Stephen Sondheim: An appreciation

WHEN news broke, late last Friday night, of the death of Stephen Sondheim at the age of 91, my immediate response was to play Tom Waits’ version of Somewhere.

A key number from West Side Story (1957), Sondheim’s breakout Broadway show as a lyricist, Somewhere is an emotive hymn to outsiderdom. The song’s teenage protagonists, Tony and Maria, are determined to rise above the hand-me-down prejudices of their blue-collar backgrounds to build something better.

Somewhere was penned by 26-year-old Sondheim with the composer Leonard Bernstein for a book by Arthur Laurents. Two decades after West Side Story premiered, Waits invested Sondheim’s words with an after-hours stumblebum melancholy, transcending its source to become a sliver of hope to hold onto in a world of broken dreams.

In the wake of his death Sondheim has quite properly been described as the master craftsman of the American musical. In the words of Cameron Mackintosh, “The theatre has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers.”

Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for best score, and he received a Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park. There was an Academy Award for the song Sooner or Later from the film, Dick Tracy. He won five Olivier Awards and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honour.

His ballad, Send in the Clowns, has been recorded hundreds of times, including by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins.

The actor Mandy Patinkin, who once worked with Sondheim on Sunday in the Park with George, reflected: “I got to be in the room with Shakespeare. Who gets that?”

West Side Story itself first filtered into my consciousness by way of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s multiple-Oscar-winning 1961 film version starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. Back then, it was a big deal when films like that were shown on TV.

I doubt I realised at the time that Bernstein, Laurents, and Sondheim’s drama drew from Romeo and Juliet. They reimagined Shakespeare’s tragedy on the streets of contemporary New York, a port city built by immigrants, where inter-racial gang warfare was all too real.

From the opening finger-clicking standoff between the Sharks and the Jets, if I had brushed up my Shakespeare, I would also have recognised that things weren’t going to end well. The star-crossed lovers’ duet on Somewhere – originally part of a ballet sequence in the stage show – confirmed it.

Songs from West Side Story had somehow left their mark even before I saw the film. I knew one song, America, from bite-size clips of the song’s Latin stomp collaged together with the Prelude from Bizet’s Carmen to make a signature theme mash-up on Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman’s Saturday afternoon Radio 1 rock show.

Possibly also part of Freeman’s jingle was a 1968 version of America by the powerhouse trio, The Nice. This was driven by Keith Emerson’s Hammond organ, and incorporated Dvorak’s New World Symphony into the mix. A performance at the Royal Albert Hall saw the band burn the American flag. Emerson’s classical references followed Somewhere’s own nods to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Then there were Tonight, and Maria, both of which I probably first heard sung by chicken-in-a-basket crooners like Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams or Perry Como on weekend, prime-time, top light entertainment shows. Gee, Officer Krupke was a back and forth adolescent wind-up by what used to be called juvenile delinquents. Sondheim called his gang of tearaways ‘punks’ a couple of decades before Johnny Rotten and co unleashed their Sex Pistols filth and fury on live teatime TV.

Almost thirty years on again, the video for Liverpool psych-skronk-pop band The Zutons 2006 single, Why Won’t You Give Me Your Love?, was based on scenes from Wise and Robbins’s film.

With West Side Story embedded in pop culture in this way, for a new generation of punks, hearing Tom Waits reclaim Somewhere from the showbiz canon and give it back its streetsmarts felt like the song was being let in from the rain. Opening his 1978 album, Blue Valentine, Waits’ gravel-voiced rendition was set to Bob Alcivar’s orchestral backing, with little trumpet flourishes bringing home what became the record’s breakaway single.

For all its cracked beauty, Waits’ interpretation of Somewhere wasn’t the first version to create its own context. In 1965, a recording by The Supremes was originally meant to appear on the trio’s There’s a Place for Us album. The song became a key part of their live act, where they introduced a spoken-word monologue that was frequently updated to reflect current events. When they sang Somewhere on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show in 1968 the day after Martin Luther King’s murder, they referenced King’s I Have a Dream speech directly, with Diana Ross visibly overcome with emotion.

Others who covered Somewhere include the Pet Shop Boys, whose 1997 Hi NRG electropop version gave it a hitherto-untapped dancefloor-friendly euphoria. Twelve years earlier, Barbra Streisand released her twinkly power ballad take as a single from her 1985 collection of showtunes, The Broadway Album.

Streisand’s record featured another song from West Side Story, Something’s Coming, and several other Sondheim numbers alongside assorted evergreens by his peers. The album opened with Putting it Together, from Sunday in the Park with George (1984), followed later by Being Alive, from Company (1970). Arguably the best-known song on the album, Send in the Clowns was taken from the Ingmar Bergman-inspired A Little Night Music (1973), before Somewhere closed the record.

Sondheim wrote Somewhere, remember, when he was still in his twenties. By the time Send in the Clowns appeared, both his characters and his work had come of age, older, if not always wiser. Company and A Little Night Music are decidedly grown-up affairs. Rather than high-kicking with flick-knives, Sondheim’s protagonists now sported black polo necks and pained expressions as they offloaded their Me-generation mid-life crises, with the drinks cabinet never far away.

Where Company focused on the travails of a 35-year-old man unable to commit, A Little Night Music showcased a merry-go-round of largely unhappy couplings. At a time when being 35 was considered ancient, both shows captured their navel-gazing times with a voice of experience that Tom Waits would also bring to the party, before he slunk out the door alone.

If the rose-tinted schmaltz of Waits’s take on Somewhere sounds bittersweet, it also highlights Sondheim’s cynical idealism, as he scrambled through the dark in search of something better.