The Essential Musical Dramatist Who Taught Us to Hear

One of the greatest American composers, clearly the greatest lyricist — and, by virtue of those two rarely linked greatnesses, the essential musical dramatist of our time — wanted to talk about double acrostics.

This was not quite what I expected when I met the man in 2004. But Stephen Sondheim, who died on Friday at 91, leaving a life’s outpouring of rapturous, hilarious, gorgeous and tortuous song in his wake, was, in my first interview with him, and in every interview since, uninterested in reputation.

Thinking about “The Frogs,” the 1974 musical he wrote to be performed at the Yale University swimming pool, and which he was in the process of revising for Lincoln Center Theater, he preferred to recall the fun he’d had with Burt Shevelove, his collaborator on that show as well on “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

But double acrostics? How, I asked, could a man whose lyrics were trickier, deeper and more full of joy than even the most subversive puzzles — which he’d written plenty of in his youth — find pleasure in those drudgy Sunday morning time sucks?

“No, no,” he said. “You don’t understand. We did them out loud. No pens. No paper.” Which was like saying you could do needlepoint blindfolded.

And of course that’s essentially what he did: prick holes in the dark to form patterns of light. As he wrote of the painter Georges Seurat in “Sunday in the Park With George,” he taught us “how to see.”

I have often thought of those double acrostics, their letters tossed through the air like shuttlecocks, in trying to understand how Mr. Sondheim managed to do what he did.

Though he rejected the idea that lyrics were poetry, his lyrics nevertheless had both a greater density of meaning and a lighter footprint on their music than anyone else’s. Though he was at first dismissed as a minor, “unhummable” melodist, over the course of his 15 scores for the stage (and several in other mediums) he gradually retuned the ear of theatergoers until they were able to recognize the beauty in his harsh complexities. And though he graciously bowed to his book writers, it was he who elevated their plot points into drama by shaping them first into individual jewels of songs and then stringing them into chains.

Underlying all these achievements — and his skill with double acrostics — was something I can only call computational brilliance: He had more brain cells constantly at work storing, sorting and recalling information than most of us. To find a rhyme for “personable,” it takes, to start, random access to an inventory of English sounds so vast that it beggars any thesaurus. (No rhyming dictionary could help him find, as he did in “Company,” this astonishing solution: “coercin’ a bull.”) But then, too, his ear had to hear beneath the shock of the rhyme to the shape of the sound, and set it on music that would mimic instead of fight it.

On its own, his verbal agility, and musical sensitivity, though prodigious, would not have produced great characters like Sweeney in “Sweeney Todd,” Desiree Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music” and Fosca in “Passion” (who barely rhymes at all). Innately understanding how the component elements of musical theater could be forged into drama was his overriding gift, and in that sense he often seemed like a magician and an archaeologist in one. A rhyme in “Follies,” blossoming from a newly discovered pairing into a surprise triple flower, brings the psychology of Phyllis, its sophisticated leading lady, into deep, then deeper focus. “She made compliance/Into a science./One of the giants,” the chorus sings of her, and a brittle queen becomes a neurotic superstar.

Also worth noting: The song, “Ah, but Underneath,” is just one of three he wrote for the same spot in the show, each new one as insightful as the last but with a completely different concept and rhyme scheme, bringing out different elements of Phyllis’s personality.

What is especially remarkable about Mr. Sondheim’s nearly unparalleled emotional insight into his characters is that he did not seem emotionally comfortable in person. I often noticed in interviews that he would turn his head away and to the side, like a sleeping bird. (Bradley Whitford, who plays Mr. Sondheim in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie “Tick, Tick … Boom!” reproduces that gesture perfectly.) He did not always seem to understand other people’s feelings in situ.

But in words, and onstage, he was Freud himself, bringing to the American musical theater its most fully realized psychological portraits. Despite their Grand Guignol doings and music hall style, Sweeney and his accomplice Mrs. Lovett — he kills his barbershop customers, she bakes them into pies — are up there dramatically with Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth. In this greatest of Mr. Sondheim’s works, which is, for many, the best American musical, we are forced to understand and, more perversely, root for some of the worst deeds ever imagined for the stage.

Certainly, Mr. Sondheim did not achieve that illusion by working from his own knowledge of cannibalistic revenge. Years of pleasure in listening to the score and playing it at the piano and seeing its every revival, revisal and miniaturization have led me to think the insight comes from the other direction: from a willingness, like a scientist’s, to assume the position of no knowledge at all. When musical theater writers approach material they think they already understand, they most often write what was already understood, and in the same old words. That was the limitation of Mr. Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II.

But Mr. Sondheim never stopped being a student, starting at the very beginning, each time he wrote, with sounds and letters and words. He discovered what he needed to make his characters come to life beneath the previously unexplored trapdoors of the musical scale, in the secret seams of the dictionary. He remained in that sense childlike, with an almost magical belief in discovery. (That’s why he was also a great teacher.) The joy he must have felt in finding that he could make Armfeldt (a name he did not choose) rhyme with “charm felt” — and thus define a character in a couplet — was the same joy he gave us. People might remain surprising forever, his life’s work showed us, as long as words and music did too.

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