From The Guardian 16.3.2012
Stephen Sondheim: our greatest composer?
No one today has better mastered the art-form of marrying words and drama to music, and keeping that essentially operatic ideal alive in a broader public consciousness
Yes, yes, there’s a lot to look forward to in terms of new and new-ish operatic and music-theatrical marvels in the next few weeks and months up and down the country: The Rake’s Progress at Scottish Opera, David McVicar’s first production of Stravinsky’s controversial masterpiece which opens tomorrow, there are exciting new shows at English National Opera, who are at last catching up with the rest of Europe and letting British audiences had the chance to see pieces by two of the most prolific and successful opera composers around, Detlev Glanert and Wolfgang Rihm; and even if it hasn’t gone down very well with the critics, there’s Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune at Covent Garden. Even better, Birmingham Opera Company stage their first new commission, Jonathan Dove’s Life is a Dream on the 21st of March, and then start their engines to prepare for the world premiere of Stockhausen’s Wednesday from Light (“Mittwoch aus Licht”, if you prefer the mysterious-sounding German), complete with its quartet of helicopters.
But what I’m looking forward to just as much as any of all of those – well, if I can get a ticket, that is – is Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi. It might just be, when the dust settles in a few decades on the history of the setting of stories to music in the late 20th century, that it’s Sondheim rather than any of the “classical” musicians who takes the laurels as the composer who did the most to sustain the art-form of marrying words and drama to music, and keeping that essentially operatic ideal alive in a broader public consciousness.
The reasons for Sondheim’s pre-eminence aren’t hard to grasp: hisgenius as a lyricist, his brilliance as a song-writer, his infallible knack of instantly nailing the passions and problems of his characters through the deftness, delicacy, and unpredictability of his harmonies. The first show I got to know was Into the Woods, in a famous production in which I starred (or attempted to, at any rate) as the Baker at the University of York in 1995 – “famous”, that is, to me and the, oh, dozens of people who saw it – where my pseudo-classical preconceptions about the creative mediocrity of the musicals I thought I knew up that point was scotched at a stroke by Sondheim’s jaw-dropping sophistication. The musical secrets of Sondheim’s poetic and expressive universe would take a book to describe in detail (and helpfully, here is that very tome by Stephen Banfield, a fantastically rigorous analysis of just how Sondheim does it, forensically exploring the melodic and harmonic mechanics of how he creates as much musical and dramatic coherence in his scores as any other theatrical composer); and for the stories behind his lyrics, Sondheim’s own two books are the best places to go. But it’s the simultaneous immediacy as well as profundity of his music that makes Sondheim such an essential composer. Sweeney Todd’s inexorable sweep gives the show a genuinely epic dimension, from the gory churn of its opening chorus to the ghoulish humour of Mrs Lovett’s songs and the grand guignol of its conclusion. The opera houses will always have the last word when it comes to the grandeur and greatness of the art-form, but the Adelphi’s where it’s at if you want to see the life-blood of music theatre, as Sweeney’s razor slices its way through the necks of “those who moralise”.