More On: Stephen Sondheim
Our greatest playwright has passed away.
Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist, died at the age of ninety-one, leaving the world of musical theater without its most illustrious practitioner. There was arguably no more important personality in contemporary international drama than Tom Stoppard. Even at his advanced age, paying appropriate regard to one of the most amazingly diversified (in the normal sense) and outstanding canons of work that any figure in English-language play has ever produced is all that is required.
He was born in New York City in 1930 and has spent his whole life as the most Manhattanite of talents. Despite the fact that his subjects ranged from Roman slaves plotting their escape and homicidal Victorian barbers to deconstructed Grimm fairy tales and Georges Seurat's life and work, the typical Sondheim musical was witty, deeply attuned to ironies great and small, and invariably possessed of near-anguished sensibility and feeling beneath the martini-dry quips and suavity.
This was a perfect fit for Sondheim the guy. After an apprenticeship with Oscar Hammerstein II, he began his career at an early age; he had known Hammerstein's son James at school, and the veteran lyricist and playwright quickly dismantled the childish would-be composer's dreams of grandeur.
Sondheim wrote a comic musical, By George, while at school, and proudly asked Hammerstein to assess it on its own merits. The playwright was brutal: “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” But he was also compassionate: “If you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you.” Sondheim later remarked that the subsequent deconstruction of his apprentice work was quite invaluable: “In that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime.”
He had his first big break in 1957, at the age of twenty-seven, when his lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story established him as a brilliantly versatile talent, even if he subsequently expressed ambivalence towards his work for the musical. He said of the line sung by the protagonist Maria, “it’s alarming how charming I feel,” that “That wouldn’t be unwelcome in Noël Coward’s living room. …I don’t know what a Puerto Rican street girl is doing singing a line like that.”
After contributing similarly distinguished lyrics to the show Gypsy, about the “exotic entertainer” Gypsy Rose Lee, Sondheim’s debut as both lyricist and composer came in 1962 with the Roman set farce A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, which received enormous acclaim, won him a Tony award for best musical and was adapted into a successful film. And after that, as they say, Sondheim was away.
After then, it's a matter of personal preference as to which of Sondheim's musicals one prefers. Sweeney Todd may be his most well-known musical, thanks to Tim Burton's fantastically bloody film adaptation, but the aficionados would argue that Follies, about the emotional turmoil of a group of former showgirls, or Company, his most "New York" musical, in its exploration of the inner psyche of a commitment-phobic thirty-five-year-old man, and his gradual realization that he has observed, rather than participated in life, are better.
Even if he was hesitant to provide autobiographical explanations of many of his songs, Sondheim was a humorous, intelligent character who was always ready with self-deprecating comments about his own work. He was productive but never a slacker, capable of doing everything from producing music for Warren Beatty films to compiling cryptic crossword puzzles to co-scripting the interesting noir parody The Last Of Sheila in 1973. He was energetic until the very end, attending first nights of revivals of Assassins and Company only days before his death, as well as giving a last interview to the New York Times in which he observed, "I've been extremely blessed."
It's difficult not to agree. We will never see someone like him again, which is a big loss, especially when we realize how fortunate we were to have had so much quality from one guy. Even as we grieve the passing of the great, complicated character who made it, his work will live on in perpetuity, and that is a consolation.