Stephen Sondheim, as great a composer as he is a lyricist

In the early 1990s, at several memorial services for friends who died of AIDS, I played “Good Thing Going,” a melancholy song about remembering imperfect but dear relationships. “Marry Me a Little,” from the original “Company” production, but beloved in later covers as the protagonist’s statement of determination and desperation, was another piece I loved to perform; I always use the demanding part of the perpetual motion piano as an exercise to keep my finger technique flexible.

In 2010, I made a tribute video for his 80th birthday for the Times website in 2010, in which, among other clips, I played and analyzed the wonderful chords from the beginning of “Sunday in the Park with George”. Here, the hero, Georges Seurat, addressing the public, explains the elements of the painting, how the artist must “put the whole in order” by drawing, composition, balance, light. and finally harmony. Each word is accompanied, almost musically illustrated, by a variation of a five-note arpeggio figure that strangely embodies each concept. The tuning of the light is so piercing and brilliant that you’ll almost want to squint.

In 2016, I asked Sondheim why such a master composer so rarely wrote a purely instrumental work. Yes, he was one of the greatest lyricists in the history of musical theater. But wasn’t he tempted to put the words aside every now and then and compose, say, a piano sonata?

He replied that it was not really the words that generated his musical ideas. “I express character,” he said. “Let’s see what happens to him. I express it musically. He was endlessly fascinated by the “puzzle of music”, he added. But when he only gets into music, the “puzzle takes over”.

I have been thinking since her death of a trip to the Bronx Zoo that my husband and I took in the spring of 2019 with Sondheim and her husband, Jeff Romley. They were passionate about animals and my cousin Kathleen LaMattina works there and lives there with her husband Jim Breheny, director of the zoo. In a special room, these honored guests could pet sloths and penguins, and even approach a cheetah, under the calm control of a member of staff. I have pictures of Sondheim feeding a giraffe with branches from deciduous trees.

As I write this, I am looking at the piano-voice score of “Sweeney Todd” that Sondheim signed for me the first time he came to dinner, in 1997.

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