December 15, 2021

A Lyrical Coincidence — Stephen Sondheim and Paul McCartney

By Stuart Mitchner

I was fortunate enough to meet him and chat about songwriting.”

— Paul McCartney

They changed my life.” That was my response to an email from a friend asking: “So the Beatles trump Sondheim?” She was referring to my reviews of Get Back, the book and the film, written at a time when the cultural media was dominated by tributes and remembrances in the aftermath of the composer’s death. I explained that Sondheim’s work was virtually unknown to me, while I’d been living in the music of the Beatles since the mid-1960s. But “changed my life” was too easy to say, too facile, and my friend was uneasy using “trump” (“can we still use that word?”), a verb I’ve been avoiding for the past five years.

Word choice is on my mind at the moment because I’m reading Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions (Scarecrow Press 2005), a series of his conversations with Library of Congress music specialist Mark Eden Horowitz. And now that I think of it, the theatre, which had also been “virtually unknown” to me when Sondheim was making his name there, had as much to do with changing my life as the Fab Four. It happened during Ray Bolger’s captivating song and dance sing-along show-stopper, “Once in Love With Amy,” at the St. James Theatre. The show was Where’s Charlie?, and I’d just turned 10. A few years later, I saw Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in The King and I and had the good fortune to be in the house when Shirley MacLaine made her the-star-broke-a-leg debut at a matinee of The Pajama Game.

More to the point, after seeing the original Broadway production of West Side Story, I lived in the cast album, singing along with and without it for years. I had no idea at the time that the lyrics playing on the soundtrack of my life — “Somewhere,” “Maria,” “Tonight,” “America,” and the others — had been written by someone named Stephen Sondheim. Yet it seems that the lines I knew by heart are the ones he said he’s “embarrassed by” in a February 2020 interview on 60 Minutes. As an example, he cites the duet “Tonight.” When Tony sings, “Today the world was just an address, a place for me to live in,” Sondheim thinks it sounds like this “street kid” has been “reading too much.” He then goes on to admit “that’s not true for a lot of people who find it a very good line and enjoy it.” But “if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t write that line …. I know better now.”

Although the musicological terminology in Sondheim’s conversations with Horowitz can be hard to follow, it’s offset by the composer’s personable, down to earth way of expressing himself: “When I feel I’m getting stale,” he says, “I go into sharp keys because they’re so foreign and scary.” Asked about the small red arrows on a manuscript, he explains that it signifies “what I like … after I’ve written down as many ideas as I can, and I feel as though I’m ready to give birth, I’ll go back over it and decide what it is I really want to remember and try to preserve.”

A Lyrical Coincidence

The week Sondheim died, Paul McCartney’s two-volume collection The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present (Liveright) was on its way to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, where The Beatles Get Back recently made its first appearance. As I read Sondheim’s reference to letting his fingers “wander idly over the keys” while he jots down ideas on a lyric pad, I keep flashing on images of McCartney making love to the Blüthner piano in Get Back. When Sondheim repeats the same phrase (“If you listen to this sentence”) three times in succession to indicate how he finds music in ordinary speech (“It’s the musicality of the language itself that suggests the music for me”), I’m remembering how McCartney’s search for words for a slowly emerging melodic line becomes one with “the long and winding road” of the lyric that “always leads me here….” In the lyric, the line ends, “to your door.” But if you’ve seen McCartney in Get Back bending over the Blüthner, rapt as a lover whispering sweet nothings to his swooning lover, you know that what’s waiting at the end of the road is a keyboard.

McCartney’s “Confidante”

Another McCartney song that came to mind as I read Sondheim on Music was “I’ll Follow the Sun,” which he wrote in 1958 when he was 16. By the time it turns up six years later on Beatles For Sale, it doesn’t matter when or how or where he wrote it. He sings, you listen, and you know it’s a perfect song, like “Blackbird” and numerous others of his, including the lesser-known beauty “I’m Carrying,” a romantic ballad that seems to have come from a Broadway musical he never got around to writing.

It’s possible that McCartney composed “I’ll Follow the Sun” on the guitar he refers to as the “underneath the staircase friend” he falls “out of love with” in “Confidante,” from his 2018 album, Egypt Station. Given Sondheim’s thoughts on word choice, I think he’d have been amused by McCartney’s use of a word as stylish as “confidante,” definitely not a name you’d expect a kid from Liverpool to give to the old friend of whom he sings: “I played with you throughout the day / And told you every secret thought,” and “Unlike my other so-called friends / You stood beside me as I fought.”

There’s a certain Beatles resonance in that couplet from “Confidante” especially if you’ve just seen Get Back, where Ringo Starr’s looking on as McCartney’s working out the lyric for “Long and Winding Road.” When Paul comes to the line “why leave me waiting here,” Ringo thinks “standing” would be a better choice, his friend agrees, and so it appears in the finished version, which can be found in The Lyrics, along with the other McCartney songs mentioned here.

Being There

Having just seen Into the Woods on DVD, I can appreciate why Sondheim is so beloved, particularly among people who have been there, in the theater. The movement, the music, the action is ongoing, unrelenting. “Musically,” Sondheim says in reference to Passion, which I also saw on DVD, “the idea is to make it one long rhapsody so the audience will never applaud. There are some perfect cadences in it, but not very many. The audience is never encouraged to think that something is over.”

Unless you count the January 1969 rooftop farewell witnessed mainly by wives, girlfriends, crew members, and various Londoners on the street and adjacent rooftops, the Beatles hadn’t played before an audience since 1966. While it’s possible to imagine that in a recording Sondheim is singing to you through his characters, the effect obviously can’t compare with what happens when McCartney is in the room with you singing “I’ll Follow the Sun,” or John Lennon singing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” or George Harrison singing “Within You, Without You,” or even Ringo Starr as Billy Shears opening “the act you’ve known for all these years” with “A Little Help from My Friends” in the make believe vaudeville theatre featuring Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

At the St. James

In the long and winding road of popular culture, the theatre at its most stirring ultimately transcends film, records, streaming television, the lot. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. A few years ago I tried to describe how it was to be a 10-year-old at the St. James watching Ray Bolger singing and dancing while a live band plays, and laughing in sheer delight when Bolger does a drunken gambit, cavorting around the stage in an ecstasy, so full of the song that singing isn’t enough, he’s catapulted by the music, waving his arms, leaping about, calling on the audience to share the joy until the whole theatre is singing along, “Once in love with Amy! Always in love with Amy!” And though the 10-year-old didn’t know then what he knows now, the Amy he’s in love with is New York City.