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Stephen Sondheim, lyricist and composer, 1930-2021



“The important thing is to get something on paper,” Stephen Sondheim told me during a Lunch with the FT interview in 2010. “‘I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.’ OK, it’s a cliché, I’ll fix it tomorrow. You wake up in the morning and there it is. It’s something to work on.”

The pre-eminent figure in modern musical theatre was discussing writing lyrics, which he found trickier than composing music. Any desk-bound struggle was undetectable in the results. Sondheim, who died on Friday aged 91, was feted for the sophistication, wit, intelligence and psychological depth of works such as Company and Follies. He took the cliché of the Broadway musical as a frivolous parade of hoofers and belters — and fixed it for good.

Sondheim was born in New York in 1930. He grew up as the only child in a Jewish family, living in an apartment overlooking Central Park. His father Herbert made high-end women’s dresses for which his mother Janet provided the designs. It was a materially comfortable but emotionally cold childhood. After Herbert left for another woman, he was taken by his mother to live in Pennsylvania.

Janet, nicknamed Foxy, was an unloving presence in his life: she once told Sondheim that she regretted giving birth to him. He found a warmer surrogate parent in the person of the famous Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, a near neighbour. The co-creator of Oklahoma! and South Pacific became his mentor after Sondheim developed an interest in musicals: he wrote his first aged 15.

Hammerstein, with his composer partner Richard Rodgers, brought a new degree of complexity to musical theatre. Sondheim took the process several stages further. His break came when he successfully auditioned to be the lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957. Its ballad “Maria” showcased his acute ear for the musicality of language. It is a love song that finds “all the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word” — the name of the titular heroine.

He was the lyricist for another Broadway hit, 1959’s Gypsy: A Musical Fable, composed by Jule Styne. Unwilling to be pigeonholed as a wordsmith, Sondheim began composing too. His first musical in both roles was the bawdy comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. First staged in 1962, its vaudevillian jollity gave way to riskier topics and a more nuanced tonal range in later works.

Stephen Sondheim in 2004
Stephen Sondheim in 2004: his composing style was versatile yet also personal; he avoided the pitfall of pastiche © AP

First staged in 1970, Company dramatised the inability of a middle-aged New Yorker to enter into a romantic relationship. Follies (1972) was about infidelity and collapsing marriages. His storytelling range stretched from Victorian melodrama (1979’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) to Brothers Grimm fairy tales (1986’s Into the Woods) and US political history (1990’s Assassins).

His audacity in taking the stylised, escapist format of the musical into the complicated realms of real life was recognised early on: Company was lauded by critics and won a Tony award. But it proved too bold for some. His work was mischaracterised as emotionally cold and overly cerebral. “Too clever by half” was a recurrent objection, a concept he found inexplicable.

In 1981 Merrily We Roll Along closed after 16 performances, one of the biggest flops in Broadway history; it has since been reassessed as a major work. A tireless innovator, Sondheim on occasion had to wait for the world to catch up with him.

His composing style was versatile yet also personal: he avoided the pitfall of pastiche. He could write showstoppers such as Company’s “The Ladies Who Lunch”, which ends with its character singing the arms-flung-wide line “Everybody rise!”, in what Sondheim admitted was a pitch for a standing ovation. (The opening night audience did not oblige; later ones have.) But his use of melody was far subtler than the typical Broadway musical. His songs enact a sinuous synthesis between music and sung words.

A lover of puzzles and murder mysteries, Sondheim delighted in a kind of rhyming brinkmanship; he once made Cole Porter gasp with a bravura quadruple rhyme scheme. For all his verbal brilliance, however, he disdained showing off. Words and music had to be true to the character.

He came out as gay in his 40s but preferred to keep his private life to himself; he is survived by his husband Jeffrey Romley. He had a generous manner in person, not at all grand or self-smitten. Despite his estrangement from his mother, or maybe because of it, he wrote wonderful roles for women. Although he defied the pat conclusion of happy endings, an inquisitive sense of possibility pulses throughout his work. In the words of “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along: “This is where we began, being what we can.”

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Bank of England raises base interest rate to 1.75%



The Bank of England has raised the base interest rate by half a percentage point to 1.75 per cent, the biggest rise since 1995, in an attempt to combat runaway inflation.

The nine-strong monetary policy committee voted eight to one in favour of a 50 basis point rise, defying some market expectations for an increase by 25 basis points.

It is the Bank’s sixth consecutive tightening in monetary policy and follows in the footsteps of the US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank, which have begun aggressively raising rates by larger increments.

Interest rates are now the highest since 2009 as the Bank attempts to bring down inflation, which is running at a 40-year high of 9.4 per cent and is on course to exceed 11 per cent later this year.

These would be the worst inflation rates in the G7, caused in large part by rising global energy prices driving household bills higher this year. The UK economy is also heading for a slowdown this year as consumer incomes are squeezed more tightly than since the 1950s.

Andrew Bailey, the Bank’s governor, has hinted that it will also announce how it intends to begin unwinding the £850 billion of government debt pumped into the economy since the financial crisis, offloading bonds worth between £50 billion and £100 billion from as early as next month.

The Bank will also deliver its quarterly outlook, with Bailey expected to forecast that inflation will rise beyond 11 per cent and remain in double digits into next year. The Bank’s target is 2 per cent.

Commenting on today’s Bank of England interest rate rise, David Bharier, Head of Research at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said: “This rise is the clearest signal yet of the Bank of England’s intention to get inflation under control. Spiralling prices are cited by businesses as by far and away the top concern right now.

“However, given the extremely precarious state of the economy, this decision is not without risk for businesses and consumers that are exposed to banking or overdraft facilities.

“There are many causes of the current inflation crisis – global supply chain problems, trade barriers, soaring energy costs, increased taxes, and labour market shortages. Interest rate rises alone will do little to address these.

“Worryingly, our research indicates strongly that most small businesses are not investing for growth, and that longer-term confidence is beginning to wane.

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Opinion: OSC appointment fuss is a tempest in a teapot



Jeffrey MacIntosh: The government has the legislated right to have a say in the agency’s course

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Ed Waitzer’s recent op-ed (“The issue at the OSC is integrity, not debate,” July 14, 2022) expresses surprise and disappointment in my recent op-ed (“Conflict at the OSC: Why the regulator needs to make room for dissent,” July 7, 2022). In that op-ed, I argued that lawyer Heather Zordel’s appointment as non-executive chair of the OSC in March of this year should be met with open arms, as it introduces new points of view into what seems to be a rather intellectually closed shop. I don’t suppose it will come as a shock to Ed Waitzer or anyone else that I am surprised and disappointed at his rebuttal.

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To begin with, it contains a number of inaccuracies. It states that Ms. Zordel was denied reappointment to her earlier position (2019-2021) as part-time commissioner. In fact, given her busy legal practice, she took herself out of the running. This puts a rather different complexion on the matter.

And I never stated or implied that Ms. Zordel was not reappointed as part-time commissioner because of two dissenting opinions that she wrote as commissioner. My point was that for Ms. Zordel’s critics the dissents were a factor in opposing her appointment as chair of the board.

The nub of my argument was that the OSC could benefit from greater variety of viewpoints among its brass as to what investor protection and other aspects of the OSC’s mission entail. By contrast, Mr. Waitzer argues: “the importance of debate and dissent is not the point here.” I beg to differ. As I indicated, some prominent accounts of Ms. Zordel’s appointment have put a pejorative cast on her disagreements with her fellow commissioners. That puts the issue of debate and dissent front and centre.

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I certainly agree with Mr. Waitzer that the independence of administrative agencies is a cornerstone of our democracy. But does that mean that every administrative agency should be entirely divorced from any government oversight whatsoever — a little fiefdom unto itself and in no sense answerable to its political masters? Not a whit. It is the government that creates the agency, defines its mandate, gives it the powers that it needs to carry out that mandate and defines its organizational structure. And it is entirely within the purview of the government to enlist its legislative power to re-define that mandate, powers, and organizational structure if it chooses.

We don’t have to look into the distant past to find an example. On the advice of a non-partisan blue ribbon panel — the Capital Markets Modernization Taskforce (“CMMT”) — the Conservative government has recently substantially reorganized the OSC via the Securities Commission Act, 2021 (declared in force in April). That legislation splits the adjudicative function (the “Capital Markets Tribunal”) from the regulatory function. Moreover, where before the reorganization the OSC Chair and CEO were the same person, the two offices are now split. As expressed by the CMMT, “The Board of Directors, led by the Chair, (will) focus on the strategic oversight and corporate governance of the regulator,” while “The CEO (will) be responsible for the overall management of the organization and execution of the OSC’s mandate.” The directors, including the chair, are all government appointees.

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This new structure, recommended by a non-partisan committee, gives the government of the day the power to influence, at the highest level, the strategic direction of the OSC. But why should it not? If the government is dissatisfied with the strategic vision or regulatory philosophy of the regulator or the manner in which it is being implemented, it would be profoundly anti-democratic — and at odds with the rule of law — to forbid the government from seeking to alter the agency’s course.

Indeed, the Ontario Securities Act states “The Commission is an agent of the Crown in right of Ontario.” The key word here is “agent.” It is not “hegemony,” “fiefdom” or “satrapy.” At the end of the day, the OSC is a government creation performing regulatory functions ceded to it by the government.

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Do Ms. Zordel’s conservative connections compromise the independence of the institution of which she is now head? Absolutely not. In the making of such appointments, the twin issues of competence and integrity will take up a lot of shelf space. But why should the government not also consider, if it chooses, whether potential nominees share the government’s regulatory philosophy

The true worry about political interference is that the government might attempt to dictate or influence the result of particular cases. But the new legislation builds in the important protection of ceding no operational powers to the board of directors. Thus, aside from the government’s power to approve or decline proposed rule changes (a longstanding feature of securities regulation), its sole discretionary avenue of influence lies in its power to appoint directors and hence influence high-level strategic direction.

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What is left of the argument that there has been inappropriate political interference over the OSC? Only the assertion that Ms. Zordel and three other part-time commissioners were appointed without the government having consulted the OSC, as has customarily been done. Yes, it would have been better if the government had consulted the OSC. In all likelihood, however, the outcome would have been the same. The OSC might not like not having been consulted but at best this is a foible not a fiasco.

In the end, this tempest easily fits within a standard-issue teapot.

Financial Post

Jeffrey MacIntosh is a professor of law at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto, and a director of the Canadian Securities Exchange.



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BlackRock’s Fink blames investment climate ‘not seen in decades’ for profit miss



BlackRock results fell short of sharply reduced expectations in what it described as the worst environment in decades as falling asset prices and a rising dollar drove assets under management down to $8.5tn.

The world’s largest money manager’s adjusted earnings fell 30 per cent to $7.36 per share on $4.4bn in revenue for the quarter ending June 30. Analysts polled by Refinitiv had been expecting $7.90 a share, on revenue of $4.65bn.

BlackRock and other asset managers have been hit hard by volatile markets that have unsettled investors and pushed down the value of the portfolios from which they draw management fees.

The group has delayed hiring for some senior positions until 2023 and total spending on employee pay and benefits fell by 5 per cent from the first quarter. Although there is no firm-wide hiring freeze, BlackRock is trying to hold down costs by “juniorising” their work force: hiring less experienced people to fill open positions.

Assets under management dropped 11 per cent, marking the second consecutive quarterly drop after peaking at $10tn at the end of 2021. State Street’s asset management arm reported on Friday that its AUM had also fallen 11 per cent to $3.5tn.

As a global manager, BlackRock has also felt the impact of a rising dollar, which has reduced the value of fees derived in other currencies. While revenue was down 6 per cent overall, base fees were flat in constant currency terms.

“The first half of 2022 brought on a combination of macro financial and economic challenges that investors have not seen in decades . . . 2022 ranks as the worst start in 50 years for both stocks and bonds,” Larry Fink, the group’s founder and chief executive, said on an earnings call.

Fink hailed the group’s ability to generate $90bn in net inflows despite the grim news, saying it was “demonstrating our ability to deliver industry-leading flows even in these most challenging environments . . . BlackRock’s position has never been stronger.”

BlackRock’s shares, which had lost one-third of their value in 2022, were down slightly morning trading.

Operating margins compressed to 43.7 per cent, dragged down by higher expenses for technology as well as travel and entertainment, even as revenues fell.

“Even [BlackRock] isn’t immune to a market downturn. However, we were impressed with [their] ability to sustain robust asset inflows in choppy markets,” said Kyle Sanders, analyst at Edward Jones, adding that he expected BlackRock’s continued spending on strategic growth areas “will likely dampen profit margins in the near-term [but] we think it bolsters their competitive advantage.”

The group’s iShares exchange traded funds platform drew the bulk of new investor money, with $52bn in net inflows, and its cash platform reached record levels with $21bn in net new money as customers fled to safety and took advantage of rising interest rates.

While some market experts have predicted that volatile markets will lead investors to cut their allocations to ETFs and other passive vehicles, so far that has not been the case. Gary Shedlin, BlackRock’s chief financial officer said that institutional investors are increasingly using ETFs to reposition their portfolios rather than buying and selling individual stocks and bonds directly.

“We expect bond industry ETF assets will nearly triple and reach $5tn at the end of the decade . . . Rising rates will bring a whole new set of investors,” Fink said.

Retail funds fared worse, with net outflows of $10bn, and BlackRock’s performance fees for its advisory services were down sharply year on year. But products that use environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria continue to attract new money and now manage $473bn in assets.

The company’s technology division proved to be a bright spot. Revenue rose 5 per cent year on year, and Fink said the company had received record new mandates for its Aladdin system, which helps other financial services companies manage risk.

“BlackRock has always capitalised on market disruption and emerged stronger,” said Shedlin said. “We have navigated these choppy waters before.”

The AUM figures do not include several very large institutional mandates for outsourced investment management that BlackRock has recently won from AIG and General Dynamics, among others. “We are going to see an acceleration . . we see this as a real opportunity for us,” Fink said.

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