but great art reveals life’s interconnectedness, claiming to be the newest phrase in a long conversation. There were so many more examples I wasn’t able to touch on, the sly “I wish” refrain from Into the Woods, the way actions ripple out in Sweeney Todd sweeping everyone away in a wave of consequences, ‘A Boy Like That - I Have A Love’ from West Side Story, the finale of Road Show. Every time I listen to his music or watch one of his shows, I feel buried in the experience, small and close to the wide, twisted expanse of the world.