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One Year Later: Remembering Stephen Sondheim

*Stephen Sondheim, the Broadway composer and lyricist. Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

On November 26th, 2021, the legendary Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim died at 91. Continuing to write up until his death, he received eight Tony Awards, an Academy Award for Best Original Song (Dick Tracy, 1991), several Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize, and even a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Sondheim wrote the lyrics to 18 major theatrical works and composed 15 of them, with many becoming iconic musicals performed all around the world.

Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930 in New York City. He was raised in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, eventually also being raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania after his parents’ divorce. At 10 years old, he began a mentorship with renowned playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein eventually became Sondheim’s surrogate father, helped Sondheim reinforce his newfound love for the theater, and would set Sondheim on a path to success until his death in 1960.

Sondheim struggled with his early projects. When he finally got the funding for one of his projects, titled Saturday Night, the leading producer died of leukemia, and the show did not open. In 1956, Sondheim met playwright Arthur Laurents at a party, who told him that he was writing a musical version of Romeo and Juliet, with Leonard Bernstein to compose the music. Laurents knew of Sondheim’s lyrics from auditions for Saturday Night, and said he could get Sondheim an audition with Bernstein. While hesitant to take the job, Hammerstein advised Sondheim to take it, mentioning the interesting premise and professional workspace. Sondheim got the job, and would write the lyrics for West Side Story.

The 1957 now-classic would get the ball rolling for Sondheim’s career. In 1959, Sondheim was asked to work on a new project about the life of American burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee. While Sondheim intended to write both the music and lyrics, the leading actress refused to take a chance on another first time composer. Sondheim again asked Hammerstein on whether he should take it or not, and Hammerstein still contested that it’d be a good learning experience. Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Gypsy, which ran for 702 performances.

The 1960s would see Sondheim in a place of success, but would still see inconsistencies. His first project that he’d both compose and write the lyrics was the 1962 show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The show ran for 964 performances (The longest run of a show in which Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics) and won six Tony awards, including best musical. To juxtapose this, his next project, 1964’s Anyone Can Whistle, only lasted nine performances and was considered a bomb.

Sondheim’s renaissance would come beginning in the 1970s with his collaborations with producer Harold Prince and playwrights George Furth and Hugh Wheeler (The 80s and 90s would eventually see collaborations with John Weidmen and James Lapine.) Sondheim’s first show with Prince was the 1970 musical comedy Company, which is now considered one of the highest standards for musical theatre. During the 70s, Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for Follies (1971) and A Little Night Music (1973), both of which were critically acclaimed and continue to be classics. The decade ended with one of the most influential and critically acclaimed of his shows, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The horror themed operetta-styled musical would go on to inspire several large dark shows of the 80s and 90s (Little Shop of Horrors, Phantom of the Opera, Jekyll and Hyde), and is a cult classic among fans of Sondheim.

The 1980s saw Sondheim engage in some of the most avant-garde and highly acclaimed projects. After a commercial and critical failure with 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim was discouraged from continuing to create theatre. He saw James Lapine’s play Twelve Dreams and was fascinated by Lapine’s “visually-oriented theatre.” The two first collaborated in the 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George, based on the life of post-impressionist artist Georges Seurat. Sondheim and Lapine received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and would kindle a collaborative friendship spanning the rest of his career.

The two would collaborate again for the 1987 musical Into The Woods, which although losing best musical at the Tony’s to Phantom of the Opera, it would still become a major success and a Broadway classic to this day. Sondheim would never truly see as much fame as he did with his previous projects, but the impact was already made. Sondheim would write the 1990 revue-style musical Assassins, a fan-favorite among Sondheim’s followers, and would produce 2 major shows after. Sondheim mentored composer and lyricist Jonathan Larson, who went on to create Rent, and collaborated with Lin Manuel-Miranda to write the Spanish translations of the 2008 revival of West Side Story. Sondheim’s work and legacy is echoed through the artists of today, and the new voices reviving his works for tomorrow.

What makes Sondheim so unique is his passion for the intricacies of his composition, and the cleverness to all his lyrics. A Sondheim song is special in that not only is it memorable for basic standards of musical theatre, the music itself tells a story in itself, with the development of leitmotifs and the symbolic inversions of different sets of notes. This lets Broadway consumers enjoy the music, and writers and composers to marvel in the subtext underneath the notes. Sondheim’s lyrics are what got him started, and they certainly never lowered in quality. Many of his lyrics had so many little details and wordplay, it could make a fan listen to the songs repeatedly. Sondheim was a master of puns, and always crafted them to make the listener admire it rather than dismiss it as cheap or not clever. Sondheim’s talent and artistry was seen in all of his works, and could resonate with everyone.

From demon barbers, to witches, to bakers, to single men in NYC, to ballet street gangs, all of Sondheim’s work has impacted at least one theatre fan, and that won’t change any time soon. May Sondheim’s memory be a blessing, and hopefully the artists of tomorrow will be “finishing the hat.”

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