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Who Wants Company?

How I learned to stop sneering and joined the ranks of Sondheim lovers

I hate musicals. So do you, I bet. Doesn’t every right-thinking person?

With me, it’s a little personal: A musical ruined my life. Shy through my first 17 years, I shocked everyone at my cutthroat Jesuit high school by landing a big role in the fall senior-class revue…imitating the basketball coach. Laughter. Applause. Skyrocketing self-confidence. A ham was born.

But the spring play, Showboat, squashed my hopes. The spring play was always a musical, but my revue audition had already revealed that I had a one-and-a-half-note range—when my voice wasn’t migrating from octave to octave without warning. One of the stars of Showboat turned out to be a football player who couldn’t sing, either, but his parents contributed big bucks to the school. (The Jesuits were malevolent geniuses.) I wound up devoting myself to the school newspaper, which led to the college newspaper, which led to awful grades and dropping out, which led to years wandering in the wilderness of telemarketing and get-rich-quick commodity-trading schemes. Now I review theater for the Washington City Paper. Call it revenge served very cold.

All this baggage and yet I do like some musicals, the obvious movie ones. (My favorite is The Band Wagon, starring Fred Astaire, though really starring Cyd Charisse’s endless legs.) But I enjoy those shows in the way one enjoys There’s Something About Mary: curled up in bed with takeout, only the brainstem working. Otherwise, isn’t it all so ridiculous? He has just crushed her heart, they have just discovered gold, she has just found a run in her stocking, and—why are they singing and dancing, exactly?

The answer is, despite the occasional football player: Because they can. Musicals are about sheer performance—unburdened by insight or edification, any transcendence dying away with the last major chord. Can you remember a single thing Frank Sinatra said in On the Town? Can you remember a single second from Singin’ in the Rain in which both of Gene Kelly’s feet were on the ground? Is not “the book,” which refers to the spoken part of a musical, one of the most sadly generic terms in the cultural lexicon—right up there with “product” or “content”? Critics knock musicals for being absurdly cheerful, but the real problem is their exuberance at the expense of everything else. They aren’t too feel-good; they’re simply too feel.

And most live musicals are even more vacuous, because they require our applause after every number to stay aloft. We’re all in it together, in a conspiracy to ignore our disbelief. After tepidly clapping throughout a recent performance of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, a Kennedy Center audience sent the show off with a wild standing ovation, as if to convince itself it had gotten its money’s worth. Yes, we might sometimes be exhilarated. But the transaction degrades us. Lacking even the nominal competition of synchronized swimming, the musical offers us a spectacle not unlike watching someone lift a car, or eat it. It is a freak show.

So it was with considerable terror that I shelled out $150 for two tickets to Sunday in the Park With George, part of the KenCen’s Sondheim Celebration this summer. I blame my companion, Liz. She tempted me with Frank Rich’s profile of Stephen Sondheim that appeared a few years ago in the New York Times Magazine, with its cover photo that made Sondheim look like an Anthony Quinn who’d been left out in the rain, and I was stirred against better judgment.

Sondheim, Rich argued, is the last purveyor of a dying art form, pushed to the side by corporate soullessness and Andrew Lloyd Webber (I repeat myself). What a bleakly heroic figure! I thought. But after the credit card had been run, Liz started warning me darkly about the “second-act problem” in Sunday—and then she began muting her Sondheim CDs whenever I walked in the door. “Maybe this was a mistake,” she said.

Well, as Franklin Shepard says in Merrily We Roll Along, “I have made only one mistake in my life, but I’ve made it over and over again.” The sad truth is that I’ve now been to every one of the celebration’s shows, and my only regret is that I went so late in the first runs that I shut myself out from going over and over again.

I have found the whole thing thrilling: the staging, the ideas, the crosscurrents among shows, and above all the music, even those songs that sound straight out of ’70s airline commercials. Even worse, a small circle I know has joined the Cult of Steve. We now-Sondheimians are haunting the KenCen’s gift shop, buying souvenir ballpoint pens and posters—for each show. We are reading old reviews and getting original-performance DVDs and buying the entire set of the off-the-deep-end journal The Sondheim Review and debating the merits of Company’s various cast recordings.

I sing along to Sunday in the car, changing the lyrics to fit our dogs’ names. The new CD that accompanies my subscription to CMJ lies unopened on the table: I am no longer listening even once to the new music I don’t listen to. Sondheim has become my summer pop song.

I am almost 40 years old, and I would be a little scared about turning into my parents—except that they never would have paid so much for the tickets.

What makes a great summer pop song? That’s a question for an alchemist. A great melody, of course. Catchy, silly lyrics. And then something else: a beach quality, a thing that can sweep you up and define you for a season and that you can also wake up one morning and discard.

None of which is supposed to apply to Sondheim. He doesn’t do melody, goes the rap. He does dense wordplay, abstruse references, classical harmonies. He does difficult. He sounds like November, not a week at the beach.

Except that he gets inside your head anyway, because what Sondheim is all about is the inside of your head. In his hands, the beach isn’t just sand castles; it’s staring at the ocean’s infinity, and watching the tide erase footprints, and seeing in the sharpening shadows and mellowing light the coming autumn. His is a summer pop song for those who know how precious and evanescent summer really is.

There is no excess in any aspect of his work, no chance for self-indulgence. There is only a question: With so little time left, how do we choose? Choose a lover, as in Company and A Little Night Music and Sunday and Passion. Or a partner in crime, as in Sweeney Todd. Or to reject your partners, as in Merrily. Sondheim insists on the savage necessity of choice, on how it defines us. More than anything else, it’s his emphasis on free will that shocks life into the musical’s dead body.

Company’s eternal bachelor Bobby (or is it Robert, or Robbie, or Bubbie? Not even his friends can agree) lives in a hell of indecisiveness, running through women and wishing he could marry the best traits of his friends’ wives. Merrily is almost like a therapy session: It moves backward from sleazy 1976 to innocent 1957, excavating how its antihero’s lust for success made him choose not success but narcissism.

In Passion, a soldier, Giorgio, almost imperceptibly turns from his beautiful lover Clara to Fosca, a vampirish invalid whose “love” for him amounts to a smothering obsession. The show’s long musical lines, with lyrics of stolen conversations or letters read aloud, form the tightrope between the two women on which Giorgio walks.

And in Sunday, the painter George composes by pointillism, which is nothing but thousands of dots, thousands of choices per square foot of canvas. “We choose things, and then we lose things,” sings his neglected lover, the aptly named Dot, as she herself decides to leave him for the simple baker Louis. “And there are Louises, and there are Georges.” Each choice is a little death, sealing off another path of escape; and the energy released in that death pushes Sondheim’s characters forward.

Yet without the music, these pieces would be ponderous. The music bears them up, but it also frames and amplifies their ambivalence, holding it like water in a deep cup. (“You’re sorry-grateful/Regretful-happy,” sing the men of Company to Bobby about what marriage is really like. “You’re always wondering/What might have been/Then she walks in.”) The lyrics, the melodies that imitate the natural rise and fall of speech, the harmonies that undercut any undue sunniness—Sondheim unifies all these elements in a pinpoint of concentrated artistic intelligence so unlike a musical.

That unity is exactly what frees you to enjoy his works as musicals. Because they’re just part of the show, you can give into the guilty pleasures of Sondheim’s showstoppers: Company’s kick-line parody of togetherness, “Side by Side by Side,” or its bride Amy’s machine-gun nervous breakdown in “Getting Married Today,” or the meltdown TV interview of Merrily’s Charlie, “Franklin Shepard Inc.” They’re funny, amazing, and exhilarating—and they propel the story like a rocket.

Sunday has a pretty song, “Finishing the Hat,” that at first seems to mouth cliches about the romantic asceticism of the artist, drawing a hat while the world swirls about him. Then George sings, “Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat,” and something about the line’s staccato makes you realize that all the song’s crescendos and accents have been telling you that George is secretly in despair. That he needs to make art to connect himself to the world, but that his art just keeps taking him away from it.

Later, when Sondheim shades the triumphant onstage assemblage of George’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte with discordant minor chords, you understand the pain those chords refer to. You also understand why everyone around you is crying instead of smiling when the house lights come on.

Intermission at a performance of Merrily: People are abuzz, comparing impressions. In a corner of the Eisenhower Theater’s royal-blue curtain, Sondheim’s signature is written in white, burning in the spotlight like the mark of a god. The celebration has not only worked brilliantly as a museum exhibition of Sondheim’s musicals; it has also become an oasis in the summer drought.

Some claim that Sondheim doesn’t really write musicals at all—which shortchanges the foundation of many of his works in the American show-tune vernacular. They are the opera I’ve always wanted: subtle, demanding, ambiguous—and accessible. And they make me not so much hate other musicals as pity them, their inexpressiveness hiding under all that expressivity.

Yet I’ll be glad when the celebration is over this week. The performances are wrenching. The shows tap emotions that run free for weeks afterward, rivers out of burst dams. Like people who talk too loudly or laugh too heartily, all musicals have an essential despair at heart, a hole too big for anything to fill. That Sondheim’s take despair as their very subject is both oddly affirming and exhausting. And with the composer himself now 72, this retrospective has an air of valediction, which is almost unbearable.

“Pretty isn’t beautiful, Mother,” sings George in Sunday, comforting his mother, who believes that the landscape of her childhood has been ruined by development. “Pretty is what changes/What the eye arranges/Is what is beautiful.” Museum (and theater) shows stand on the cusp of this distinction: They’re arranged, but they aren’t permanent. Exhibitions end. Curtains fall.

And pop songs disappear from the charts. It’s been a great summer, by the side of Sondheim, but I’m looking forward to the fall. CP