If you are a fan of musical theater, then it is fair to say that you are a fan of Stephen Sondheim, the Broadway legend who died on Friday aged 91.
As a talented composer and lyricist, Sondheim was the artistically most important creator of shows of his generation. And what they showed: "Company", "Follies", "Sweeney Todd", "Pacific Ouvertures", "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", "A Little Night Music" "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Into the Woods" among others. Oh, and let's not forget his early endeavors – a couple of now landmark shows, "Gypsy" and "West Side Story," which he happened to be providing the lyrics for.
It's not just the Sondheim catalog itself that is so impressive. It's the fact that he was a living connection to the golden age 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 that could be more daring, darker and more complex in content and tone. And one that could be both shamelessly melodic – you can almost always hum a Sondheim melody – as well as devilishly clever and sophisticated.
Sondheim didn't have to write operas to prove its artistic worth. He understood that the great American musical was actually just that – an art form that was very great (and very much ours), but one that could adapt to the times. And while Sondheim did not write in the contemporary musical language rock (that is more the area of Andrew Lloyd Webber – at least with "Jesus Christ Superstar" – and others) or hip-hop (that is the territory of Lin-Manuel Miranda), work never sounded old-fashioned.
I've followed Sondheim's career for about as long as I go to the theater – first as an everyday audience and in recent years as an art critic and reporter. In fact, my first Broadway show was the original production of "Company" in 1970 – I was just six years old (I suspect my parents were too cheap to hire a babysitter) so I can't say the show much made an impression. But when I saw an off-Broadway revival as a teenager, Sondheim was pretty much everything to me.
“Company” is a good starting point for understanding Sondheim. It is a show that explores the loneliness and isolation of contemporary life in the form of a man who finds company among his married friends but cannot create a deeper personal connection in the sense of a relationship of his own. In other words, this is heady, grown-up stuff – and that's only compounded by the fact that one scene is set in the bedroom and another is on marijuana (this is Broadway in 1970, remember).
But so that “Company” doesn't sound a little too serious and out of itself, just think of a few of the melodies: the painfully bittersweet “Sorry-Grateful” (as profoundly a summary of love and marriage, as every author has written, be it for Broadway.) or in the form of a poem or novel); the happy buddy number that is "Side by Side by Side"; and the ultimate Broadway torch song "The Ladies Who Lunch".
Still, my favorite Sondheim musical – and I'm hardly alone here – would have to be "Sweeney Todd", a grim reaper on a show about murder, cannibalism and … love. A strange combination, certainly, but one that is so haunting. And oh, its many brilliant songs! If I only had to name one that has stuck to my ears in the last few decades, I would say “Johanna”, which conveys both a deep tenderness and a disturbing eeriness.
The blow to Sondheim has always been that it is not exactly commercial. Sondheim won his share of the industry's top award, the Tony Awards, and many other awards, but he never had a Hamilton-style mega-hit. I remember talking to a successful Broadway producer about which shows he wanted to invest in and he told me the key was knowing where not to put your money – and Sondheim was one of his big ones No-nos.
Maybe he was right, although I believe that investing in at least a couple of Sondheim musicals brought some profit. But the funny thing is, even if Sondheim wasn't a surefire money-maker, his presence on Broadway made it all the richer – artistically, certainly, but perhaps on a certain level financially. In a word, Sondheim made Broadway a game changer – and it did so in some of the toughest times in the business (essentially the 1970s).
And through Sondheim's mentoring and encouragement of many young artists, he also ensured that Broadway continued. If you've seen "Tick, Tick … Boom!", The autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson that has just been reinterpreted as a film (and now on Netflix).
), you know that at a critical point in his career, Larson got the boost it needed when Sondheim gave him great support. (And may I remind you that Larson wrote Rent, the definitive musical of the 90s.)
It's also worth noting how relevant Sondheim continues to be. One of the most anticipated shows of the new Broadway season? A daring, gender equitable revival by "Company". One of the most anticipated films of the Christmas season? Steven Spielberg's version of "West Side Story". I will surely see both.
In the meantime, I've been listening to the cast recordings of “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” and so many Sondheim shows that both challenged and excited me at the same time. To borrow a song title from Company, thank you, Mr. Sondheim, for being alive.