2nd April 1976: Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist. Credit: R. Jones/Evening Standard/Getty Images

The knife-wielding obituarist

Tom Sutcliffe’s obituary of composer Stephen Sondheim was ill-judged and vindictive

Artillery Row

The death of the great composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, at the age of 91, was marked with the usual, and in this case, justifiable outpouring of emotion by his friends and admirers. He was compared to Shakespeare and to the giants of musical theatre — not least his great mentor Oscar Hammerstein II — and his kindness, wit and boundless curiosity about both art and life were eulogised. I was especially pleased to discover from a Sam Mendes tribute that Sondheim had so enjoyed Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet — the best I’ve ever seen — that he flew over friends of his from New York so that they, too, could experience it. It would seem that he was that rare thing, a universally admired major public figure.

Alas not. Step forward that knife-wielding figure, the obituarist, in this case one Tom Sutcliffe, who was writing for the Guardian. Confusingly, Sutcliffe is a different fellow to the Saturday Review presenter by the same name, who consequently found himself besieged by invective from outraged Sondheim admirers. But it isn’t hard to see why l’autre Sutcliffe quickly became such a figure of loathing. It is obvious from the sniffy, even sneering obituary that the writer had no particular admiration for the man who he was commemorating. The warning signs are there from the first paragraph’s allusion to how “his chosen path was neither obvious nor easy”, and then the digs come one after another. “Sondheim never scored a true hit show … [his musical] numbers work better as out-takes than in their original dramatic contexts … commercial failure boosted his myth as suffering genius … his shows tended to go limp at the interval … his complex storylines lacked humanity and affection.”

Etc, etc. I fear that Sutcliffe’s own sympathies and interests are given away by the telling statement that “Lloyd Webber’s works were conceptually provocative in just the way Sondheim seemed to want to be…[as] Sondheim’s reputation as an innovator grew, Lloyd Webber’s brash, bold, obvious vehicles underlined with their implacable popularity just how out of joint with popular taste Sondheim was.” There are few, including I’d wager Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, who would seriously argue that the British composer was a more talented and artistically significant figure in musical theatre than Sondheim, despite his enormous success and wealth. However, to their paltry number can be added Tom Sutcliffe, obituarist.

I look forward to the inevitable posthumous pieces explaining why Paul McCartney and Judi Dench weren’t much cop

The comments on the piece were not positive. A typical one disparaged it as “a really poorly written review as well as being curmudgeonly in its appraisal of a true artistic genius … disjointed, cobbled together — a cut and paste job … even the chronology is a mess — an objectively bad piece of writing, whether or not you are in tune with its central thesis.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the obituary was closed to further public opprobrium after a day, but debate continues to rumble on via social media, even as the unfortunate “other Sutcliffe” fends off Sondheim’s outraged admirers.

It is hard not to wonder why the paper did not commission a distinguished and sympathetic critic to write a more fulsome piece, unless it had somehow been decided that, amidst the many positive and appreciative articles commissioned, there should be at least one dissenting voice. If so, I look forward to the inevitable posthumous pieces explaining why the likes of Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Judi Dench weren’t much cop, really. No doubt the anti-JK Rowling one has already been written, and will be updated with added vitriol over the coming years. But the fracas raises the question of what the point of an obituary is, and whether it should exist primarily to praise its subjects — or, if needs be, to bury them.

As an occasional freelance obituarist myself, I have some knowledge of the workings of the industry, even down to the euphemisms commonly used to denote various eccentricities of person or habit. “Generous with his affections” meant “serial groper”, “tireless raconteur” was used of crashing bores and “given to making brave proposals” indicated someone of near-pathological recklessness. But in the case of major public figures, especially those who have contributed something of worth to society, there is surely an argument for combining amusing innuendos with a carefully calibrated appreciation of their talents and achievements, rather than simply putting the boot in. 

Sometimes, an obituary can be unintentionally revealing about its author’s preoccupations, rather than its subject, and the consequences can be professionally lamentable. The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright judged the architect Will Alsop’s contributions to the built environment as “wacky” and “hare-brained”.  Rather than write about the importance of his establishment-challenging talent and work, such as his triumphant, Stirling Prize-winning Peckham Library, Wainwright decided to focus on the dreary matter of Alsop’s personal finances. Alas, though, in pursuit of these gems, Wainwright had taken the trouble to hound the ailing architect for an admission of his terminal illness. For all that distressing and prurient effort, the resultant summation of his life was woefully inadequate. 

And sometimes, a notice can spill over (entertainingly) into the public revelation of a deeply held personal grudge. The architecture and design critic Stephen Bayley was often associated with Terence Conran. The two worked together for years, not least on the foundation of the Design Museum, and most people might have reasonably assumed that they were friends. Nonetheless, upon Conran’s death in 2020, Bayley wrote an obituary — again for the Guardian which was witty and quietly devastating. It presented Conran as a magpie-like figure, with his success owing much to “a keen sense of self-worth and a very beady eye for a good source and clever, dedicated workmates”. 

One day a writer with a hangover and a grudge might sharpen their own pen against you. The results are unlikely to be flattering

One could finish Bayley’s encomium and get the strong impression that he viewed himself as one of these clever, dedicated men, doing the actual hard work and steamrollered by a man of whom he wrote “not for the first time, Terence’s vanity exceeded his common sense.” His restaurants were decried for their “middle-class mediocrity” and Bayley remarked, with full waspishness, that “people not paying full attention could get the impression that [Conran] actually invented baguettes, pâté, soup, room-dividers, the duvet.” That he admitted that he had been “plucked from the obscurity of a lectureship in a provincial university” in order to be Conran’s right-hand-man did not blind him to what he perceived as his mentor’s flaws, not least, on this evidence, sociopathic self-absorption, meanness (“he cared about the numbers”) and a lack of real attention to detail: “It is hard to decide whether he was restlessly creative, or simply incapable of concentrating.”

I finished reading Bayley’s breathtakingly damning account of someone he concluded was “an enigmatic, difficult but fascinating man” and wondered whether it was a long-cherished act of revenge against his former employer, or if he was simply articulating what other people believed. Conran, like Sondheim and Alsop, was certainly no saint, either in his public or private lives, and it is the duty of a responsible obituarist to juggle the good and bad alike; this is one of those times when it is literally required to speak ill of the dead. 

But at least Bayley wrote with both authority and wit. To condemn someone as second-rate and overpraised because you, personally, did not care for their work might pass muster for a few likes and retweets on social media, but to offer such a final judgement on anyone in the canonical confines of a national newspaper seems both petty and vindictive. “The last word”, as an obituary should be, can encompass all manner of personal comment. Yet when it tips over into simple name-calling it is hard not to agree with Brendan Behan, who commented “There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.” Naysayers, take note: one day, after all, a writer with a hangover and a grudge might sharpen their own pen against you. The results are unlikely to be flattering. 

And as for the wretched Sutcliffe, suffering the slangs and arrows of criticism for his ill-judged obituary, he should be sentenced to listen to Send in the Clowns for the next week. They would have done a rather better job of memorialising their creator than he did.

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