Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Godspeed Stephen Sondheim

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim died on November 26 2021 at the age of 91. Among his works are the lyrics for West Side Story, and the music and lyrics for such musicals as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Sweeney Todd.

Stephen Sondheim was born on March 22 29130 in New York City. He was ten years old when he became friends with Oscar Hammerstein II's son James Hammerstein. He also became close friends with Oscar Hammerstein II himself, who became something of a surrogate father. Oscar Hammerstein II also became his mentor and taught Stephen Sondhiem about how to construct a musical by having him write four musicals, which included a musical based on a play he admired, a musical based on a play he liked but he thought was flawed, a musical based on a novel or short story, and an original musical.  Stephen Sondhheim attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Stephen Sondheim began his career in entertainment not in musical theatre, but in television. He wrote nine episodes of the classic sitcom Topper from 1953 to 1954. He would later write the episode "In Early Winter" for the anthology show Rendezvous. He wrote the music and lyrics for the musical Saturday Night. It was planned for the 1954-1955 Broadway season, but in the end it would not be staged until 1997 in London. It finally found its way to Broadway in 2000.

His first major success came in 1957 with West Side Story, for which he wrote the lyrics (Leonard Bernstein wrote the music). He had another success with Gypsy in 1959, for which he wrote the lyrics and Jule Styne wrote the music. In 1962 he had success with the first musical for which he wrote both the lyrics and music, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. He followed it with Anyone Can Whistle in 1964. He wrote the lyrics for 1965's Do I Hear a Waltz?, for which Richard Rodgers wrote the music. Every musical upon which he worked afterwards he wrote both the lyrics and music for: Evening Primrose (1966), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), The Frogs (1974), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1990), Passion (1994), and Road Show (2008).

In addition to his work in musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim also composed songs for the movies Reds (1981)and  Dick Tracy (1990).

Arguably Stephen Sondheim revolutionized American musical theatre. Quite simply, he brought it into the modern era. His musicals often tackled subject matter that had not been tackled on Broadway before. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was inspired by Roman Playwright Plautus and was set in ancient Rome. A Little Night Music was Ingmar Bergman's movie Smiles on a Summer Night (1955). Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was based on the play Sweeney Todd by Christopher Bond, whose origins can be traced all the way back to the play A String of Pearls or The Fiend of Fleet Street. It dealt with a murderous barber whose accomplice then uses his victims' bodies for meat for her pies. Into the Woods as a mash-up of various fairy tales. Stephen Sondheim pushed the envelope with regards to subject matter in American musical theatre.

Of course, Stephen Sondheim's revolution did not end with the subject matter of his musicals. His songs were a dramatic contrast to what had come before them on Broadway. He dis not embrace the romanticism that flowed through much of American musical theatre in the 20th Century, but instead his lyrics reflected real life. His lyrics were complicated, much as the characters in his musicals were, and could reflect defiance, sadness, confusion, and any number of other human emotions or conditions.

In the end Stephen Sondheim changed American musical theatre forever. An argument can be made that he virtually invented the concept musical. He certainly broadened the scope of what a Brodway musical could be.

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