On Friday night, it was announced that Stephen Sondheim, the legendary composer who changed the face of Broadway theater in the latter half of the 20th century, had passed away at the age of 91. It felt like a greater shock than one would have imagined the death of a nonagenarian being, but if there was a celebrity who we all thought had the potential to live forever, it was Sondheim. Over the course of seven decades, he helped to rewrite the musical in ways that are impossible to overstate. He won nine Tony Awards, an Oscar, eight Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and it still wasn’t enough. He is as defining a figure to musicals as the Beatles are to pop music. No proclamation of his genius is grand enough to encapsulate what he did.
If you’re a kid who grows up loving musicals, then discovering Sondheim is a special kind of magic. I spent my youth loving films like Oliver! and the ’90s Disney canon, which are excellent pieces of work but certainly part of that old cliche of the musical being a toe-tapping platform for frivolity. Bad things happen but good wins the day, and the earworms become inescapable. When I became old enough (and sufficiently online) to discover what Sondheim created, it was a form of artistic graduation. There’s impossible-to-ignore alchemy with Sondheim’s shows that offers a serious challenge to its audience, one I probably wasn’t truly ready for as a teen, but I couldn’t stay away. How do you go back to the hummable tune and lowered expectations once you’ve truly delved into Sweeney Todd or Company? How do fairy-tales ever again make sense once you’ve been exposed to Into the Woods? It’s not that Sondheim pioneered this kind of emotional complexity or thematic depth with the musical — Rodgers and Hammerstein would certainly like a word — but the sheer sophistication of what he did felt like a call to the entire genre to step up its game.
For Sondheim, musicals were art, as legitimate a form of craft as anything that could be found on the big screen or in the orchestra pit. That utmost commitment to pushing the envelope over several decades often came into brutal conflict with the increasing commercialization of Broadway. There are Sondheim nerds who are still mad that Into the Woods lost the Best Musical Tony Award to Phantom of the Opera. When La Cage Aux Folles won the same honor over Sunday in the Park with George, the show that won Sondheim his Pulitzer, many in the industry saw it as a direct callout of his dense approach that didn’t welcome tourists with open arms. As theaters in London and New York remain dominated by Disney and corporate synergy, Sondheim’s insistence that the musical could and should do more remains urgently necessary.
And his work certainly never let you be comfortable with more of the same. Sweeney Todd is arguably his most accessible work and it is still a deeply cynical view of humanity and its perversions, told through lyrics that veer between nasty, satirical, and hilarious (Sondheim was a great comedic writer who wasn’t afraid to make an actress sing the line ‘popping pussies into pies.’) Pacific Overtures is a tightrope walk melding of East and West that dissects the forced westernization of Japan, staged Kabuki-style with an all-Asian cast that is both ironic and scathingly prescient. Follies is a show as damning and nihilistic about the star-is-born lies of the entertainment world, both in the show and in real life, as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Who else could have written a carnival-esque shoe about historical killers of Presidents that ends with Lee Harvey Oswald being cheered along into assassinating JFK?
His best work was deeply humane, never sacrificing its emotional center in favor of showboating or grand set-pieces. Our most basic fears were laid bare in shows like Company and Follies, revealing the inevitable pain of being alone and getting older. Even his most high concept works exposed our primal desires and anxieties, from the fear that our lives won’t have mattered to the drive to create barging up against the worry that you’ll never actually achieve your dreams. Even when the work stumbled — and even hardcore fans have to admit that he didn’t get it right 100% of the time — the ambition was flawless. Indeed, the flaws often revealed more about the themes than the successes.
Sunday in the Park with George is a perfect example of that. What is the artist’s role in their own creation? Sondheim began working on the show after initially announcing plans to retire following the extremely public flop of Merrily We Roll Along. James Lapine, one of his regular collaborators, convinced him to return to the piano after the pair of them were inspired by the Georges Seurat painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The show heavily fictionalizes the life of Seurat and his descendants, all of whom may as well be named Sondheim in the final production. Leonard Bernstein even told Sondheim that he considered the show to be ‘by far the most personal statement I’ve heard from you thus far.’
Both he and Seurat demanded that the world look at their art in a radical new way, an audacious request to make of any audience, and the difficulties in committing oneself to a life of creative confessionals. Nobody wants to hear about how oh-so-tough it is to be an artist, and Sondheim doesn’t use Sunday in the Park as a platform for such self-flagellation. Rather, he’s more intrigued in examining how such a life can leave you disconnected from what truly matters. How do you convey the beauty of life when your job is to depict it more than live it? To make something where there was once nothing is to commit to life in a unique and often lonely way.
I could spend thousands of words and dozens of secondary sources discussing Sondheim’s work. Plenty of academics have written theses on his exceptional contributions to the form (he won an Oscar for writing songs for Madonna to sing in a Dick Tracy movie!) The past 40 years of Broadway wouldn’t exist without him, from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Sondheim is even a featured character in Tick, Tick… Boom!, the Jonathan Larson musical, the film adaptation of which is currently on Netflix. Perhaps fittingly given his own lyrical mastery, I find myself lacking the words to convey my appreciation to Sondheim. Fortunately, his own songs did that enough for all of us to enjoy.
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