Friday, November 26, 2021

Stephen Sondheim is Dead

I knew one day we would all have to go through this. The once young, vibrant enfant terrible of the Broadway stage, the one who dazzled us with the youthful lyrics of West Side Story and who matured into the greatest American lyricist/composer since Cole Porter is dead. Stephen Sondheim seemed to be an eternal presence. Although his name had not graced any Broadway marquee in quite a while, revivals of his classic work often adorned the Great White Way. And in the back of every theater-goers mind there was always the hope that there was one more in him. One more masterpiece before the long sleep; like Giuseppe Verdi who produced two of his greatest operas, Otello and Falstaff after he had called it quits.

His shows almost never made money. Sure, when he started out at first as the young lyricist to Leonard Bernstein's music in West Side Story that show was a hit. And so was Gypsy, for which he almost wrote the music, however Ethel Merman did not want to star in a show written by an unknown composer. So Stephen reprised his role as lyricist, this time to Jules Stein's great score. He was soon to come into his own as a composer and lyricist with his farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

And then, magic happened. His collaboration with director Harold Prince produced some of the greatest American musicals. Lightning kept striking every time. Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sunday in the Park with George, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, Assasins, and Passion. There were Tony Awards galore, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. If you have followed his career you have your favorites. I know I fell in love with Sweeney Todd the moment I heard the downbeat chord on the organ that begins the score. For Sondheim it was a revenge story, for director Hal Prince it was about the dehumanization of man during the Industrial Revolution. 

Definitely the Stephen Sondheim musical was not the feel good, warm and fuzzy product that Broadway audiences expected. The shows made very little money, but he was expanding the horizons of musical theater. He couldn't compete with the likes of an Annie, Les Misérables or with Andrew Lloyd Weber's British invasion. And, of course, he just could not bring in the crowds that were starting to flock to the corporate Disney shows that were filling the theaters.

I remember a radio interview Sondheim gave at the time of the premiere of Sweeney Todd, a show I got to see three times. He was talking about the struggle to find a musical language to fit a particular show. He reminisced about Pacific Overtures, a daring show about the opening of Japan in the 1800's and the  eventual westernization and commercialization of the country. Like Richard Rodgers in the 1950's who struggled with how Eastern to make the music of The King and I, Sondheim could not get the feeling for this show right. Until, as so often happens, one day it hit him. In the staccato rhythms of Spanish flamenco music somehow he found the necessary voice for his show about Japan's floating kingdom. I never forgot this incredible journey of discovery that this artist went through, and was able to tell us about it. At that moment I realized that Sondheim was not just the cerebral creator of Broadway entertainment. He had become a musical advocate for the globalization of music. The show was the customary Sondheim flop. Imagine a show where the Americans are the bad guys for destroying the beautiful traditions of Japan, playing during 1976: the year where jingoism was at its highest as America celebrated its Bicentennial.

As a composer Sondheim was unique among his peers. Everybody always said one did not leave the theater humming a Sondheim score. That might have been true, but what was always certain was that his choice of a musical idiom fitted the show like a glove. His music could be brassy as in Company, operatic with a touch of the gothic as in Sweeney Todd, and even minimalist and filled with a dash of pointillism in Sunday in the Park with George. And sometimes it could just simply sway in perfect Johann Strauss three quarter time in A Little Night Music, one of my favorite Sondheim shows, adapted from Smiles of a Summer Night, one of the great Ingmar Bergman films.

We have lost one of the great ones. I do not think we will see another one like him in our lifetime.

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