If you are a fan of musical theater, it is fair to say that you are a fan of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim who passed away on Friday at the age of 91.
A gifted composer and lyricist, Sondheim was the most artistically important showmaker of his generation. And what shows they were: “Company”, “Follies”, “Sweeney Todd”, “Pacific Overtures”, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, “A Little Night Music” “Sunday in the Park with George “And” In the woods “, among others. Oh, and let’s not forget his early efforts – a few now iconic shows, “Gypsy” and “West Side Story,” for which he just provided the lyrics.
It’s not just the Sondheim catalog itself that is so impressive. It’s the fact that he was a living connection to the heyday of Broadway – the era of Rodgers and Hammerstein (and Sondheim was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein), Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser and countless others. . At the same time, he showed us a future Broadway, which could be more daringly dark and complex in subject matter and tone. And one that could be both unabashedly melodic – you can almost always hum a Sondheim tune – and wickedly smart and sophisticated.
Sondheim did not need to write operas to prove his artistic merit. He understood that the great American musical was indeed just that – an art form which was very large (and very much ours), but which could evolve to adapt to the times. And while Sondheim did not write in the contemporary musical language of rock (it is more the territory of Andrew Lloyd Webber – at least with “Jesus Christ Superstar” – and others) or hip-hop (c is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s territory), his work never seemed out of fashion.
I’ve been following Sondheim’s career for about as long as I’ve been in the theater – first as an ordinary spectator and, more recently, as an art critic and journalist. In fact, my first Broadway show was the original production of “Company” in 1970 – I was only six (I suspect my parents were too cheap to hire a babysitter), so I can’t tell. that the show made much of an impression. But by the time I saw a wake-up call off Broadway as a teenager, Sondheim was pretty much everything to me.
“Business” is a good starting point for understanding Sondheim. It’s a show that examines the loneliness and isolation of contemporary life in the form of a man who finds company among his married friends, but cannot forge a deeper personal bond in terms of a personal relationship. In other words, it’s intoxicating adult stuff – and that’s only amplified by the fact that there’s a scene in the bedroom and another involving marijuana (that’s Broadway in 1970, remember -you).
But lest “Company” sound a little too deep and full of itself, just consider a few of the tunes: the painfully bittersweet “Sorry-Grateful” (such a profound summary of love and marriage that any writer wrote it, whether for Broadway or in the form of a poem or a novel); the singing buddy number which is “Side by Side by Side”; and the ultimate Broadway Torch song, “The Ladies Who Lunch”.
Yet my favorite Sondheim musical – and I’m not the only one here – would have to be “Sweeney Todd,” a grim reaper from a show about murder, cannibalism and… love. A strange combination for sure, but one that works to such a spellbinding effect. And oh, his many brilliant songs! If I had to name just one that has stuck to my ears over the past decades, I would say “Johanna”, who manages to convey both deep tenderness and disturbing concern.
The hit against Sondheim has always been that he’s not exactly commercial. Sondheim has won his share of the Tony Awards, the industry’s highest honor, and many other accolades, but he’s never had a mega-hit in the “Hamilton” vein. I remember once telling a successful Broadway producer about the shows he was deciding to invest in and he told me the key was to know where not put your money – and Sondheim was one of his big no-no’s.
Maybe he was right, although I have to believe that an investment in at least two Sondheim musicals made some profit. But the funny thing is, while Sondheim wasn’t a foolproof money generator, his Broadway presence made him all the richer – certainly artistically, but perhaps financially on some level. In a nutshell, Sondheim made Broadway vital – and he did during some of the industry’s toughest times (essentially, the 1970s).
And thanks to Sondheim’s mentorship and encouragement from many young artists, he also made sure Broadway continues. If you’ve watched “Tick, Tick… Boom! Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical that has just been reimagined in movie form (and is now on Netflix
), you know Larson got the boost he needed at a critical point in his career when Sondheim gave him a large vote of support. (And may I remind you that Larson went on to write “Rent,” the quintessential ’90s musical.)
It’s also worth noting how relevant Sondheim continues to be. One of the most anticipated shows of the new Broadway season? A daring and gendered rebirth of “Company”. One of the most anticipated films of the holiday season? Steven Spielberg’s take on “West Side Story”. I’m sure I’ll see both.
In the meantime, I’ll be listening to recordings by the cast of “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” and so many shows from Sondheim that have both challenged and excited me. To borrow a song title from “Company”, thank you, Mr. Sondheim, for being alive.