A year ago, legendary composer and librettist Stephen Sondheim passed away at the age of 91 from cardiovascular disease. Sondheim left an indelible impact on American musical theatre. Even if some of his shows would not be as commercially successful as those of composer Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, their value to Broadway is unmatched. Whether it be from his work in “West Side Story,” “Company” or “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” he was a prevalent force in shaping the potential of musical theatre.
Though he may not be still around to write new music, Broadway has kept the dream alive by continually producing revivals of his shows. There was “Company” which opened on December 9, 2021, the revival of “Into the Woods,” which is still playing, and the upcoming 2023 revival of “Sweeney Todd.” The “Sweeney Todd” revival is especially exciting as Josh Groban is set to play the titular role, and Thomas Kail — director of “Hamilton” — will be directing.
Even for those unable to see a Broadway production live, there are other avenues. There are recorded performances of his musicals in varying styles, some are available on streaming sites while others are free and legal to watch on YouTube. Furthermore, there are film adaptations of his work — though some of the films can vary in quality — and all of his music is available to listen to on major streaming platforms. It has never been a better time to be a Sondheim fan.
Life of Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930 and grew up in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. After his parents’ divorce in 1942, he moved to Pennsylvania with his abusive mother, who would later tell him that her only regret in life was giving birth to him. To spend as little time as possible around her, he made friends with a boy named James, the son of lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstien II. Hammerstein became a surrogate father and mentor for young Sondheim, and even brought him along to assist in productions with his partner: composer Richard Rodgers.
Sondheim would also show Hammerstein his first full musical, hoping to be the youngest composer with a show on Broadway. After Sondheim told the professional to be brutally honest, Hammerstein called it the worst thing he had ever read, went through it note by note explaining why and showed him how to properly write a musical. Sondheim would call the experience very important to his learning; he would forever value the advice Hammerstein gave him: “write for yourself and you’ll be 90% ahead of everybody else.”
In collaboration with other composers and librettists, Sondheim would be responsible for the production of 19 musicals. He also mentored a number of people on songwriting, some of whom would become important figures on Broadway like Jonathan Larson of “Rent” and Lin Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton.”
From his first major work to his death, Sondheim received a number of awards and accolades: six Tonys, eight Grammys, an Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Furthermore, he was inducted into the Kennedy Center Honors and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He would also publish two books of self-annotated lyrics and commentaries on his work: “Finishing the Hat” and “Look, I Made a Hat.”
Why Stephen Sondheim Matters
Though he may not have been as foundational as Rodgers and Hammerstein or have had the same household recognition as Webber, Sondheim’s value to theatre is no less great. He was at the forefront of a bold new musical trajectory and revolutionized storytelling for the stage. Whether he’s credited with creating the concept musical with “Company,” portraying a gross display of violence and dehumanization in “Sweeney Todd” or penning the lyrics to the iconic “West Side Story,” Sondheim has had a decades-long hold on theatre.
One needs only look at his lyrics to see a tangible tonal shift from the lighthearted repertoire of Hammerstein and his contemporaries. Rather than the typical fare of commercial American Broadway where the lyrics are often dreamy, sapping or rather silly in terms of maturity, things were different after Sondheim. While they could be beautiful and whimsical, Sondheim lyrics could also be morbid, contemptible, aching or darkly comical. Their subject matter ranged from the tragic longing and loss in “Send in the Clowns,” to the societal commentary and critique of 1950’s American culture in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” to the twisted euphoria of creating puns about cannibalism in “A Little Priest.” There’s seemingly nothing he wouldn’t write about.
Sondheim’s lyrical variation, in tone and style, not only makes for an interesting viewing experience but also makes for a better window into the character’s mindset. The audience builds a better relationship to the characters, and glimpses a reflection of themselves through the music and lyrics. It’s like Diane Sawyer explained in her interview on “60 Minutes” with the lyricist: “Don’t expect Stephen Sondheim to give you songs about the moon in June. He writes about disappointment, ambivalence, bittersweet joy — in short, songs about the way people really feel.”
While his compositions are spectacular, they tend not to be the easiest to sing along to. Nevertheless, not every song needs to be a catchy radio hit. The complexity and dissonance in his work is capable of creating a more interesting, multifaceted story through music alone. Notwithstanding, it’s not complicated for the sake of being complicated — his music still feels very human.
That is why Sondheim is crucial to the musical theatre canon. He focused not so much on creating stories of people in an idealized or stylized manner, but rather on capturing humanity as it really is: messy, conflicted, stubborn and hypocritical at times. Listening to Sondheim is like listening to somebody who knows and understands the pains of humanity, and doesn’t shy away from it. Most importantly, he accepts that humanity and displays it, hoping his audience may find comfort in the reality that no one is alone.