Stephen Sondheim: a daring and dazzling musical theatre icon | Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim achieved such acclaim – for deepening the content material and extending the lyrical ingenuity of musical theatre – that, from the age of fifty, every main birthday was celebrated with tribute live shows in London, New York or each.

Watching the composer-lyricist of Sweeney Todd and Follies at such occasions – taking a bow, along with his wry smile – it was not possible to not replicate on our luck in coinciding with the life of somebody who would clearly stand within the historical past of the style alongside such geniuses as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Weill, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein.

Then-US president Barack Obama presents the presidential medal of freedom to Stephen Sondheim at the White House in Washington, DC, on 24 November 2015.
Then-US president Barack Obama presents the presidential medal of freedom to Stephen Sondheim on the White Home in Washington, DC, on 24 November 2015. {Photograph}: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Pictures

Sondheim had an unusually direct connection to this inventive lineage. As an 11-year-old, dwelling in Pennsylvania as the one youngster of a divorced and distant mom, he turned buddies at prep college with James Hammerstein, son of the celebrated librettist.

Oscar turned a surrogate father to Sondheim, who usually joked that, if Jamie’s dad had been a plumber, he would have spent his personal life fixing pipes. However this suggestion of helpless affect overlooks the truth that the younger Sondheim, a piano prodigy, had already written a musical – By George, a satirical historical past of his college – which inspired the Broadway legend to mentor him.


Hammerstein give his protege tutorials on rhyme, characterisation and storytelling, and set a demanding piece of homework: to put in writing 4 musicals – one tailored from a good play, one from a not so good play, one from a non-dramatic supply, and one from an authentic thought.

These may be seen because the templates for Sondheim’s mature output. Three reveals – West Facet Story (1957), A Humorous Factor Occurred on the Method to the Discussion board (1962) and The Frogs (1974) – are based mostly on good performs, by Shakespeare, Plautus and Aristophanes respectively. Saturday Night time (1954), Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), Firm (1970), Sweeney Todd (1979), and Merrily We Roll Alongside (1981) had been tailored from lesser theatrical texts.

Non-dramatic sources that he musicalised had been the memoirs of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, which turned Gypsy (1959); the fairytales by Grimm and others that inspired Into the Woods (1986); and films (by Ingmar Bergman and Ettore Scola) that impressed A Little Night time Music (1973) and Ardour (1994).

Stephen Sondheim (right) with author of Into the Woods James Lapine at a press conference in New York for the film adaptation in 2014.
Stephen Sondheim (proper) with writer of Into the Woods James Lapine at a press convention in New York for the movie adaptation in 2014. {Photograph}: Vera Anderson/WireImage

Authentic concepts triggered Anybody Can Whistle (1964), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sunday within the Park With George (1984), and Assassins (1990). The topic issues of these free-floating reveals had been: small-town politics; outdated selection performers struggling marital and psychological breakdowns; the Japanese-American commerce wars of the mid Nineteenth-century; the portray of a Pointilliste masterpiece; and the subset of People who’ve killed or tried to kill a US president.

For some critics, the improbability of such materials as musical theatre narrative confirmed Sondheim was artistically killing the father-figure of Hammerstein, who was extensively seen as a cosy and conservative determine. Sondheim, although, recognized Hammerstein’s Present Boat, Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific as massively radical for the time, shifting American musical theatre on from soppy operetta to take care of actual individuals in severe conditions.

The 17-year-old Sondheim additionally labored as what he referred to as “a $25-a-week gofer” on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1947 present Allegro, an experimental piece by which a man seems to be again at his life. It was in aware homage to Hammerstein that he later used a related psychological song-cycle kind for Firm, whereas Pacific Overtures comprises thematic nods to South Pacific, which additionally handled American-Asian army and racial stress. Sondheim all the time remained true to Hammerstein’s imaginative and prescient that a music inside a musical was “a one-act play which both intensifies a second or strikes the story ahead”.

Stephen Sondheim in 1957.
Stephen Sondheim in 1957. {Photograph}: AP

The place he most departed from the standard Broadway mannequin was in needing to put in writing each music and lyrics, reasonably than the extra frequent collaborative division between composer on the piano and librettist with a notepad.

Sondheim tended to bracket as lesser works West Facet Story and Gypsy, which had music by Leonard Bernstein (whom he liked) and Jule Styne (whom he didn’t). He had hoped to put in writing the songs for Gypsy on his personal, however its star, Ethel Merman, felt that the younger man was too modernist to supply the luxurious orchestral rating she needed. Sondheim thought-about A Humorous Factor Occurred on the Method to the Discussion board, his first present in command of each halves of the music, because the true begin of his profession and, aside from transient sentimentally-inspired reunions with Bernstein and Rodgers, by no means once more wrote phrases for one more composer.

“I’ve by no means discovered anyone I may work with as rapidly as myself, or with much less argument,” Sondheim advised the New York Occasions in 1966, a joke that was lethal severe.

But Sondheim described himself as “naturally a collaborative animal”, and freely admitted that solely Sweeney Todd and Ardour had been fully his personal concepts – or, the phrase he most well-liked, “notions”. The remainder got here from the writers of the “guide” (musical theatre’s time period for the narrative and dialogue). Probably the most frequent of those had been George Furth, John Weidman, Hugh Wheeler and James Lapine. They offered storyline, construction and thematic concepts; Sondheim’s independence got here within the insistence that the stuff that was sung can be solely his.

Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett and Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, at Chichester festival theatre in 2011.
Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett and Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Road, at Chichester competition theatre in 2011. {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

This inspired the view, which he by no means fairly eluded, that Sondheim’s lyrics had been better than his music. To make the comparability in any respect ignored Sondheim’s rationale for doing each jobs – that the 2 components are complimentary and cross-influential.

His lyrics are extravagantly intelligent, filled with rhymes that give no quarter to Cole Porter. In Follies, he gives in a single scene various numbers for the performer taking part in Phyllis, relying on the extent of dance expertise the actress has. The primary music, The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie, reveals the divided character of the character by the story of two girls who crave one another’s traits. The rhyming and rhythm are thrillingly slick: “Lucy desires to be dressy / Jessie desires to be juicy / Lucy desires to be Jessie / And Jessie Lucy / You see.” Nonetheless, the alternate model, Ah, However Beneath, is much more of a tongue-twister, with a quatrain that builds to a climactic triple rhyme: “Within the depths of her inside / Had been fears she was inferior / And one thing even eerier / However no-one dared to question her superior exterior.”


In an anti-love music from Firm, a troubled couple replicate on their relationship in a verse that, unexpectedly, has the joke rhymes falling internally reasonably than climactically. It’s, they replicate: “The live shows you take pleasure in collectively / Neighbours you annoy collectively / Kids you destroy collectively / That hold marriage intact.”

Rosalie Craig as Bobbie with the cast of Company at the Gielgud theatre (2018).
Rosalie Craig as Bobbie with the solid of Firm on the Gielgud theatre (2018). {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The way in which by which, in that lyric, the three examples of togetherness rise by the cosy by way of the humorous to that darkish parental punchline typifies the comedic sensibility central to Sondheim’s writing. His jokes may be very darkish, most notoriously in A Little Priest, from Sweeney Todd, the place the murderous barber and pie store proprietor Mrs Lovett talk about the varied skilled flavours that his victims may lend her pastries.

Somebody in a Tree, from Pacific Overtures, most spectacularly achieves the speculation of a music as a compressed play. This Act One finale quartet, which Sondheim recognized as his favorite amongst his compositions, strikes fluidly between three timescales. Two outdated males and the childhood model of considered one of them keep in mind witnessing, from a excessive department, the signing of an American-Japanese treaty in 1853.

Within the haiku-like strains that Sondheim makes use of all through the libretto, one veteran remembers overhearing shreds of negotiation: “‘However we wish…’ / ‘No, you possibly can’t / And we gained’t…’ / ‘However we’d like it, / And we wish…’ / ‘Will you grant–?’ / ‘For those who don’t…’ / ‘We concede it…’” These 25 phrases, by which one voice channels two others, supremely display Sondheim’s often-stated need to carry theatrical lyrics as near pure speech as potential.

However Sondheim’s phrases wouldn’t have been so memorable with out his compositional skill and agility. The thunderous opening refrain of Sweeney Todd, its devices together with a piercing manufacturing unit whistle, is among the most fun and terrifying theatrical soundscapes ever achieved.

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as Sweeney Tod and Mrs Lovett in the 2007 motion picture adaptation.
Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as Sweeney Tod and Mrs Lovett within the 2007 movement image adaptation. {Photograph}: Leah Gallo/AP

And, refuting these naysayers who claimed that Sondheim couldn’t write hummable numbers, Ship within the Clowns has been recorded greater than 500 instances by totally different artists.

As a composer, Sondheim was the musical equal of Phyllis in Follies, who – reviews the lyric of Ah, However Beneath – could possibly be “sly, wry, cool, or coy, or candid”. He was equally adept at harmonies, ballads, choral numbers, love songs, laments and comedian ditties, and had a capability to pastiche any musical kind, whether or not operetta, opera, patter songs or army marches.

Such protean fluency as a composer was helpful as a result of so many numbers are minimize – or urgently inserted – through the incessantly brutal preview interval earlier than a musical opens. Sondheim was so prolific in the reason for making a present work that a CD, Unsung Sondheim (1993), and a sheet music guide, The Nearly Unknown Sondheim (2016), featured greater than 50 songs which, although thrown away on the highway to a Broadway opening, sounded something however throwaway.

Sondheim usually requested extra of audiences than they had been ready to present. He carried out the rating of Anybody Can Whistle to 33 totally different teams of potential backers earlier than the funds was raised for a premiere that ran for less than 9 performances; the premiere of Merrily We Roll Alongside closed after 16 reveals. Nearly none of his musicals went into revenue on their first manufacturing.

Composer Richard Rodgers, at the piano, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, right, and playwright Arthur Laurents begin work on the musical Do I Hear a Waltz? in New York, 28 December 1964.
Composer Richard Rodgers, on the piano, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, proper, and playwright Arthur Laurents start work on the musical Do I Hear a Waltz? in New York, 28 December 1964. {Photograph}: AP

Crucially, although, he was not ignoring public style a lot as slowly shaping it. Works that had as soon as sat uneasily on Broadway or in London’s West Finish gained over ticket-buyers and critics with subsequent productions. This revisionism was helped by a collection of reputation-changing revivals within the much less commercially brutal atmosphere of British subsidised or off-West Finish theatre.

They included a 2017 Follies on the Nationwide Theatre, and stagings of Sunday within the Park with George, A Little Night time Music and Assassins at London’s Menier Chocolate Manufacturing facility in 2005, 2008 and 2014; and of Sweeney Todd and Gypsy, each starring Imelda Staunton, on the Chichester competition theatre in 2011 and 2014. Within the first many years of the twenty first century, there have been vital New York revivals of Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, and Ardour.

A scene from Follies by Stephen Sondheim at the National Theatre (2017).
A scene from Follies by Stephen Sondheim on the Nationwide Theatre (2017). {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Though honoured that his Broadway reveals additionally graduated to opera homes, he refused gives to create authentic work for such elite areas. He was discouraged by the handful of performances given to new operas, and the medium’s resistance to rewriting a work within the mild of viewers response.

Revivals of his work helped to shatter the concept that Sondheim’s songs had better mental than emotional intelligence. Shedding My Thoughts, from Follies, when sung by Staunton on the Nationwide, was revealed to be a clinically exact account of a nervous breakdown that occurred to be written within the type of a torch music. In the identical manufacturing, Philip Quast, as boastful diplomat Ben, so convincingly broke down in his ultimate quantity, Stay, Chortle, Love that some within the viewers believed the actor was unwell or had forgotten his strains.

Sondheim printed, in two volumes, what might be the very best autobiography by a main inventive expertise, Ending the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Feedback, Rules, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes and Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981–2011) with Attendant Feedback, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany. The memoir included Sondheim’s lyrical mission assertion, declaring that 4 ideas underlay “the whole lot I’ve ever written”. These had been: “Content material Dictates Type, Much less is Extra, God is within the Particulars – all within the service of Readability.”

The books fascinatingly revealed his perfectionism. For a single line in Sweeney Todd, he pored over quite a few maps of London in search of a two-syllable avenue identify, by which a Victorian decide may plausibly have lived, that was careworn on its first reasonably than second syllable. He admitted to “blushing” over uncommon imperfect rhymes in early reveals, and latterly would solely settle for “excellent” (or true) rhymes, by which the sounds of the ultimate syllables match (house / roam, convey / dismay), reasonably than close to or false rhymes.

Made distrustful of affection first by his mother and father’ failed marriage and then by being homosexual in a lengthy historic interval of homophobia, Sondheim was usually thought-about shy and solitary. Many singers of Ship within the Clowns have concluded that its rationalization of isolation was autobiographical, whereas Barcelona, a duet for reluctant lovers in Firm, and the chorus “artists are weird, mounted, chilly”, in Sunday within the Park with George, can moderately be seen as confessional. Nonetheless, in maturity, Sondheim sustained two successive relationships with youthful males: first with the dramatist Peter Jones and then the digital technologist Jeff Romley. He appeared to have achieved in his non-public life an ease, personability and generosity that he had all the time prompt in interviews.

Daniel Evans (George) and Jenna Russell (Dot) in Sunday In The Park With George at Wyndham’s theatre in London (2006).
Daniel Evans (George) and Jenna Russell (Dot) in Sunday In The Park With George at Wyndham’s theatre in London (2006). {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In his ultimate decade, Sondheim labored with playwright David Ives on a musical, supposed for New York’s Public theatre, based mostly on two movies by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel. A bit was previewed, to acclaim, in 2017. Sondheim’s theatrical immortality, although, lay in his again catalogue and his affect on others. After Lin Manuel Miranda translated some Sondheim lyrics into Spanish for a 2009 Broadway revival of West Facet Story, the older composer turned the form of admiring mentor to Miranda that Hammerstein had been to Sondheim.

Sweeney Todd, A Little Night time Music, Pacific Overtures and Ardour appear sure to be fixtures within the theatrical and operatic repertoires, whereas Firm, Follies and A Humorous Factor Occurred can count on common Broadway and West Finish revivals, as can two classics that Sondheim thought to be solely half his: West Facet Story and Gypsy. Merrily We Roll Alongside is prone to be heard much less usually, however comprises a lyric of giant significance. One character, Franklin Shepard, is a Broadway composer whose grownup failures and disillusion are seen to contradict his youthful perception that: “However for individuals who dare / the world is there / to alter.”

In 1981, after the sixteenth and ultimate Broadway efficiency appeared to verify Sondheim’s repute as a minority style, Stephen Sondheim may moderately have felt that he, like Shepard, had failed in his inventive goals. Now, although, it’s clear that Sondheim not solely dared to alter musical theatre, however succeeded, endlessly. His work merely needed to wait to rhyme along with his time.

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