The perfect poetry of Sondheim’s rhymes
A memory. Steve (always Steve to those who knew him) and I were chatting after a performance of Gypsy at Chichester in 2014.
“So,” he said, “what do you think?”
“Wonderful,” I gushed. “Great production, Imelda [Staunton] amazing…”
“No,” he interrupted. “Come on, Jeremy. What do you think of the lyrics?”
The penny dropped. The Master was in need of affirmation and reassurance – as we all are. So where to start with the lyrics for Gypsy? There’s the “he goes/she goes/egos/amigos” cluster that so delighted a depressed Cole Porter. The internal rhymes, including the one no-one ever seems to notice, in Rose’s Turn: “Starting now, I bat a thousand, this time boys I’m taking the bows and everything’s coming up Rose.” More importantly there is the populist poetry of “Small world isn’t it… small and funny and fine”. And above all, the seeming simplicity of “Little lamb. I wonder how old I am.”
Steve was mollified; I was relieved. But looking back, maybe I was merely pointing out that in Gypsy (first performed in 1959 with music by Jule Styne), Steve’s full range of a lifetime’s lyric writing was already in place. The ostentatiously virtuosic “smart” lyrics, the subtle and effortlessly skilful hidden rhymes and assonances, the disarmingly simple utterances that hollow out your heart.
The “smart-alecky” rhymery, it has to be said, belongs more to his apprentice years. Oscar Hammerstein may have been his mentor, but here he was channelling the sassier Dorothy Fields and Yip Harburg. So in Saturday Night (1955) we have “There’s a friendly clink whence/Come juvenile delinquents”. From Do I Hear a Waltz? (his ill-starred Richard Rodgers collaboration from 1965), there’s “Such lovely Blue Danubey/music, how can you be still?”The self-parody of his early work pops up later, mostly when earlier styles are being referred to. So in 1970’s Company we have the rather self-aware…
When a person’s personality is personable,
He shouldn’t oughta sit like a lump.
It’s harder than a matador coercin’ a bull
To try and get you off of your rump.
Still, this rabbit-out-of-the-hat rhyming is permissible since it’s a 1940s Andrews Sisters homage.
With maturity, however, Sondheim starts to fold this flamboyance into the lyrics, sometimes so successfully that I am, after years of familiarity, still finding hidden gems everywhere.
Of these he was intensely proud. Once I was sitting next to him during a performance of A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. When it came to Night Waltz, a song about the endlessness of Scandinavian twilights, I gave him a mimed smattering of applause on the internal rhyme “Perpetual sunset/is rather an unset-tling thing”. He bowed mock-modestly, but when the next verse rolled round, with its even more brilliant “The hands on the clock turn, but don’t sing the nocturne just yet”, he turned to me, hands outstretched , as if to say “And?” I duly complied, and he acknowledged the silent ovation. I never had the chance to tell him that my favourite of those couplets comes from the movie of A Little Night Music, “And love is a lecture/on how to correct your mistakes”.
That one I venerate because of its mixture of technical skill and profound emotional truth. More and more for Steve, as his lived life deepened, the one served the other. Take this, from Passion (I directed its 1996 London premiere), a piece written in the aftermath of his first committed relationship, aged 60.
Loving you is not a choice, it’s who I am
Loving you is not a choice
And not much reason to rejoice
But it gives me purpose gives me voice
To say to the world
This is why I live
You are why I live.
In the middle of that heartfelt simplicity and honesty, which of us spots those three “-oice” rhymes in successive lines? But there they are – the seamless skill abetting the sincerity, the rhymes gluing the sentiment together. The art that conceals art.
Rhyme, of course, was only one weapon in his armoury. There is comic wordplay. The girls in Sunday in the Park with George sing of their two soldier suitors: “The one on the left is right for me so one on the right is left for you.” There’s also alliteration and assonance aplenty. (“Today I woke too weak to walk”, “The sand and the sea and the stars and the sky/ And the sound of a soft little satisfied sigh”, both from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.)
But, for me the most moving are the non-rhymed, runic utterances, predominantly monosyllabic. It’s a trick he learnt from Hammerstein. “When you walk through a storm hold your head up high” is nothing but single-syllable words. As are “Not a day goes by” (Merrily We Roll Along) “Tell me not to go, say it to me, tell me not to go” (Sunday in the Park) and “It takes a lot of men to make a gun” (Assassins).
Here is a pearl he once shared with me; that rhymes are most effective when the spellings are different. So, fellow Sondheim fans, where are these pairs from… Fresher/pressure, swans/bronze, colonel/journal, companion/d’Artagnan, pinnacle/cynical?*
And here, to conclude, is a wonderfully life-affirming lyric (complete with trademark internal rhyme) from his perforce unfinished musical based on the films of Buñuel. The piece is still on Steve’s piano in the bright and airy Connecticut house where he lived, and a few days ago, died.
If it isn’t the sun it’s the birdsong
If it isn’t the air it’s the view.
I’m completely undone
By the endless abundance of life,
* The answers are
1 and 2. Sunday in the Park with George; 3. Passion; 4. Wise Guys;
5. Do I Hear a Waltz?