I have often wondered why, exactly, I love the musicals of Stephen Sondheim as much as I do. I worry, sometimes, that what I love in them is their cynicism: the blithe, wordy worldliness of the free-spirited (and light-footed) maid Petra in A Little Night Music, who in her big number “The Miller’s Son” celebrates “what’s passing by”: a few rolls in the hay before the “paunch and the pouch and the pension” of bourgeois marriage; or of the neurotic New York couples in Company who get off on clubby conspiratoriality: “It’s people that you hate together/bait together/hate together.” It’s dissonantly-rendered art show openings; it’s artistic sell-outs one-upping each other; it’s Franklin Shephard Inc; it’s another vodka stinger. It’s the very premise of Sweeney Todd (for what it’s worth, my least favorite of Sondheim’s musicals): when two enterprising murderers in Victorian London scheme to bake their victims into meat-pies, on the grounds that “the history of the world — my love — is those below serving those up above.”
I was asked once, a long time ago, whether I think Sondheim is a cynic, at least when it comes to relationships. Some of his most powerful songs, after all, are about the ways people can hurt each other: “Could I Leave You?” from Follies (“could I bury my rage/with a boy half your age/in the grass/you bet your ass); “Sorry/Grateful” from Company, which posits that those two states lie at the heart of every single marriage; A Little Night Music’s “Every Day A Little Death” (also about marriage). It’s easy to think of Sondheim’s authorial persona as a little bit like the withering Joanne from Company: sitting at a bar, downing martinis, passing discomfortingly accurate judgment on the passersby.
But what I love about Sondheim — as a lyricist, as a composer, as an artist — is precisely how the specificity that animates his characters’ cruelty turns out, more often than not, to reveal to us a particularly human kind of love. Characters in this hideously imperfect world attempt, and fail, and attempt again to connect with one another, to understand one another. There are deaths; there are reconciliations; but nothing is ever tidily resolved, either on the narrative or musical level.
Both love and hatred, in Sondheim, are about seeing: about seeing people as they are, and loving them in spite of (or through) their follies. It’s about whether and how we can love, authentically, imperfectly. It’s the question that underpins one of my favorite of his songs, “Old Friends,” from Merrily We Roll Along. “Good friends point out your lies/whereas old friends live and let live/Good friends like and advise/whereas old friends love and forgive.” Love, for Sondheim, always derives from true seeing. But true seeing, for Sondheim, so often means seeing the worst.
Perhaps the best encapsulation of these tensions can be found in Sunday in the Park With George, Sondheim’s heavily fictionalized 1986 imagining of the life of George(s) Seurat, which we recently watched (you can rent or buy the filmed production, starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, on iTunes), only a few months after I was shown the painting itself at the Art Institute of Chicago on my first visit to that city.
Much of the drama of Sunday revolves around the fraught relationship between George (Patinkin) and his model-mistress Dot (Peters). On the surface, it’s an old story — Dot loves George; George loves Dot, but not as much as he loves painting; Dot and George break up. But Sondheim’s genius is that he chooses to tell a more intimate, and more human, story than the simple tale that being a genius is lonely. The story of George and Dot is the story of two people — and, unlike in many genius-artist-stories, George and Dot are given full and equal weight as human beings — learning, over many lifetimes, what it means to truly see one another.
George loves Dot, but can see her only in reference to color and light: she is, more than his lover, the model for his painting; when he looks at her, he cannot see her in herself, but only — as befits a pointillist — various individual attributes. Dot, for her part, can’t see that George does love her, that he is looking at her, in his way, so desperate is she for the words that will make her feel validated as a woman, the kind of beautiful, much-admired mistress who could be a sensation at a high-class joint like the Folies Bergère.
At first, George and Dot both seem to understand George’s relationship with his art as a semi-divine or demiurgic one, one that demands George to exist outside and apart from human life and love. In his ode to his own vocation, “Finishing the Hat,” George declares that: “Stepping back to look at a face/leaves a little space in the way like a window/But to see, it's the only way to see,” before announcing the culmination of his life’s work as a kind of creation ex nihilo: “Look, I made a hat Where there never was a hat.” Dot, likewise, thinks of George as a unique individual; when she finally gives up on pining for George and instead marries an amiable baker named Louis, she first reflects on the fact that there are “Louises and Georges” — both plural — before correcting herself: “There are Louises. And George.”
But, as the musical goes on — spanning first George and Dot’s lifetime and then that of their descendants — the relationship of art and life is revealed to be not a binary, nor even a dialogue, but rather two interrelated modes of self-disclosure: two canvases through which people try to connect with one another.
Dot’s romantic vision of George’s distinctiveness, we learn, is rivaled by a desperate need to be seen as distinctive, too: “No one is you, George on that we agree,” she sings, during their parting number, as Dot prepares to leave for America with Louis and her (and George’s) unborn child. “But no one is me, George/no one is me!”
It takes another century — and the figure of a second George (Patinkin again), George and Dot’s great-grandson and an aspiring if deeply disillusioned artist himself — for us to see the effects of George and Dot’s relationship: and with it the way in which their post-romantic relationship, half a world apart, transforms into a far more intimate connection. We of course see Dot in George’s painting, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — a Dot we can only hope George at last understands — but we see George, too, in the notes Dot has made in her grammar book: memories she passes down to her daughter Marie (also played by Peters), who is now an old woman. Through George, we discover, Dot has learned to concentrate: to pay attention to the world; through George, she has learned to see George better.
It is Marie’s final aria — “Children and Art” — that affects me most. They are, Marie says, echoing her mother’s favorite maxim, the only things that last. They are not set against one another, as if genius were opposed to domesticity, but are rather understood together: two creative manifestations of people trying to understand each other, trying to see each other, trying to speak to each other, trying to say no one is you, and no one is me.
There is another, worse, version of this story: a version where both children and art are ultimately narcissistic manifestations of self-expression: the story of the autotelic genius whose art is a claim to legacy. It is a distinctly gnostic vision of creation, wherein the selfish desire to be more oneself leads inexorably to the making of things (for in such a story both art and children are things). But that is not the story Sondheim is telling. Self-disclosure — the hunger for self-disclosure we find both in George and in Dot — is not understood primarily as a relationship between artist and audience, where one (singular, genius) half of the pairing overcomes the other (mundane, prosaic, interchangeable). Rather, it is a joint project: the relationship in which both (all?) parties try, and fail, and try again to know and be known. Art, at least good art, is always a result of, that human hunger to only connect. Self-disclosure is not, cannot be, unilateral. Children, like art, are downstream of love.
It’s perhaps telling that Sondheim’s tidiest romantic resolution is an eschatological one: Dot and George cannot understand one another in their own time; their final understanding comes only after their deaths, and in the epiphanies of those come after us. It’s a motif Sondheim uses elsewhere: “Children Will Listen,” at the close of Into the Woods, tells a similar story of parental imperfection and filial hope. But it is precisely this hope that softens even Sondheim’s most cutting lyrics: a hope that proper attention can lead us, maybe not now, but one day, into proper love. It’s the promise, as yet unfulfilled, of being known and loved as we are. It’s the promise that the story we keep trying to tell about ourselves, of ourselves — that self-disclosure the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes about, that being indoors each one dwells/ … myself it speaks and spells — will one day be understood.
It is precisely Sondheim’s flint-eyed attention to things as they are, as imperfect as they are, that allows him to hope for how they might be.