I’m a fan of Sondheim. He writes in Finishing The Hat that his favourite of his own lyrics are those that are simplest and most direct; but, like many of his fans, I just can’t resist his virtuosic linguistic twists and turns, when he’s at his most showy. Even A Little Priest, the mountain of a duet at the end of Act I of Sweeney Todd, turns out to be less of a learning challenge than I feared because Sondheim is having so much fun testing the song’s idea to destruction that his enjoyment is infectious.
Follies is a show I didn’t know until last week and it presses all my Sondheim buttons as well as satisfying my love of sequins. The composer is writing on one of his favourite themes, unfulfillment, and how we may deal with our disappointment. If we have made a poor choice we can try to change it but we may have to live with it and it needn’t be all bad – we will survive. I enjoyed the typically complex Sondheim structure involving characters doubled with their younger selves, but the revelation for me in Follies was in discovering the intended context of songs that I have known for years as stand-alone numbers (In Buddy’s Eyes, Losing My Mind, I’m Still Here). If a song is great it will bear separation from its environment but it’s always exciting to discover a whole other world of meaning when it’s heard within the show.
Of course the same goes for opera – Nessun Dorma is less about football and more about hoping to avoid execution when heard in the context of Turandot – and it’s a great reminder of why we should always take the time to go back to the source and not just be seduced by the best tunes in isolation.