Some thoughts on Stephen Sondheim


I love Sondheim but not all of Sondheim. I didn't quite get along with Sweeny Todd and except for the astonishing set piece at the end of the first act, Sunday in the Park with George didn't quite do it for me either.  But I love A Little Night Music, and (the underrated) Merrily We Roll Along, and Into The Woods, which I finally saw in its entirety in a very magical production at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park last week. A week ago I also gave a keynote speech at a conference at Cambridge on The Emergent Adult.  I'd had to give my talk a title sometime last February, and chose "Adolescence as a Metaphor For Life." It had to do with adolescence -- the search for identity, love, and meaning -- as the underlying condition of humanity, one that continues throughout life.

I'm guessing Sondheim's interest lies in similar territory. Into the Woods weaves a series of fairy tales into a happy ending -- and then sets the second act in a world where happy endings are far more problematic and complex than marrying Prince Charming.

The metaphorical journey through the metaphorical wood is a nice succinct metaphor for all our various journeys, and goes a long way towards explaining the enduring appeal of fairy tales.  And Sondheim. And coming of age stories.


But the funny niggling little thought that came to me yesterday had nothing to do with the meaning of life.  A good part of the ITW prologue has Cinderella singing that she wishes to go to 'the festival, the King's festival'. And it suddenly occurred to me, the 'festival'? But surely, it's a BALL. And ball rhymes with everything. While festival rhymes with....nothing.

Why did Sondheim make life so difficult for himself, choosing festival over ball? I can't think of a single explanation other than that he loved the feel of those particular three syllables on his tongue. 'Ball' is heavy and final, while 'festival' is lilting and dance-y, the obvious choice of a word-lover.

Journeys and words. As they say in NYC, what's not to like?