Remembering Stephen Sondheim, Musical Theater Visionary

The 91-year-old American composer and lyricist moulded the musical art form with his insightful, humorous, and outrageously creative compositions and lyrics.

From the time he turned 50, memorial concerts were held in London, New York, or both in honour of Stephen Sondheim’s significant birthdays because of the recognition he received for expanding the lyrical ingenuity and expanding the emotional range of musical theatre.

Were it not for the good fortune of living at the same time as the man who would go down in musical theatre history as a genius on par with the likes of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Weill, Richard Rogers, and Oscar Hammerstein, it would have been impossible to watch the composer-lyricist of Sweeney Todd and Follies at such events, taking a bow with his wry smile.

Remembering Stephen Sondheim, Musical Theater Visionary

Sondheim’s Link to this Artistic Tradition was Unusually Direct.

He met James Hammerstein, son of the renowned lyricist, when he was 11 years old and living in Pennsylvania as an only child of a divorced and emotionally distant mother.

Sondheim grew to view Oscar as a surrogate father figure, and the two shared many inside jokes about how Sondheim would have followed in the footsteps of Jamie’s father if he had been a plumber. Despite this idea of passive influence, the young Sondheim, a piano prodigy, had already written a musical, By George, a satirical history of his school, which prompted the Broadway great to mentor him.

Hammerstein provided his pupil with lessons on rhyming, characterization, and storytelling before assigning a challenging assignment: to adapt one good play, one not-so-good play, one non-dramatic source, and one unique idea into four musicals.

These Works Serve as Models for Sondheim’s later Works.

Shakespeare, Plautus, and Aristophanes all wrote excellent plays that were adapted into successful shows: West Side Story (1957), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), and The Frogs (1974). Several popular musicals, including Saturday Night (1954), Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), Company (1970), Sweeney Todd (1979), and Merrily We Roll Along (1981), were based on plays that were not as well received.

The memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee served as the basis for his 1959 musical Gypsy; fairy tales by Grimm and others inspired his 1986 musical Into the Woods; and films by Ingmar Bergman and Ettore Scola served as the basis for his 1973 and 1987 musicals A Little Night Music and Passion, respectively (1994).

Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Assassins (1987) all began as original ideas (1990). Topics covered on those itinerant shows included local politics, the marital and mental breakdowns of ageing variety performers, the Japanese-American trade wars of the mid-19th century, the creation of a masterpiece in the Pointillist style, and the population of the United States that has either assassinated or attempted to assassinate a president.

Some Critics Felt that Sondheim was Creatively Killing off Hammerstein,

The father figure of musical theatre, because of the absurdity of the material he was presenting as narrative. However, Sondheim recognised Hammerstein’s Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific as extremely revolutionary for their time, as they advanced American musical theatre beyond saccharine operetta and into the realm of realistic drama.

Sondheim, then 17 years old, worked as “a $25-a-week gofer” on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s experimental 1947 play Allegro, about a man reflecting on his life. Using a similar psychological song-cycle format for Company was a deliberate gesture to Hammerstein, while Pacific Overtures makes thematic references to South Pacific, which likewise dealt with American-Asian military and racial friction.

Hammerstein’s original definition of a song in a musical as “a one-act drama which either enhances a scene or advances the tale ahead” was something to which Sondheim kept faithful throughout his career.

Rather of the more normal collaborative separation between composer at the keyboard and librettist with a notepad, he wanted to create both the music and the lyrics for his musicals.

West Side Story and Gypsy, which had music by Leonard Bernstein (whom he adored) and Jule Styne (whom he despised), fell into the “lesser works” category for Sondheim. Gypsy’s star, Ethel Merman, felt the young man was too modernist to offer the lavish orchestral soundtrack she wanted, so he ended up writing the songs with a team.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum marked Sondheim’s debut as a lyricist and book writer; after that, he never collaborated with another composer on a musical again (apart from brief, sentimentally-inspired reunions with Bernstein and Rodgers).

Despite this, Sondheim preferred the term “notions” to characterise his creative output and regarded himself as “naturally a collaborative animal.” The rest was written by the “book” (the name for the story and dialogue in a musical).

George Furth, John Weidman, Hugh Wheeler, and James Lapine were mentioned most frequently. They contributed the plot, the framework, and the themes; Sondheim maintained his autonomy by insisting that all of the music be written by himself.

This bolstered the argument that Sondheim’s words were superior to his music, a point he never fully refuted. Sondheim’s justification for working on both projects simultaneously was overlooked; he saw them as mutually beneficial and highly influential.

The Lyrics are Full of Witty Rhymes That Give No Quarter to Cole Porter.

In Follies, he provides the actress playing Phyllis with a few different dance numbers to choose from in one scene. The character’s conflicted identity is laid bare in the opening song, “The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie,” which tells the narrative of two women who covet each other’s qualities.

It’s thrillingly rhythmic and rhymed: “Lucy wants to be dressy; Jessie wants to be juicy; Lucy wants to be Jessie; and Jessie Lucy, you see.” The alternative title, Ah, But Underneath, is even more difficult to say because to a quatrain that crescendos with a triple rhyme: “In the depths of her heart / Were concerns she was inferior / And something much eerier / But no-one dared to dispute her superior appearance.”