Stephen Sondheim, one of the greats of American music theater, died at the age of 91. The poet and composer wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story”, among other things, and created musicals such as “Gypsy”, “Into the Woods”, “Sweeney Todd”, “Assassins” and “A Little Night Music”. Sondheim died on Friday. The day before, he had celebrated Thanksgiving with friends at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.
As many noted, Sondheim wrote only seemingly easy pieces with often complex undertones, such as “If Momma was Married” from “Gypsy”, a song from the perspective of a child of divorce, or the thoughtful “Anyone Can Whistle”, which was a protest against the need to conform was interpreted.
The New York Times described him as an artist who gave the musical a “new, bulky, adult” form. His work has won an Oscar (for Madonna’s “Sooner or Later” from the 1991 film “Dick Tracy”), a Pulitzer Prize for best drama (for “Sunday in the Park with George” 1985) and nine Tonys. President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Sondheim was considered a favorite of the critics, but did not produce one catchy tune after the other. A Broadway revue with his songs in 1999 lasted just three months on the stage. “There are musicals, and then there are Sondheim musicals,” wrote the Guardian in 2014 about his complex work.
Nothing to do with the mainstream
The fact that the musical is often viewed as a lesser, more banal form of theater made Sondheim an eccentric in his field. He was just not part of the mainstream, he told the New York Times in an interview on his seventieth birthday, in which he was annoyed that musicals were off the shelf and had become mere money machines. He despised the revivals and “always the same spectacle”, which had nothing to do with theater, but only made a living from presenting well-known things to the audience. For him, it is less about being different than about pursuing a vision.
Sondheim discovered his love for musicals, who first grew up in New York and after his parents divorced on a farm in Pennsylvania, when he was ten under the influence of Oscar Hammerstein (part of the famous music theater duo Hammerstein and Rogers), with whose son James he was was friends. An early musical that he wrote as a schoolboy, “By George”, impressed his friends, but fell through with Hammerstein. Hammerstein’s criticism of the play, however, taught him more about music theater – “how to structure a song, what a character and a scene is, how to tell a story and how not” – than others learned about it in a lifetime, Sondheim said later .
After studying music at Williams College, which he graduated with Magna cum laude, he found his breakthrough with the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”. In the course of his career, Sondheim should tell very different stories, including about the painter George Seurrat (“Sunday in the Park with George”), about Grimm fairy tales (“Into the Woods”), about mass murderers (“Sweeney Todd”) and presidents – Assassins, and about the arrival of the Americans in Japan in the 19th century (“Pacific Overtures”).
His pieces were often melancholy, but hardly melodramatic. The feelgood scheme of successful musicals like “My Fair Lady” or later “Cats” and the Disney productions was alien to him, even if he confessed that he loved the theater as much as the music. “I’m interested in the connection with the audience,” he said in 2010 in an interview with the broadcaster NPR. “The thought of making the audience laugh and cry – to get them to feel – is of the highest importance to me.” At the same time, he described himself as a “mathematician by nature”; if he hadn’t dedicated himself to the musical, he would like to have studied Fermat’s theorem, he told the Times.
His song “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music” may be his best known; well-known artists such as Elaine Stritch, Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury and Bernadette Peters interpreted his pieces. The latter conjured up Sondheim’s work with the words: “It goes much deeper than anyone imagined.”
Sondheim was married to Jeff Romley since 2017. Last year, on his ninetieth birthday, there was a virtual review of his work for the benefit of people in poverty. Sondheim found the hype a bit much, as he confessed to NPR. “But it’s great to know that people like my stuff.”