Sondheim's bissel night music

By James Inverne, November 19, 2012

What makes a Jewish artist a Jewish Artist? It's a question that occurred to me again some months ago, watching the thought-provoking revival of Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods in New York.

The director, Timothy Sheader, had cast as the narrator a young boy who has run away from home and is seeking refuge in the sometimes comforting, sometimes scary surrounds of the forest. His first line is also the show's: "Once upon a time…"

As the assorted fairy tale characters roll out and enact their stories, I was put a little bit in mind of the Passover meal. The one, as I'm sure you won't need reminding, (there's nothing like a five-hour dinner, two nights running, to brand a tradition on the brain) where a child stands up and instigates a long evening of story-telling.

Yet I once put it to Sondheim that his shows sounded Jewish to me. "If they are," he replied, "then I'm not aware of it." He's open-minded enough to understand that artists don't have total control over what they create. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is interpretation of a work of art. If I say they are Jewish, Steve, they are (at least to me).

But it's fascinating to try and work out why. There's nothing overtly Jewish in any of the plots of his shows, or their main characters - a vengeful barber, a pointillist painter, presidential assassins, a dissatisfied singleton or, in the case of Into The Woods, Little Red Riding Hood and friends. Not a rabbi or a Jewish milkman among them.

If I say they are Jewish, Steve, then they are

So what is it? Leaving aside the fact that Sondheim himself is Jewish and we like to recognise something of ourselves in famous Jews (it's a pride thing), there is something inescapably Jewish about these characters.

They talk. And talk. And argue. And talk. Mostly in song of course. In Sunday In The Park With George, Seurat complains about not being understood. Kvetches, indeed, if at a high intellectual level. In Company, Bobby listens to endless advice from friends about why he should or shouldn't get married.

The dialogue is filled with multiple viewpoints, provisos, argument and counter-argument. Characters manage to work through entire talmudic debates, as it were, in soliloquy. Take just one seemingly throwaway comment from Red Riding Hood (beautifully timed in New York by Sarah Stiles), her great summation of her close shave with the Wolf: "Isn't it nice to know a lot? And a little bit not." There you have the thrill of knowledge, and the lament of lost innocence. Both at once.

For a religion where debate is central, even to methods of Torah study (in company, to stimulate discussion), and a culture that preaches a span of emotions at any one time - from bitter herbs amid the happiness of Passover, to the breaking of a glass under the chupah - there is much here to recognise. Put this into a broiges among family or friends, of which there are many in Sondheim's musicals (the most tragic being the corrosion of a friendship in Merrily We Roll Along) and, well, suffice to say he even manages to wring a family feud out of Into The Woods's Witch and her beloved Rapunzel.

And the music? There's that signature move from confident major key to anguished or ironic minor - signature for Jewish music, that is. But with Sondheim, the master lyricist, you simply cannot divorce melody from lyric, and here, too, Jewishness is fused to the core of both. Take perhaps his most famous song, Send In The Clowns from A Little Night Music. Tell you what - just take the first three words, four notes. "Isn't it rich?" sings the spurned protagonist, but there isn't a hint of jollity to the vocal line. Bitterness, gentleness, sorrow, love; all are there in a very Jewish jumble of emotions and perspectives.

Some feel Sondheim to be a genius lyricist and a mediocre composer. The torch-songs and dollops of emotion that pop up every so often sit uncomfortably for them with the lighting-speed sophistication of the lyrics.

But that is to misunderstand the way his art works. It is that very quality - that at the centre of it all, finally, is a great heart and everything else is an effort to enable that to function with ever-more humanity - that makes him so great. It is also what makes him so Jewish.

Last updated: 10:45am, November 19 2012