The great Sondheim burst of the 1970’s was a decade of work unequalled by any other Broadway songwriter. [The Bock/Harnick run from “Fiorello” in 1959 through “The Rothschilds” in 1970 may be comparable, but that was their entire output. Sondheim, both before and after the 70’s, is responsible for several more musicals, including arguably three of the greatest of all time.]
My own entry into his world started with “A Little Night Music.” The show premiered in 1973. I didn’t see it right away, but I still remember my parents, both musicians, coming home from a theater date, saying they fell in love with the show the moment the bassoon came in. Listen to the overture on the original cast recording, and you’ll hear that moment on the first introduction of the Night Waltz theme. You will fall in love, too.
I was thirteen when it opened. I remember still, oddly enough, the Clive Barnes review in the New York Times singling out the lyric “The hip-bath, the hip-bath, how can you trip and slip into hip-bath,” for particular praise, and not being overly impressed. Of course, he was on deadline, and the intricacies of what Sondheim did with that score are hard to jot down in the darkness of a theater. It would be a year later when I finally saw it. William Daniels had replaced Len Cariou [and I saw George Lee Andrews, his understudy], and there was a new Fredrika, but otherwise, it was the original cast.
I was an incipient lyric-freak, working my way through the Great American Songbook through my gigging dad’s fakebooks. But it was from my mother that I derived my delight in the cleverness of Cole Porter and Frank Loesser, and it was she who bought me the cast album to “A Little Night Music.”
Which came with a lyric sheet.
There have been a handful of authors who have blinded me on my personal road to Damascus. There has been one songwriter, and this lyric sheet is what did it.
Most people, when asked about this score, will bring up “Send In The Clowns,” perhaps Sondheim’s most well-known song as a composer/lyricist. It’s a lovely song, but for me, the supreme achievement of the show, and maybe the greatest achievement in any show, was the blending of the first three songs into the trio in “Soon.”
“Now,” sung by Fredrik Egerman. “Later,” sung by Henrik, his adult son. “Soon,” sung by Anne, his young second wife, still a virgin eighteen months after their marriage.
Now, later, soon. Three simple words, each containing within it both Time and Tension. Threes abound in the score, both melodically and lyrically. Each song is different in tempo and tone. Fredrik, the lawyer, a bouncy 6/8 while he analyzes his choices in gaining his wife’s amorous favors; Henrik, the sexually frustrated divinity student, a slower 3/4 while accompanying himself on the cello, bemoaning his own frustrations; Ann, the bride, an almost teasing, delicate Viennese waltz as she tries to convince herself that this marriage was what she wanted. Each song is different, yet Sondheim, in the latter part of “Soon,” brings the songs and the singers together.
Find the lyrics, break them down. He begins with each character singing his or her own song, albeit all to Ann’s lilting waltz. As they begin mingling, the words “Now, later, soon” are passed from character to character. The individual songs give way to every possible combination of two characters singing against a third: Fredrik and Ann, Ann and Henrik, Henrik and Fredrik.
And then they crash together, all singing their individual lines on the bridge to Ann’s “Soon.” As she sings, “And you’ll have to admit I’m endearing,” the others sing other lines in counterpoint, coinciding with the rhymes “peering” for Henrik and “hearing” for Fredrik, followed by the next stanza culminating in “domineering/cheering/interfering.” Interestingly, Ann’s dithering patter while Fredrik sings “Now” includes a line about “earrings,” another rhyme echoed here. Intentional? Accidental? Unconscious? I don’t know, but I like it.
And in the end, the words “Now,” “Later,” and “Soon” return to their originators as Fredrik drifts off to sleep, his young bride next to him in bed — only instead of naming her in the final word of his song of need, he names another woman. Which Ann, of course, hears.
I would go on to discover “Company” and “Follies,” to see “Sweeney Todd” and “Pacific Overtures”, to hear, read and devour everything he’s done since. I have become a lyricist myself, largely due to my love of what he did, starting with these three songs.
Happy 90th Birthday, Mr. Sondheim. Thank you for everything.