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Stephen Sondheim obituary | Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, who has died aged 91, was a number one gentle of musical theatre over the course of greater than six many years, from the second in 1957 when he achieved renown as Leonard Bernstein’s lyricist for West Aspect Story. He went on to ascertain a spot for himself with clever, unconventional works equivalent to Firm (1970), Sweeney Todd (1979) and Into the Woods (1987), which introduced him a following appreciative of the brand new departures he made, even when his chosen path was not apparent or simple.

Sondheim noticed himself as inheritor to Oscar Hammerstein II, who had written the lyrics for Oklahoma! (1943) and South Pacific (1949). Many anticipated him to revive the floundering American musical, supplying new perceptiveness, relevance and verve.

But, though the half-century following Hammerstein’s dying in 1960 was a golden age filled with long-running musicals within the West Finish and Broadway, and regardless of his appreciable items with phrases and music, Sondheim by no means scored a real hit present. Nonetheless, new productions and movie variations continued for the remainder of his life and past, and his finest work might nicely last more than the extra worthwhile musicals of his time.

The outdated corporations – Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Loewe – comprised fruitful collaborations between composers and wordsmiths. Sondheim, then again, wrote each music and lyrics himself. Some industrial flops resulted, however Sondheim took after Cole Porter in supplying each textual content and tune for various lovable hit songs.

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Bernadette Petters accompanied by Stephen Sondheim in Ship within the Clowns

Essentially the most well-known, recorded greater than 500 occasions – notably by Frank Sinatra – was Ship within the Clowns, from A Little Night Music (1973), a nostalgic almost-operetta developed from Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 movie Smiles of a Summer time Evening. Barbra Streisand took up I’m Still Here from Follies (1971), and The Ladies Who Lunch from Firm. Who’s That Woman?, The Little Things You Do Together, Liaisons, Someone in a Tree, and Anyone Can Whistle had been all good autos for singers.

However these numbers are higher as out-takes than of their unique dramatic contexts. Nevertheless grownup his themes and coherent his dramas, Sondheim’s ambition to hold by way of the revolution that Hammerstein had achieved with Oklahoma!, the primary musical the place songs moved the plot ahead and belonged to the character singing them, might have been unrealistic.

Born in New York, Stephen was the one baby of a comfortably middle-class household. His mom, Janet (nee Fox, and often called Cunning), a gown designer, and father, Herbert, a clothes producer, had been companions in a New York trend enterprise. They divorced when Stephen was 10, and he ended up disliking his mom a lot that in 1992 he didn’t go her funeral.

Cunning was buddies with Hammerstein’s spouse, Dorothy, and after the divorce she and Stephen moved to dwell close to the Hammersteins, on a farm in Pennsylvania. Throughout his adolescence, Sondheim would look to Hammerstein as an alternative father.

Rosalie Craig, centre, as Bobbie in Stephen Sondheim’s Company by Stephen Sondheim at the Gielgud theatre, London, 2018.
Rosalie Craig, centre, as Bobbie in Stephen Sondheim’s Firm by Stephen Sondheim on the Gielgud theatre, London, 2018. {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Sondheim had began enjoying the piano by ear from the age of 4, earlier than finding out the piano and organ sporadically at college. Ravel was one among his early musical discoveries, which he eagerly shared with Hammerstein, giving him a recording of the Piano Trio as a birthday current. In 1990 Sondheim advised an viewers on the Nationwide Theatre: “Hottest music and most present music owes its origins to Ravel.”

From an early age, he confirmed his talent at thoughts video games and crosswords, submitting a puzzle to the New York Occasions on the age of 14. (Later he subscribed to the Observer and entered its fiendish Ximenes puzzle contests. He didn’t win, although he was as soon as extremely counseled.) At Williams school, Massachusetts, he deliberate at 16 to main in maths, however a freshman music course impressed him to review that topic as an alternative.

He wrote a musical known as By George, and confirmed it to Hammerstein, who mentioned it was horrible however proficient, and confirmed him the place he had gone fallacious. This course of changed into the unofficial but elementary course on which Sondheim discovered to put in writing musicals, adapting numerous performs, engaged on non-dramatic narrative and creating an unique story.

At 18, Sondheim witnessed the staging of his first pupil work, All That Glitters – along with his personal e-book, music and lyrics. On commencement he received a $3,000 prize, paid yearly for 2 years, went on to take non-public composition classes in New York with the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt, and in addition discovered work as a tv scriptwriter. Lemuel Ayers requested him to put in writing a present that will develop into Saturday Evening (unperformed till the top of the century, as Ayers died unexpectedly).

The ensuing materials was ok to persuade Arthur Laurents, who was doing the e-book for West Aspect Story, that Sondheim ought to write the lyrics. And that marked his entry into the corridor of fame. He grew to become and remained a extremely self-conscious mental artist, who knew exactly what he needed to attain. Within the first of two books about his lyrics, Ending the Hat (2010), he touched on the mysteries of his style and its slim vary, key to his successes in addition to his failures.

Sondheim musicals are finest appreciated by way of unique forged recordings. The songs give the essence of what motivated their creation. In 1977, Sondheim defined that hit tunes had been irrelevant. Melody was merely a mirrored image of familiarity – as if all tunes had been equal till dinned right into a listener’s reminiscence. His music was attribute and really recognisable, whether or not or not it chimed with fashionable style. Some thought it too influenced by his rhythmic facility and the quick syllabic stream of his intelligent lyrics.

West Aspect Story, based mostly on Romeo and Juliet, was not the primary Shakespeare adaptation to hit Broadway: it had been preceded in 1948 by Porter’s vastly profitable collaboration with Sam and Bella Spewack, Kiss Me Kate, based mostly on The Taming of the Shrew. However Bernstein’s music, the robust inner-city New York location and Jerome Robbins’ choreography struck a brand new word – and Sondheim’s tune texts had been a major a part of that novelty.

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Desmond Barrit as Pseudolus in Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, National Theatre, London, 2004.
Desmond Barrit as Pseudolus in Stephen Sondheim’s A Humorous Factor Occurred on the Solution to the Discussion board, on the Nationwide Theatre, London, 2004. {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Two years later, Sondheim collaborated once more as lyricist – this time with Jule Styne on Gypsy, based mostly on the lifetime of the stripper and burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee.

In 1962, he displayed his expertise as composer in addition to lyricist along with his profitable Broadway breakthrough, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Based mostly on a basic Plautus farce, it loved a two-year run. In Broadway phrases, A Humorous Factor was unusually economical, with no modifications of costume or set. Having the incomparable Zero Mostel in New York and Frankie Howerd in London because the slave Pseudolus added actual worth.

Anybody Can Whistle (1964), with Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury, proved to be a flop, as did Sondheim’s collaboration with Richard Rodgers, Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965). However the cast recording of Anyone Can Whistle fared higher, and Sondheim started to draw a cult following, enhanced by the modest however real creative success of Company. He got here to be hailed as probably the most vital innovator in musical theatre of his day.

Richard Rodgers, at the piano, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, right, and playwright Arthur Laurents working on the musical Do I Hear a Waltz?
Richard Rodgers, on the piano, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, proper, and playwright Arthur Laurents engaged on the musical Do I Hear a Waltz? {Photograph}: AP

Usually he fared finest with London’s theatre critics, which maybe compensated for his essential reception within the US. A footnote in Ending the Hat claims: “Musicals are the one public artwork kind reviewed largely by ignoramuses. Performs, a minimum of in [the US], are reviewed by folks whose information is comprised of what they learn in Selection and gossip columns, and who know nothing, after all, about music.”

Nevertheless, followers promoted and guarded him. Industrial failure boosted his fantasy as struggling genius. He grew to become a trigger. It helped that he was backed by Cameron Waterproof coat, a theatrical entrepreneur with deep pockets. Sondheim, British critics maintained, had created “the clever musical”. However was there one thing lacking from his work?

He had a bent to undertake elaborate dramatic buildings and ideas. His reveals tended to go limp on the interval, most notably Sunday within the Park With George (1984), contrasting the French painter George Seurat with how artwork was made a century later. He preferred advanced storylines laden with significance. Nevertheless, other than A Humorous Factor, maybe they lacked humanity and affection.

That will have stemmed partially from the competitors that Sondheim met after 1975, when A Refrain Line (created by Michael Bennett, with music by Marvin Hamlisch) and Evita (with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber) swept in. Although A Refrain Line, the proper backstage musical, was blatantly sentimental, it picked up a theme that Sondheim’s Follies (for which Bennett in 1971 created memorable choreography) had fluffed; whereas its preliminary run of greater than 500 performances introduced seven Tonys and it has been a lot revived since, it didn’t recoup its funding. And Lloyd Webber’s works had been conceptually provocative in simply the best way Sondheim appeared to need to be.

“The purpose about Andrew,” he mentioned, “is that individuals simply occur to love what he likes.” Sondheim’s status as an innovator grew, however Lloyd Webber’s brash, daring, apparent autos underlined with their implacable recognition simply how out of joint with fashionable style Sondheim was.

He had a proof: “What makes smash-hit musicals are tales that audiences need to hear. And it’s all the time the identical story, how the whole lot seems terrific in the long run and the viewers goes out considering, ‘That’s what life is all about.’ Sadly that’s seldom the form of materials that pulls me. In reality I by no means consider whether or not it’s reassuring till the entire present’s written.” Musicals had historically been the voice of hope, maybe naive, maybe silly. Sondheim’s had been about understanding. He rebelled in opposition to the dream-market ethos of fashionable theatre.

Amongst Sondheim’s shut collaborators was the stage director Hal Prince, whom he had met on the premiere of South Pacific. Collectively they scored many prizewinning successes, from Firm to Sweeney Todd, but in addition some later flops, together with Merrily We Roll Along (1981) and Bounce (2003).

After Prince, Sondheim collaborated with James Lapine, who helped devise, write the dialogue and direct the primary productions of Sunday within the Park With George, Into the Woods, jumbling up and analysing an assortment of fairy tales, and Passion (1994), set within the Italy of the Risorgimento.

Into The Woods, with Sheridan Smith as Little Red Riding Hood, Nicholas Holder as the Baker, and Sophie Thompson as the Baker’s Wife, at the Donmar Warehouse, London, 1998.
Into The Woods, with Sheridan Smith as Little Crimson Using Hood, Nicholas Holder because the Baker, and Sophie Thompson because the Baker’s Spouse, on the Donmar Warehouse, London, 1998. {Photograph}: Geraint Lewis/Alamy

He additionally labored with the librettist John Weidman on Pacific Overtures (1976), in regards to the Nineteenth-century westernisation of Japan, and Assassins (1990), about these aspiring to kill US presidents. He additionally collaborated with George Furth, Hugh Wheeler, James Goldman and Jerry Zaks. For sensible orchestrations, beginning in 1970 with Firm, he turned to Jonathan Tunick.

Sondheim continued to search out it simpler to get his work staged in London than on Broadway. A portmanteau revue of his songs, Side By Side By Sondheim, was an enormous West Finish hit in 1976. Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd had been programmed by English Nationwide Opera and Covent Backyard in, respectively, 1987 and 2003.

Due to Waterproof coat, Sondheim had a London theatre renamed after him in 2020, following that on Broadway to mark his eightieth birthday in 2010. Sondheim was, too, the primary holder of the submit of Cameron Waterproof coat visiting professor of drama at Oxford College, in 1990.

Sondheim’s nihilistic paean on social injustices, Sweeney Todd, was usually revived, and in 2007 was adapted for the cinema by Tim Burton, with Johnny Depp within the title function and Helena Bonham Carter. The present’s relish for cruelty and grand guignol originated within the Christopher Bond play on which it was based mostly. It had actual comedian vitality, as David McVicar confirmed in his Opera North revival, staged in 2002. A decade later it returned to the London stage in Jonathan Kent’s manufacturing starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton.

Bryn Terfel as Sweeney Todd and Emma Thompson as Mrs Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s show about the demon barber of Fleet Street, given by English National Opera in 2015.
Bryn Terfel as Sweeney Todd and Emma Thompson as Mrs Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s present in regards to the demon barber of Fleet Avenue, given by English Nationwide Opera in 2015. {Photograph}: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Smaller London venues, the Menier Chocolate Manufacturing facility and the Donmar Warehouse, gave Sondheim revivals with success. Movie variations included Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods (2014) and, about to be seen in cinemas, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. In 2009 Lin- Manuel Miranda rendered that work’s lyrics into Spanish, and in 2020 it was reimagined, for Broadway, and this yr has seen New York stagings of Assassins and Firm.

Stephen Sondheim at the piano and Leonard Bernstein rehearsing with Carol Lawrence, second left and the cast of West Side Story, 1957.
Stephen Sondheim on the piano and Leonard Bernstein rehearsing with Carol Lawrence, second left, and the forged of West Aspect Story, 1957. {Photograph}: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

When the latter opened, Sondheim was 40. It tells the story of a bachelor and his buddies, and the way he can by no means fairly get married or genuinely concerned with a lady. Sondheim had not had a long-term relationship of any kind when writing his musical comedy, and recalled that he requested a married feminine buddy to clarify what relationships had been all about.

He got here out as homosexual later within the Nineteen Seventies, however didn’t dwell with a companion till the 90s. “It was difficult at times,” he mentioned in 2010. “I went by way of what everyone goes by way of of their first severe relationship, which most individuals do of their late teenagers or 20s, and which I didn’t till I used to be 60. So it was tough for me to be taught; but it surely was additionally joyful.”

In 2017 he married Jeffrey Romley, who survives him, as does his half-brother Walter.

Stephen Joshua Sondheim, composer and lyricist, born 22 March 1930; died 26 November 2021

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