Happy birthday to Stephen Sondheim, who turns 80 today; but also to Andrew Lloyd Webber, 62 today. It is a curious fact that the two figures who have dominated the Broadway and British musical landscapes over the second half of the twentieth century should share a birthday; but also instructive to compare and contrast their impact, legacy and approval ratings, whether at the box office or the critical stakes.
Of Sondheim’s 18 original Broadway credits (whether for writing lyrics, music and lyrics, or in the case of the short-lived Getting Away with Murder, a play), plus three revues of his work (including Sondheim on Sondheim, which has just begun previewing at Studio 54 ahead of an April 22 opening), the original runs of almost every single one has been little over a year, and sometimes considerably less. (Even the original productions of such landmark shows as Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd were respectively 15 months, 17 months and 16 months). The longest-running first run Sondheim has ever had in his home town was for Company, that ran for 21 months.
By contrast, of course, Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera is now the longest running musical of all time on Broadway - 22 years and counting; while Cats ran for just short of 18 years. Even Starlight Express, with a run of 23 months, and Evita (3 years 9 months) outran anything Sondheim ever wrote.
Sondheim, though far from always being a critical darling, has endured to become one; and last week his incredible legacy was celebrated in a concert at New York’s Lincoln Center that I dearly wish I’d attended. As Stephen Holden wrote in a review in the New York Times, “From Broadway’s prodigious boy wonder to its beloved aging monarch: For Stephen Sondheim, whose forthcoming 80th birthday on March 22 was celebrated in a thrilling concert at Avery Fisher Hall on Monday evening, it must have seemed like a hop, skip and a jump from one to the other. Inside the hall, where the mood was more exhilarated than elegiac, an unspoken question hung in the air: Where did all that time go?”
Where indeed? I can chart my own theatregoing life by Sondheim shows, from first experiencing the richness of his repertoire thanks to the original cast recording of Side by Side by Sondheim, to seeing my first London transfer of a Broadway Sondheim (the disgracefully short-lived Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane in 1980) to my first original Broadway Sondheim (Sunday in the Park with George in previews in 1984, since when I have seen the original productions of every new Sondheim musical, whether on Broadway in the case of In the Woods and Passion, off-Broadway in the case of Assassins, or out-of-town in the case of Bounce at Washington DC, then re-tooled as Bounce off-Broadway, where I also saw it; but I also saw a workshop production of an even earlier version than either of these, when it was called Wise Guys at New York Theatre Workshop).
And on Friday evening, I found myself getting the rare chance to see Sondheim’s biggest-ever commercial flop, Anyone Can Whistle that ran for just 9 performances in its original Broadway production in 1964. And it has never been revived there since, apart from a one-nighter Carnegie Hall benefit in 1995, though it is about to be staged again as part of the current Encores season at New York’s City Center from April 8 to 11.
This is probably the weirdest show he ever wrote - possibly only equalled by the TV movie musical Evening Primrose — that’s about a town that is best known for housing a lunatic asylum (quaintly called ‘the Cookie Jar’), whose Mayoress endorses a plan from her corrupt officials to initiate a fake miracle to draw pilgrims there. But as now produced in a tiny, resourceful production at Jermyn Street, the show is a little miracle all of its own, not least for revealing such yearningly beautiful songs as ‘With So Little To Be Sure of’ (with its exquisite words, “All I’ll ever be I owe you, /If there’s anything to be. /Being sure enough of you/ Makes me sure enough of me”) or the wonderful advice embodied in ‘Everybody Says Don’t’, with its suggestion that you should simply ignore the naysayers: “Make just a ripple, /Come on, be brave. / This time a ripple, Next time a wave. / Sometimes you have to start small, /Climbing the tiniest wall. /Maybe you’re going to fall — / But it’s better than not starting at all!”.
That’s a great mantra for life, and for Sondheim’s own pushing at the boundaries of his art constantly. Sure, he’s fallen as he’s climbed some of those walls - but he’s built new, taller ones than anyone else in half a century. And as Jeremy Sams once sagely told me talking of Sondheim, “I venerate him as a human being and an artist. The only thing I have against him is that he’s covered every exit and nailed it up, and it’s very, very hard for everybody else. I’ve been listening to a lot of new musicals recently, and they either sound like Stephen or they so haven’t been influenced by him that his ghost is there in absentia. He is as big to musicals as Wagner is to opera, and the history of the musical will never be the same again until he is written out of it. And that will take a century.”
Meanwhile, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber has been turning his own musical clock back, by returning and revisiting his greatest success, The Phantom of the Opera, with its sequel Love Never Dies.
On the one hand, Lloyd Webber has drawn a whole new generation to musicals - not just his own, but others - via the reality TV casting programmes that he initiated for The Sound of Music, and then followed with TV casting calls for Joseph and Oliver!, to be followed this coming Saturday by the launch of a new one for a new stage production of The Wizard of Oz. But on the other, as Paul Taylor noted in his (laudatory) review of Love Never Dies in the Independent, “It’s revealing that Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has cast leading roles in his most recent ventures by public vote on reality TV talent show, has not allowed the public anywhere near his casting decisions for Love Never Dies. This rather exposes how low-risk those TV experiments have been, geared as they have been to fairly safe properties such as The Sound of Music and Oliver!. In a sense, Lloyd Webber has become hoist by his own petard. Having over-petted the public, he is now being badly mauled by a section of it - the Phantom fanatics who feel that they own the original more than he does. On both counts (casting and the right to do what he likes with his own material), Lloyd Webber has, for once, the moral high ground here.”
Maybe so; but he loses it - or at least his marketing people do - with ads that have been appearing in the press last week and over the weekend with a single, solitary quote on it: “The theatrical event of the year”, it says, and attributes it to Benedict Nightingale, The Times. Yet Benedict was, in fact, the first overnight critic to maul the show, with his two-star review. And those words appear nowhere in his review. I assume they must have appeared in some kind of advance preview he wrote; but his review is living proof that he no longer thinks so.
OLIVIER AWARD SURPRISES….
In the issue of The Stage of March 11, before gazing into my own crystal ball in a feature on the Olivier Awards, I noted that “Forecasting award winners is a notoriously inexact science”, but that for these, it is almost impossible: “Since the panel of judges is spread between members of the public and the profession, there is no way of predicting what the final outcome will be.” But like most people, I suggested that “I’d be surprised if Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, and Mark Rylance’s lead performance in it, didn’t add to the trophies they’d already received for Best New Play and Best Actor respectively in both the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards. Ditto Rachel Weisz, for her performance as Blanche du Bois in the Donmar’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which has also already won the two previous awards.”
As it happens, I only got two of those predictions right (and in the other eight categories in which I made more predictions, I got five right). But I was far from alone in backing the wrong horse: in Saturday’s Independent, Michael Coveney wrote a two-page feature profile on Butterworth that began, “Tomorrow’s night’s Olivier Awards will almost certainly see Jerusalem by 40-year-old Jez Butterworth confirmed as the best new play of the year”, and concluded “The playwright is flying in from America for the awards ceremony on Sunday. He probably won’t return to the West Country empty handed, and he may linger ruefully on past disappointments.”
The great and glorious thing about the Oliviers is always how perverse they can be. Even one of the co-producers of the play that eventually snagged the Olivier from Jerusalem, Marla Rubin, was proudly telling me of their nomination before the ceremony, before adding, “But we don’t stand a chance of winning.”
And yet The Mountaintop — a play that began its life at the tiny Theatre 503 in Battersea, before transferring as a filler into the Trafalgar Studios - walked away with the trophy. Ditto the surprise naming of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as Best Revival, over the Donmar’s already-triumphant A Streetcar Named Desire; the winning production of Cat came from Broadway, where it had failed to secure even a single Tony nomination, yet here it was deemed the best of the year’s play revivals in a category that also included Arcadia, The Misanthrope, Three Days of Rain and A View from the Bridge as well as Streetcar.
But while the independent judging process inevitably throws up such anomalies (while the nominations process is even more perverse, since it is open to all SOLT members, including those of course with vested interests in promoting their own shows), this year there was one category that the public decided, and it was Wicked — which curiously hadn’t even been nominated for the Best Musical category in the Olivier Awards in the year it opened that took the vote. (And Wicked lost out, too, on the Best Musical Tony Award on Broadway to Avenue Q when it first opened there).
But just as it’s the public who decide a show’s fate at the box office (and last night’s biggest overall winner, Spring Awakening, which took four awards including Best Musical, may have quickly evaporated from the stage but obviously not the theatrical memory), so the public have voted resoundingly for Wicked. Intriguingly, too, SOLT announced that 58,000 people voted - far exceeding the 46,000 that Whatsonstage.com’s Awards achieved for their own awards announced last month.
But the biggest surprise of the night was actually not that Mark Rylance won - it’s the performance of a lifetime, of course, and would have been sheer insanity if he hadn’t - but that he then accepted his award with a normal speech! Yes, he actually thanked people, instead of performing a poem or short story as he usually does.