“Six By Sondheim” is a new, well-produced HBO documentary that stitches together the many interviews Stephen Sondheim has given over the years since the late 1950s and then ties those interviews in with six of his best-known or (to him) most important songs. NPR enthused that the show leaves viewers wanting more but, as I am not a Sondheim fan, I wanted less — or at least less of the music. The interviews, however, were interesting.
My takeaway is that Sondheim is a decent, articulate, intelligent man, who thinks deeply about his craft. I may not like his end product, finding the endless word play emotionally distancing and the music discordant, but there’s serious hard work and lots of talent behind it.
Sondheim has made a living out of thumbing his nose at critics who complain rightly that his songs are not “hummable.” Certainly that’s part of why I don’t like his music. I’m simplistic enough to like pop songs that I can sing later. Although maybe “simplistic” isn’t the right word. When Irving Berlin rhymes “farmer” with “potato embalmer,” there’s nothing simplistic about that. It’s a delightful rhyme scheme that captures in three words one aspect of a farmer’s work. Likewise, there’s nothing embarrassing about Johnny Mercer’s exquisite lyrics to I Remember You. “When my life is through, and the angels ask me to recall the thrill of it all, then I will tell them I remember you.” My primary reasoning for disliking Sondheim’s music isn’t that it’s not hummable; it’s that, to my ears, it’s not attractive.
Certainly Sondheim’s subject matter is seldom attractive consisting as it does of strippers, burlesque, broken homes, and psychopathic moms (Gypsy); deadly street gangs (West Side Story); serial killers (Sweeney Todd); a dystopian view of fairy tales (Into The Woods); attempted presidential murderers (Assassins); a man’s throwing away his life’s talent (Merrily We Roll Along); or broken down marriages (Follies). Listening to Sondheim describe his life, this deeply negative view about relationships and people in general isn’t particularly surprising.
Sondheim’s parents had an unhappy marriage that ended when he was 10. Before, during, and after the divorce, he was a pawn in his parents drama and, most especially in his mother’s obsession with his father and her manifest dislike for being a parent. She hated her son and he knew it. Indeed, when Sondheim was 40, right before his mother went into surgery, she wrote him a letter saying that the worst thing that ever happened to her was to have him.
Sondheim was also a homosexual who came of age during a time when his sexual orientation was unpopular, to say the least. There’s no doubt that, in the Broadway world, he could easily have found sufficient numbers of like-minded people to form a relationship that went beyond casual sex. He didn’t, though. It appears that his upbringing left him so emotionally constipated that, as he confesses, he was only able to fall in love when he was 60.
Blessedly, Sondheim seems to keep his politics to himself, but he’s certainly part of the zeitgeist on the Lefter side of the political spectrum. Those who like him are often the same people who sneer at traditional musical theater, with its bright songs and happy endings.
After watching the documentary, I realized that American art and entertainment present a funny paradox. Leftists tend to create and to prefer art and entertainment that focuses on the sleazy, irredeemable side of human nature. Many of Sondheim’s plays exemplify this fact, but the list of gutter-gazing art from Leftists is endless. Hollywood and Broadway Leftists like, and endlessly produce, movies and shows that focus on the bad guys (Tony Soprano, Walter White), depressing situations (Precious, American Beauty), or sordid behavior (just about every movie out of Hollywood lately).
Conservatives tend to yearn for the type of wholesome fare that Hollywood churned out from the time of the Code through the late 1960s. These shows involve happy people muddling through to happy endings, bad people getting their comeuppances in morally satisfying ways, suffering people rewarded at the end, etc. The tear-jerkers involved deeply sympathetic characters who tried to do good and failed, not creepy psychopaths who worked hard at being evil and, even when they got their comeuppance, never repented.
Looking at the differing artistic fare the two political cultures generate, you’d think that it was the conservatives who were the utopians and the Leftists who were the harsh realists. In fact, though, Leftists are the utopians who fervently believe that, if they can just figure out the correct political coercion, they will perfect human kind, turning each man into someone who joyfully, and without greed, rancor, or violence, gives of his labors to support everyone else in the world. Conservatives, on the other hand, recognize that humankind is inherently greedy, rancorous, and violent, and seek to create voluntarily enforced social, moral, and economic systems that harness and control these innate tendencies in a way that’s simultaneously beneficial to the individual and to society at large.
Presumably, this paradox can be resolved as follows: Leftists use art to establish that the world, especially the American world, is a terrible place because it lacks the guiding hand of a loving police state. Meanwhile, conservatives use their art aspirationally, to encourage all people to cultivate voluntarily their better selves, or to put their “baser” instincts (i.e., greed) to a use that lifts up their own lives while improving and enriching the world.