Twinkle and Shimmer and Buzz

Nico Muhly

When you’re making something there are more ways to get it wrong than right. It’s rare to find an artist who has figured out the sweet spot between the dichotomies that plague any work of art. Stephen Sondheim managed to find the elusive balance: every lyric, every phrase, every chord is poised on the razor’s edge between the cerebral and the emotional, the innovative and the comfortable, between slyness and raw honesty.

In ‘Send in the Clowns’, for instance, from A Little Night Music, he establishes a tension between the steadiness and the beauty of the accompaniment for two bars, followed by a ‘hiccough’ bar, a little shorter than its colleagues, and the resolution comes a bar earlier than a lesser composer might have written. The result is an immediate sense of lyrical beauty, a familiar texture and gait, but somehow chastened by a sense of uncertainty. The highest note of the phrase (and indeed the song) is syncopated, and he asks for it to be held slightly longer than notated: ‘Me here at last on the ground/You in mid-air’ or ‘I thought that you’d want what I want/Sorry, my dear.’

The effect is heart-stoppingly buoyant: he takes out the bass just for that beat, and for a second it’s pure suspension and beauty, offsetting the ironies of the lyrics. It all takes place in an instant, before landing a seventh below the held note; the chord resolves itself straight away, but there’s a lot of room in that tiny pause. Every audience member is invited to insert their own little gasp: the memory of a relationship gone wrong, or someone we’ve lost. ‘Mid-air’ could mean anything from ‘over there’ to ‘in heaven’, but Sondheim has briefly forced our feet off the ground as well, to hover in this delicate moment.

There are countless small joys like this: in ‘Giants in the Sky’, from Into the Woods, Jack tells us in a fast, relentless unbroken childlike way about climbing the beanstalk – and then Sondheim has him sing what we suddenly realise is an adult’s music. ‘A big tall terrible giant at the door. A big tall terrible lady giant sweeping the floor.’ It’s no longer breathless, it’s lyrical and resolute. Incidentally, you could overlay the melody and chords from Send in the Clowns and it would lock in perfectly, just for those two bars: the drop of a seventh, for Jack, is a sign of sudden maturity.

Sunday in the Park with George looks directly – almost painfully directly – at the way art gets made, but Sondheim isn’t talking about ‘inspiration’ here, so much as the ovogenesis before the work even takes form. The plot of the show is ridiculously niche (it’s about a painting, more or less), but it makes you think about the first spark of what it means to make something, the first steps of making, and the moments when an idea turns into style, style turns into an obsession, and artistic brilliance turns into being an arsehole to everybody around you.

I like to think artists keep that part of the process deeply private, but suddenly Mandy Patinkin is telling everybody all about how scary and horrible and beautiful it is, and Bernadette Peters is in a rut of never quite understanding the work even though she knows it well: ‘I don’t understand what it was/But Mama the things that he does/They twinkle and shimmer and buzz …’ Those three lines are delivered in the same way: same notes, same rhythms, same chords. She sees but somehow doesn’t, and each line ends with a falling seventh, landing in a completely different part of the voice. It’s all craft, it’s all technique, it’s all deliberate and brilliant, but it’s as heartbreaking a moment as you’ll find in any piece of theatre.

The show is riddled with motifs and jokes and sly references that visual artists and musicians will catch on repeated listening, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t clock that buried material. The show works as plot, as style, as notes and rhythms derived from Seurat’s pointillism refracted through minimalism, or as a comedy or a romance or a mystery or a tragedy. When Marie, in ‘Children and Art’ sings, describing the painting, ‘The child is so sweet and the girls are so rapturous/Isn’t it lovely how artists can capture us,’ you detect Sondheim’s joy in the unexpected rhyme, the many possible meanings of the word capture, and then the doleful repurposing of the ambiguous major/minor chords as Marie sings about her mother – and you realise that Sondheim has put us precisely in that sweet spot where it’s heart and head, clever and open, opaque and translucent, light and dark all at the same impossible time.

Sondheim’s musicals are performed criminally rarely compared to the shows that clutter Broadway and the West End for either a brief flash or for so long that they start to function like furniture. I wish there were a constant, architectural presence in every city of Company, at the very least, and Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods, and Sunday in the Park whenever a Impressionist painting exhibition comes to town. I fear that one reason for the relative dearth of performances is that the music itself is very tricky to learn, and there is a small voice in all of us that says that tricky music can’t be emotional. George’s music in Sunday is as pointillistic as the painting at the heart of the show; and the changes of metre and wry little canons in Company and Merrily We Roll Along, with their constant risk of upending the ‘obvious’ solution to a rhythmic problem, can be difficult to follow even with the score.

In ‘Opening Doors’, a complicated piece from Merrily, a Broadway producer tells our heroes: ‘There’s not a tune you can hum … Why can’t you throw ’em a crumb? What’s wrong with letting ’em tap their toes a bit? I’ll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit! Give me some melody!’ Every artist working in a collaborative environment has heard something like that, and for Sondheim to include it has always sounded to me like a gift to other artists, a way of saying: ‘It happened to me, too. You’ll be fine.’ So many of his shows end in a state of suspended or delayed resolution. Before the ‘funny’ ending of Into the Woods, there’s a sequence I used to find slightly mawkish:

Careful the things you say

Children will listen

Careful the things you do

Children will see

And learn

Careful the wish you make

Wishes are children

Careful the path they take

Wishes come true

Here again, the composer is writing about ways of hearing, even if they don’t necessarily translate directly into understanding. It’s the responsibility of adults (and artists) to create an environment where complicated ideas are transmitted with care and intention.

As a teenager, I felt that every other line in those shows was written especially for me, as a wink or chastisement or joke or tragic aside. Many of my friends and colleagues were similarly touched by Sondheim’s ability to transmit a music lesson as well as a plot point, and to have those messages twinned, arriving at the same time with a compound effect.

Watching Johanna in Sweeney Todd, you may feel that you, too, are imprisoned not just by your family but by the system that gives them their social power. If you relate to George in Sunday, you may be forced to recognise that making art and obsessing over technique can alienate even those closest to you. Identifying with the characters is a normal part of going to the theatre. With Sondheim, though, it goes further than that. You find yourself identifying with the composer, feeling that he is speaking directly to you as a friend or teacher or relative, almost, though never actually, bypassing the plot and the characters with an unending fusillade of brilliance.

The humour, the ambiguity of his harmonic language, the compositional tics (those falling sevenths!), the brilliance of the wordplay offset by occasional romantic directness, the way even the happiest moments are on the edge of something stranger: Sondheim challenges us to look for that twinkling, shimmering buzz, momentarily lambent against the darkness of the woods. ‘Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Do not let it grieve you, no one leaves for good.’