• Kit Eyre

Stephen Sondheim - Thank You

I didn't always get Stephen Sondheim.


For a girl brought up on a diet of MGM musicals with good (yet not always profound) lyrics and music, the discordant work of Sondheim was a giant leap into the unknown. The big exception to this at first was Sweeney Todd, not because of the Depp film adaptation but because I would watch Angela Lansbury walk across a zebra crossing and be entranced. And in Sweeney Todd? I was far more than entranced. I could never look at Eglantine Price the same way again.


I bought Sondheim albums and listened to them, of course. My collection included Sweeney, Follies and Company among others, yet it took another DVD for me to really catch the Sondheim bug: the 80th birthday concert which is clipped extensively on YouTube for those who want to go looking.


Suddenly, the depth of Sondheim's work hit me at full force. Every performance is exquisite, from Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters reviving 'Move On' from Sunday in the Park with George to Elaine Stritch literally hopping around on stage at the conclusion of 'I'm Still Here' from Follies. I had a couple of belated revelations from an artist perspective during that concert too: Laura Benanti and Victoria Clark have since become two of my favourites.

I went back and paid more attention to the Sondheim cast albums I had. The emotion and humanity within the songs began to wrap their tentacles around me. Then, on a trip to London in 2013, I managed to score a very good seat at the revival of Merrily We Roll Along staring Mark Umbers and Jenna Russell. It was the best seat I've ever had in a London theatre, but I don't think that was the reason I cried multiple times during the production.


Merrily We Roll Along is a complicated show in that it runs backwards. We start by seeing how songwriter Franklin Shepard lives as a successful Hollywood producer. It's an inauthentic life that doesn't utilise his talents, but only his old friend Mary Flynn can really see that (and gets drunk to compensate for her own miseries in life). After this opening scene, the action moves backwards to an interview given by Frank and his collaborator Charley - the third member of the unbeatable trio.


I'll leave the plot synopsis there, although I would always recommend giving this peculiar show a chance. It was a flop at launch but the show is so much more than that initial failure. It's a stunning score underpinned by the complexities of human emotions and relationships.


Take 'Not a Day Goes By', for example. Out of context, the Bernadette Peters version is astounding. It's the perfect combination of artist and song. In context, though, the song is completely different and viscerally hurts in a different way.


It was the reprise sung by Mary Flynn as Frank marries Beth that led to me sobbing in the third row of the theatre. While it's sung earlier by Beth as her marriage ends, the reprise is Frank and Beth happily exchanging vows juxtaposed with Mary's misery. Whatever the magic in that juxtaposition, it works and I wasn't the only person crying in the theatre.

By the end of the show and 'Our Time', the moment where everything starts and anything is possible, I was in floods of tears again. It gives you hope that everything that's happened throughout the show doesn't have to be that way. Maybe it could be different or maybe it's inevitable - who knows?


I was at a crossroads in my life when I saw Merrily and there's no doubt it impacted what came afterwards. I saw that production again when it was released in theatres and rented it online when it was available too. I watched it a dozen times and it became a best friend to someone struggling with her purpose and her direction in life.


Every time I scored a writing success, I'd turn to 'It's a Hit' as a celebration. If I was feeling hopeless, I'd listen to the lyrics of 'Opening Doors' to get me moving again. When I wanted to be inspired, I'd look to 'Our Time'. For that reason, Merrily will always be my favourite Sondheim musical - an 'Old Friend' if ever there was one.


And here's the thing, I know some people don't get what the fuss about Merrily is and there are parts of Sondheim's work that I just don't get to the same level as other people. But that's what makes him so important to so many people: we all connect to his work in different ways.


The outpouring of affection for Sondheim has been beautiful to witness. Like many others, I've spent the weekend listening to various playlists and albums. Unsurprisingly, as I've been writing this, my accompaniment has been one of the cast albums of Merrily We Roll Along. Let me leave you with its final lyrics:


It's our heads on the block Give us room and start the clock Our dream coming true Me and you, pal Me and you.


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