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Stephen Sondheim (1930–2021), renowned Broadway lyricist and composer

by Linnea Crowther

Stephen Sondheim was one of the most renowned lyricists and composers of the Broadway stage.

A giant of musical theater

Sondheim was one of the first people to whom Lin-Manuel Miranda reached out in 2008 for feedback on his early drafts of “Hamilton.” More than half a century earlier, Sondheim had learned to compose music and lyrics at the knee of his mentor, Broadway great Oscar Hammerstein II.

In between learning from one generation’s preeminent Broadway influencer and mentoring another’s, Sondheim reinvented the Broadway show for his own generation, creating innovative musicals including “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods.”

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In a career that lasted more than five decades, Sondheim created some of the greatest musicals of his time. He didn’t do it by following a winning formula; instead, he offered something new each time he debuted a musical. Style followed content for the creator who told Broadway World, “I’m an eclectic and I always have been.”

The result of that eclecticism was a body of work that includes “A Little Night Music,” composed largely in waltz time; “Pacific Overtures,” built around a Japanese-style pentatonic scale; and the operatic “Sweeney Todd,” whose characters only rarely break out of song to speak.

The diversity of Sondheim’s catalog means that his fans differ greatly on which of his musicals is the best. There was no definitive Sondheim musical: Some love the accessibility of “Into the Woods” (Broadway.com’s pick for Sondheim’s best), others the bombast of “Sweeney Todd” (the top of Fandomental’s list). Entertainment Monthly cited the complexity of “Company” in ranking it as his best, while critic Mark Robinson chose “A Little Night Music” as Sondheim’s greatest and most timeless musical.

Hammerstein mentorship

During an abusive childhood with little love from his parents, Sondheim found love and guidance in another home. It was Hammerstein who gave Sondheim the foundation of his theatrical education over a period of several years after Sondheim’s parents divorced. Left with a distant mother – who in later years told Sondheim, “The only regret I have in life is giving you birth” – he turned to the father of his friend Jamie Hammerstein as a parental figure.

The elder Hammerstein nurtured Sondheim’s instinct to write, setting him a series of four assignments for specific types of musicals to write. Sondheim wrote all four, and though none of them have ever been produced, they gave him broad experience in writing both original stories and adaptations. And Hammerstein offered Sondheim practical theatre experience as well, finding the young man a job as gofer on his own 1947 show, “Allegro.”

Sondheim developed a deep love for Hammerstein, and when his father figure died in 1960, he was devastated. But he wasn’t above criticizing what he saw as flawed in his mentor’s work. He often cited a specific lyric from “The Sound of Music” as “easy to make fun of” and nonsensically sentimental: “A lark that is learning to pray.” “(Hammerstein) had a limited range of imagery — too many birds in his lyrics,” Sondheim told the New York Times. “Stuff that is metaphorically what we all feel, but because they’ve been overused so much, and often by him, they lack force.”

Early career as lyricist

When Sondheim began his professional career, it was with Hammerstein’s invaluable lessons under his belt and a young man’s determination to do things better than his predecessors. A chance meeting with Laurents, who had seen an audition for “Saturday Night,” led to Bernstein hiring Sondheim to write the lyrics for “West Side Story” alongside Arthur Laurents’ book and Bernstein’s music. The lyricist, barely 25, dove in.

So minor a figure was Sondheim that the New York Times review of “West Side Story” managed to praise the show up one side and down the other without ever mentioning his name. Jerome Robbins’ choreography was the far greater star of “West Side Story,” and when Sondheim looked back on the show in later years, it was with a touch of embarrassment. As he told ABC News, “Bernstein wanted the songs to be … heavy, what he called ‘poetic,’ and my idea of poetry and his idea of poetry are polar opposites. I don’t mean that they are terrible, I just mean they’re so self-conscious.”

Yet Sondheim’s first success set the stage for a second turn as lyricist in a show that would become every bit as much a piece of the Broadway canon as “West Side Story.” 1959’s “Gypsy” reunited him with Robbins as Sondheim wrote lyrics to Jule Styne’s music. Sondheim had lobbied heavily to compose the music himself for the show written expressly for leading lady Ethel Merman. But Merman’s star power was greater than Sondheim’s, and she insisted that she didn’t want an unseasoned composer writing for her.

Sondheim agreed to write the lyrics, and the songs he wrote alongside Styne were successful, including the enduring “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn.” And this time around, Sondheim got a mention in the New York Times, though only a brief one: Critic Brooks Atkinson noted that he “set amusing lyrics” to Styne’s score.

Composer and lyricist

When Sondheim debuted as composer and lyricist with 1962’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” it was a rousing success. The show ran for 964 performances and won a number of Tony Awards, including Best Musical. But Sondheim’s score was not recognized by the Tonys, and it wasn’t seen as among the show’s great selling points.

Sondheim had burst out of the gate with early Broadway success and sustained it through his first three professional shows, but his work didn’t always hit the mark. And in 1964, his next collaboration with Laurents, “Anyone Can Whistle,” was a flop. The surreal fantasy survived only nine performances before closing, though in the years since, it has gained a cult following.

Sondheim’s next effort, 1965’s “Do I Hear a Waltz?” marked the last time he’d write lyrics to someone else’s music for a Broadway show. The decision was made following the poor experience he had writing lyrics for Richard Rodgers, the former writing partner of Sondheim’s mentor. Hammerstein had hoped that Sondheim would carry on his work alongside Rodgers after his death, and Sondheim agreed to give it a try, but he strained within the partnership and ended up regretting the decision. Moving forward, he vowed he’d only work on musicals for which he could write both lyrics and music, and he stuck with that promise.

Praise and criticism for Sondheim’s signature style

Sondheim began a lasting partnership with director-producer Hal Price with his next show, “Company,” an innovatively plotless musical that follows a group of friends through a series of vignettes. It was the first Broadway musical of its kind, a “concept musical,” and its unusual nature earned it mixed reviews, though Sondheim won Tony Awards for both score and lyrics – his first in both categories. Clive Barnes at the New York Times noted, “Mr. Sondheim must be one of the most sophisticated composers ever to write Broadway musicals, yet the result is slick, clever and eclectic rather than exciting. It is the kind of music that makes me say: ‘Oh, yeah?’ rather than ‘Gee whiz!'”

It was the kind of criticism Sondheim would receive regularly as his career developed. When Barnes reviewed Sondheim’s next musical, 1971’s “Follies,” he doubled down: “The lyrics are as fresh as a daisy. I know of no better lyricist in show-business than Mr. Sondheim — his words are a joy to listen to, even when his music is sending shivers of indifference up your spine.” Alexis Smith, who starred in the “Follies” premiere, told People magazine, “Steve writes the most beautifully melodic lines. But his songs are never simple, which is the reason you don’t hum them on your way out of the theater.”

The very complexity that prompted some theatregoers to condemn Sondheim’s music as inaccessible and unhummable was the composer’s signature, one of the defining qualities with which he revolutionized Broadway. Hammerstein and his peers had shaped the Broadway musical of their day via refrains and unified plots, leaving behind the vaudeville-style revues of early Broadway and creating cohesive stories with songs as their glue. They returned to a key melody over and over in a show, reprising and reshaping and firmly embedding it in their audience’s heads.

Sondheim skipped the refrains and the sentimental stories, opting instead for unpredictable melodies and unconventional topics. He was more likely to use counterpoint – two singers singing different songs and weaving them together, often layering entirely different lyrics on top of each other – than return to a musical theme in a reprise. His style was thrilling to some listeners, but confusing to others: Lovers of the classic Broadway reprise couldn’t always find their way into his music.

Broadway stardom

Despite the mixed reactions to his music, Sondheim’s star continued to rise as he wrote 1973’s “A Little Night Music,” which included one of Sondheim’s most enduring songs, “Send in the Clowns.” The show was a major success that earned Sondheim another Tony for Best Original Score as well as nabbing “Best Musical” and four other Tonys. “The Frogs” (1974) was critically successful but deeply unusual – it was first performed in the Yale University swimming pool – and only made it to Broadway in 2004. 1976’s “Pacific Overtures” was popular, and Sondheim’s score was Tony-nominated. But it was with “Sweeney Todd” in 1979 that Sondheim reached new heights.

The dark, complex operetta is heavy and dense, and the music dominates, with 80 percent of the show’s lines sung. It repeatedly employs counterpoint, and it’s richly orchestrated and harmonized. And it is bloody. The show’s “demon barber” slits his customer’s necks and bakes them into meat pies, and set directors are encouraged to ramp up the spurting blood effects.

“Sweeney Todd” swept the Tony Awards, winning Best Original Score as well as seven other awards, and it spawned countless revivals as well as a popular 2007 film adaptation. Sondheim himself loved the Tim Burton film, which won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy: “I must say,” he told Broadway World, “I was knocked out by it! I was knocked out at how knocked out I was!”

Yet Sondheim followed the wild success of “Sweeney Todd” with a hard failure. “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981) received poor reviews – Frank Rich wrote of it in the New York Times, “As we all should probably have learned by now, to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one’s heart broken at regular intervals” – and closed after just 16 performances. Sondheim nearly quit musical theatre altogether after the devastating flop, and the show would be his last collaboration with Prince for more than two decades as he turned to working with James Lapine as his director and sometime book-writer for his next several shows.

Collaboration with Lapine

Success followed as Sondheim stretched his wings to create a “pointillist musical” inspired by the pointillist painting style of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” “Sunday in the Park with George” verged on the avant-garde as it meditated on the act of creating, its two acts separated by a century’s time and only tenuously connected. It was a leap, but it worked, finding moderate popular success and receiving a healthy handful of Tony nominations and wins.

Sondheim and Lapine followed it up with a fan favorite, 1987’s “Into the Woods,” which weaves together classic fairy tales in a decidedly not-for-kids plot (Rapunzel is trampled to death, for one thing). With its twisted take on source material that’s deeply familiar to most, “Into the Woods” became one of Sondheim’s best-loved musicals, winning him another Tony for Best Original Score.

Despite – or maybe because of – its frequently dark turns on the stories of our youth, “Into the Woods” has become one of the most frequently performed shows by high school drama departments. And the legions of current and former drama students who learned to love Sondheim while performing the fairytale musical in a school auditorium anxiously awaited the 2014 Disney adaptation for the big screen from the moment it was announced. While many initially worried that the adaptation wouldn’t preserve the darkness that made the stage show what it was, the response to the film was largely positive, and most longtime fans breathed a sigh of relief at its relative faithfulness to the original musical.

Later career

Sondheim followed “Into the Woods” with “Assassins” (1990), a revue-style show that focuses on the men and women who, over the course of U.S. history, have attempted – and occasionally succeeded – to assassinate presidents. The concept was odd and the timing rough – after opening off-Broadway and running in smaller regional productions, it was scheduled to open on Broadway in 2001. But after the events of Sept. 11, it was scrapped in the interest of sensitivity, not to appear on Broadway until 2004.

“Passion” (1994) was critically acclaimed, winning Sondheim another Tony, but not always popular with audiences. Another later work, “Bounce” (2003), did not fare well, even when reimagined in 2008 as “Road Show.” The culprit behind the lesser success of Sondheim’s later musicals was, in part, the changing face of the Broadway musical. The medium that Sondheim himself reinvented was undergoing another sea change as the millennium turned, and his complex, experimental work was no longer on-trend.

Sondheim was no big fan of the direction in which Broadway turned in the later years of his career. “You have two kinds of shows on Broadway — revivals and the same kind of musicals over and over again, all spectacles,” he told the New York Times Magazine in 2000. “You get your tickets for ‘The Lion King’ a year in advance, and essentially a family comes as if to a picnic, and they pass on to their children the idea that that’s what the theater is — a spectacular musical you see once a year, a stage version of a movie. It has nothing to do with theater at all. It has to do with seeing what is familiar. We live in a recycled culture.”

But Sondheim found bright spots in 21st-century theatre. Among them was the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of several young composers Sondheim mentored (others include “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson). When Miranda approached Sondheim with the first few songs he had written for “Hamilton,” Sondheim told the New Yorker, “I was knocked out—I thought it was wonderful. They seemed so fresh and meticulous and theatrical.”

Miranda returned the praise, calling Sondheim “musical theater’s greatest lyricist, full stop” in an introduction to an interview he did with his friend and mentor for the New York Times. “The days of competition with other musical theater songwriters are done,” Miranda continued: “We now talk about his work the way we talk about Shakespeare or Dickens or Picasso — a master of his form, both invisible within his work and everywhere at once.”

Sondheim on his style

“Everything is hummable. When they say my music is not, they’re really saying it is not reminiscent of something else. Hummable is a meaningless word, and so is melodic. If a tune is heard often enough, it becomes hummable. The hits from shows are the tunes that are played four or five times during the course of the evening. The reprises. Well, I don’t like to use reprises, because the emotional situations themselves do not recur. I’ve always thought reprises were fake.” — from an interview with People

Tributes to Stephen Sondheim

Full obituary: The New York Times

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