How do you’re feeling?

That’s a easy query, proper? And until you’re speaking to a health care provider, you in all probability have a easy reply.

And if that’s the case, the chances are that you just’re mendacity.

Such, anyway, is at all times my view of the human race after listening to a solid recording of a Stephen Sondheim musical, and even to simply considered one of his ballads. And with regards to feelings, Sondheim — greater than some other composer from the Broadway songbook — is the one I belief to inform me the reality.

That’s as a result of on the planet of Sondheim, emotions by no means come singly however in battalions. Even his easiest, most assertive melodies often sound as in the event that they’re being pulled in contradictory instructions.

After all, his ever-nimble lyrics — which have made his title a byword for verbal cosmopolitanism — abound in paradoxes, puns and declarations of uncertainty, all etched into deep-burrowing grooves. However the music provides one more layer, which regularly each confirms and battles with the phrases.

It’s complicated. It’s exhilarating. It’s life as we all know it, if we’re being sincere with ourselves. Stephen Sondheim is the American musical’s supreme artist of ambivalence. Which is why it took audiences and critics so lengthy to embrace him, and why — as soon as they did — he assumed his rightful place on an Olympian peak that no subsequent songwriter has ever been in a position to ascend.

My baptism into the multicolored, churning waters of a Sondheim rating occurred once I was 16, on my maiden journey to New York, a spot that loomed in my Southern childhood just like the Emerald Metropolis of Oz. On reflection, I can’t imagine my luck. Windfall — or my ticket-buying dad and mom — had seen to it that my very first Broadway present was “Follies,” Sondheim and the script author James Goldman’s portrait of two sad marriages, set amid the ruins of a as soon as superb, quick vanishing period in present enterprise.

I ought to say right here that I thought-about myself well-versed in musicals at the moment. Unique solid recordings of New York exhibits have been nonetheless recurrently spinning on turntables in middle-class American houses. Rising up in Winston-Salem, N.C., I used to be weaned on the work of, above all, Rodgers and Hammerstein. (The primary Broadway present my mom had seen, as a school commencement current, was “Oklahoma!,” and I used to warble “Folks Will Say We’re in Love” to my canine, Bangle.)

However I may additionally lie for hours on the ground subsequent to our huge, boxy monaural console within the firm of recordings of Lerner and Loewe, Meredith Willson, Jerry Herman and the Leonard Bernstein who wrote the music for “West Aspect Story” and “Great City.” For me — and I think about for a lot of People — even the unhappy numbers from these exhibits have been straight, pick-me-up pictures of concentrated happiness.

They exalted on a regular basis life — which I intuited early on was at all times going to be messy — by giving it a rhythm and rhyme that you may belt, wail and dance to. And often, that they had a conveniently insistent and easy development of notes and phrases that, as soon as heard, have been tattooed without end in your thoughts, able to be retrieved in moments of despair.

So in 1971, on the Palace Theater, at the hours of darkness, when the overture started for “Follies,” I used to be extremely excited and, earlier than lengthy, barely disturbed. (At that time, I used to be unacquainted with “Firm,” Sondheim’s breakthrough hit of the earlier 12 months.) A luxuriously full orchestra was summoning the form of grand strains you anticipate to precede an imposing present with a cavalcade of stars. However there have been shadows plucking on the grandeur, a way of magnificence dissolving into dissonance.

By the tip of the present — after watching a climactic succession of nervous breakdowns in track, styled, by the administrators Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, as opulent fantasy musical-comedy vignettes — I wasn’t certain what had hit me. I had borrowed sufficient modern novels about disenchanted spouses from my dad and mom’ library to comprehend a number of Goldman’s guide wasn’t precisely new territory.

However these songs! So worldly, so well-referenced, so eminently quotable, so contemptuous of hummable, assembly-line melodies — and, beneath all of it, in a manner I used to be nonetheless too younger to soak up, so torn by a fathomless concern and craving. As a self-conscious, awkward child who needed solely to be refined, I didn’t but grasp the advanced, subversive dialectic of phrases and music in these numbers, or notice that they have been as filled with feeling as something by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The notion of Sondheim as a author of “sweetly laconic cynicism” (as Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Instances) was fed by post-“Follies” cabaret acts and revues (together with “Aspect by Aspect by Sondheim,” which was on Broadway in 1977 once I first moved to New York) that emphasised his supreme, stinging wit. These have been lyrics you heard quoted as zingers at cocktail events (“It’s not so exhausting to be married, I’ve achieved it three or 4 occasions,” from “Firm”; “May I bury my rage, with a boy half your age, within the grass?/Guess your ass,” from “Follies.”)

However in fact, Sondheim was by no means simply the gimlet-eyed outsider on the occasion, quipping correctly and witheringly. As an alternative, what he was capturing like no one else in his style was the voice of a technology of doubters who, whether or not they admitted it or not, have been beginning to really feel like outsiders in their very own lives, like loners — even in a crowd, even inside their very own household.

These have been individuals who grew up in an age of tension, of self-probing psychoanalysis and rising divorce charges. The all-conquering love hymned within the traditional musical was starting to seem like an more and more flimsy fiction. “Pleased endings can spring a leak/ ‘Ever after’ can imply one week,” as Sondheim wrote in his lyrics for “Do I Hear a Waltz?,” the 1965 musical on which he collaborated with Richard Rodgers.

Such skepticism is to not be confused with wholesale cynicism or self-protecting numbness. Way back to his “Saturday Evening” (written within the 1950s, however by no means produced in New York till 2000), a portrait of younger Brooklyn males impatiently ready for his or her lives to start, Sondheim’s scores have persistently throbbed with a longing to attach, to interact and, sure, to like. It’s a sentiment wistfully embodied within the ballad “Being Alive” from “Firm,” a track repurposed within the 2019 Noah Baumbach film “Marriage Story” for Adam Driver’s divorce-mauled husband.

However nobody in a Sondheim musical is ever going to make the type of unconditional declaration that the cockeyed optimist Nellie Forbush did in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”: “I’m in love with a beautiful man!” Love, chez Sondheim, is handled as a harmful substance that might explode or rot or evaporate altogether when you lastly embrace it.

“Follies” covers a giddy vary of the varieties assumed by the divided nature of affection, and the way we maintain on to what stays of the illusions we as soon as had about it. (What’s so good in regards to the pastiche numbers, evocations of quaint songs of yesteryear, is the musical stress at warfare between previous kinds and current notion.) Most of us, I think about, have skilled one thing just like the frenzied vacillations of the two-timing husband who sings, “I’ve received these ‘God-why-don’t-you-love-me-oh-you-do-I’ll-see-you-later Blues.’”

However word how even an ostensibly easy ballad like “Not a Day Goes By,” from “Merrily We Roll Alongside,” progresses from a declaration of lifelong ardour to a harsh and resentful cry in opposition to the human bondage that such dedication entails. Or how in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Road” (1979), Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s retelling of a bloody Victorian city legend, an exiled barber’s love for the household he misplaced is remodeled right into a blind pursuit of revenge, with music wherein mild motifs of tenderness are devoured by thundering chords of rage.

Obsession, as each a life-warping pressure (“Assassins,” the savage but oddly empathic research of American killers from 1990) and a inventive necessity (the ravishing “Sunday within the Park With George,” 1984), turns into an more and more dominant topic for Sondheim within the second half of his profession. The peerless “Ending the Hat,” from “Sunday,” mixes the exhilaration that comes from the search for perfection and the painful data of the selfishness and sacrifices that it requires.

However what occurs when love itself turns into the overwhelming obsession? Sondheim lastly approached that topic late in his profession, with “Ardour” (1994), his penultimate work up to now. As formed by Sondheim and the author and director James Lapine (his collaborator on “Sunday”), this operatic masterwork follows the initiation of an odd man, a soldier, into the labyrinth of its titular topic.

His teacher takes the type of a sickly, ugly girl named Fosca, who teaches him that love is a blinding, irrational pressure — “as pure as breath, as everlasting as loss of life, as implacable as stone.” The paradoxically uplifting darkness of the music right here means that the triumph of affection is one thing neither to rejoice nor to lament. It merely is, in all its irreducible complexity.

When Fosca describes what is likely to be thought-about each her nemesis and her salvation, she is likely to be talking for Sondheim — a composer as soon as dismissed as all head and no coronary heart. “I do know I really feel an excessive amount of,” she says. “I usually don’t know what to do with my emotions.” Sondheim has at all times remodeled that not understanding, a state wherein all of us exist, into a few of the most totally feeling songs ever written.

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