In memoriam: Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim, one of the most ground-breaking composers and lyricists of the musical theatre world, died last Friday 26th November. Born in New York on the 22nd March 1930, Sondheim was raised predominantly by his mother. Despite their fractured relationship, it was through her that he met esteemed lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II thanks to his mother’s friendship with his wife, Dorothy. Here is where he found a father figure and mentor.

What distinguishes Sondheim’s work as unique and so special is how he managed to showcase the darkness of humans with beautiful, sweeping melodies and a layered libretto. 

In spite of his lyrical talent, Sondheim always expressed that he didn’t think of himself as purely a lyricist.

The musical world was first properly introduced to him in 1957, when he wrote the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents’ West Side Story. A retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet through the lens of race relations between Italian Americans and Puerto Rican immigrants. This was where his innovative writing skills were showcased the most. His work contained fast past, rhythmic syncopation songs like ‘America’ which worked surprisingly well alongside sweeping statements of love in songs like ‘Maria’ 

In spite of his lyrical talent, Sondheim always expressed that he didn’t think of himself as purely a lyricist. In 1962, his first musical he penned both the lyrics and music to, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, debuted on Broadway, proving his all-embracing talents. The following year, it won a Tony for Best Musical. This was the beginning of his critical acclaim.

Sondheim’s commercial success was sporadic and temperamental.

Across his career, Sondheim garnered seven other Tony’s, eight Grammy’s, six Olivier awards (one of which was the lifetime achievement award), an Academy award, and a Pulitzer prize.

However, Sondheim’s commercial success was sporadic and temperamental. A year after Forum’s win, in 1964, he wrote Anyone Can Whistle which only got nine runs on Broadway before closing. It was critically acclaimed but, as was the way with much of Sondheim’s work, was not often understood by mainstream audiences.

He veered away from the sugar-coating of traditional Broadway shows. He rejected their romantic grandeur, which often strayed into the realm of camp.

And therein lies the magic of Sondheim. His musicals covered heavy and often dark themes which wasn’t always appreciated. He veered away from the sugar-coating of traditional Broadway shows. He rejected their romantic grandeur, which often strayed into the realm of camp. Through music, he shed light on the chaos, the trauma, of the human condition. Not always the easy watch, but ever touching and sincere.

Of all his shows, one of the most ground-breaking was Company. This was one of the first musicals to explore more mature themes, loneliness and a more honest look at romance. It consists of several interweaving vignettes with no clear linear structure. It’s fast paced, highly spirited, intense. Songs like ‘Getting Married Today’ and ‘Have I Got a Girl For You’ are clever and witty,but never just that. At its heart, Company is a show about longing: longing to be loved, longing to be accepted. Sondheim’s genius was being able to translate that, and other difficult topics, into song.

He shone a light on our worst foibles and was able to both critique and laugh at them.

Sondheim recognised the darkness of human beings; but rather than try to hide it, or condemn it, he was sympathetic towards it. Sondheim didn’t shy away from showcasing the depths of the human condition. For example, engaging with the economic depression and insanity in Anyone Can Whistle. Or even telling the stories of the truly gruesome and wicked in Sweeney Todd, or the dark retellings of the fairy tales in Into the Woods. He shone a light on our worst foibles and was able to both critique and laugh at them. Sondheim knew that most importantly, however badly humans can behave towards one another, we will always need each other.    

Sondheim may not be with us anymore, but it is in his songs that he lives on. His recognition of the human spirit is, to me, best encapsulated by a line in Company’s closing song, ‘Being Alive’: “I’ll always be there/ as frightened as you/ to help you survive/ being alive”.

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