Image Courtesy of Playbill.com
By Garrett Farrell
If you know someone who is or was in theatre, check in on them. Chances are they have been going through it the past few weeks. On November 26, 2021, Stephen Sondheim, the renowned composer and lyricist of such classics as Company, Sweeney Todd, and Into The Woods, passed away in his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. Sondheim was 91 and continued to compose into his old age.
By nearly every metric imaginable, Sondheim was one of the most successful composers in the History of Broadway: among many other awards, he earned eight Grammy awards, seven competitive Tony awards, one Oscar, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (it should be noted that since 1932, only 10 musicals have won the Pulitzer Prize). His musicals are regularly revived or readapted: presently, his breakthrough musical Company is running at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, and the first Broadway musical for which he served as lyricist was just readapted into a movie directed by Steven Spielberg: a little thing called West Side Story.
For performers, Sondheim’s style is notoriously difficult. It is marked by incredibly fast lyrics in incredibly complicated metrical styles; an example of this is “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” Sondheim once said that he was “a mathematician by nature,” a quality which is certainly evident in his music. Despite the intensely complicated nature of his works, many of Sondheim’s songs have found their way into mainstream pop culture, which is an incredibly hard thing for show tunes to do. Such songs include “Send in the Clowns” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
From an early age, people recognized that Sondheim had a gift for composing music and lyrics. In fact, Oscar Hammerstein II, a family friend who is credited with writing the first modern musical with his collaborator Richard Rodgers, took notice of his talents and helped Sondheim grow as a composer. Hammerstein was not just a friend to Sondheim but a trusted advisor. It was Hammerstein who convinced him to settle for only writing the lyrics to West Side Story and allowing Leonard Bernstein to compose the score.
Sondheim’s work has had a tremendous impact. The aforementioned pop-culture influence of his shows notwithstanding, the shows affected both Broadway on the whole and the people who make up the Broadway community. Broadway before Sondheim was not as it is today: there was nothing too fast, too raunchy, or too dark. Forget the fact that songs with complex lyrics were sparse. Compare that with the Broadway of today which is replete shows like The Book of Mormon, which is nothing if not too raunchy, and Hamilton, which is the most consistently fast-paced musical on Broadway, and the impact of Sondheim’s work is clear. In fact, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that we would not have gotten the best musicals of the 21st century without Stephen Sondheim.
The personal impact of Sondheim’s work is much more difficult to describe, but it is certainly evident. A testament to this impact of Sondheim’s work is the immediate outpouring of love by the Broadway community that happened when his death was announced. From mainstream celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda to Broadway icons like Patti LuPone, nearly everyone who had been on Broadway at some point in their lives was singing Sondheim’s praises. A more public display of appreciation for Sondheim’s work occurred just days after his death when a host of Broadway actors and actresses gathered in Times Square to perform “Sunday” from Sunday in The Park with George, the most famous song from the work that won Sondheim his Pulitzer. A video of the performance can be found here. Appropriately, the performance happened on a Sunday.
“Sondheim’s shows were what really got me into musical theatre,” sophomore musical theatre major Kyle Holcomb said. “His lyricism… it’s just not like any other composer that you hear in musical theatre and he really revolutionized everything and just set the standard for composers today.”
Few artists in history have had the career Sondheim has had; not since the time of Aeschylus has an individual changed the nature of theatre the way Sondheim did, and not since Shakespeare has one dramatist been as prolific and maintained such a high quality of work. Sondheim is survived by his husband of four years, Jeffrey Romley, and by his body of work, which will make his name endure forever.