CHRISTOPHER STEVENS Reflects on Stephen Sondheim’s Career
Tributes poured in last night for Stephen Sondheim, the genius behind some of Broadway’s greatest musicals who has passed away at the age of 91.
After scoring his first big hit with West Side Story at age 27, Sondheim continued to delight New York audiences for more than six decades.
The writer of Send In The Clowns and Broadway Baby passed away early yesterday morning at his Connecticut home, his friend and attorney F Richard Pappas said.
Andrew Lloyd Webber paid tribute to the ‘music theater giant of our time’ who inspired three generations.
Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of Cats and Les Miserables, said: ‘The theater has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers. Unfortunately there is now a giant in the sky.’
Elaine Paige, who starred in the 2011 Broadway series of Follies, called him “one of the most important musical theater giants of our generation,” while actor Josh Gad, the voice of Olaf in Disney’s Frozen, compared him to Shakespeare, tweeting: “Not since April 23, 1616 the theater has lost such a revolutionary voice.’
Here, Christopher Stevens of the Daily Mail looks back on the career of one of America’s greatest songwriters…
Theaters around the world dim their lights in honor of Stephen Sondheim, the most influential figure of modern theater. When he heard the news, Broadway star Josh Gad compared Sondheim to Shakespeare on Twitter.
That’s hardly an exaggeration, or even original – in 2017 the New York Times placed him not only next to the bard, but also next to Picasso and Dickens.
From West Side Story to his fairytale extravaganza Into the Woods, he created one of the most memorable musical theaters ever. And he did it without watering down his principles or selling his talent. Rooted in the avant-garde, he used modern jazz and innovations in classical music to treat musicals as serious art.
Stephen Sondheim, stars like Meryl Streep at the premiere of Into the Woods
Thirty years ago, The Oxford Companion to Popular Music noted that Sondheim is “moving in an area that has little to do with the ins and outs of the pop world to which Andrew Lloyd Webber responds.”
His tireless determination to experiment and challenge audiences with complex scores meant that many of his shows in his youth were not instant box-office hits, or even critical successes. But when he died yesterday, he was considered by far the most important composer of his generation.
Most of the timeless entries in the Great American Songbook required two writers, a melody-smith and a lyricist – Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, or George and Ira Gershwin, for example.
Sondheim worked alone. But he achieved his first success using only words, providing the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story in 1957 – an adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet love story set in modern-day New York.
A film version in 1961 starring Natalie Wood as Maria made Sondheim a household name. The film has been remade and will be released next month, this time directed by Steven Spielberg.
Perhaps his most famous song, especially for casual listeners, is Send In The Clowns – a favorite of both Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand.
It was written for his 1973 musical A Little Night Music – a deceptively frivolous title for a production that adapted Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night for the stage. Born to a Jewish couple who designed and made dresses in antebellum New York before divorcing, Sondheim was a lonely child whose mother suggested life in the military for him.
He was sent to the New York Military Academy in 1940 at the age of ten, but his musical talent became apparent in his early teens, when he was already writing songs.
His mother loathed his ambitions and criticized him constantly. Long after, she wrote to him, declaring that the “only regret” she ever had was the birth of him. When she died in 1992, he refused to attend her funeral.
He considered Oscar Hammerstein to be his surrogate father. The father of a school friend, Hammerstein (who went on to write the words for The Sound of Music) saw his gifts and encouraged him to write full-length musicals. One of Sondheim’s first attempts was a version by Mary Poppins, which was never staged. When a chance meeting at a party gave Sondheim the opportunity to write the lyrics for West Side Story, Hammerstein urged him to grab it. The chance to write music would come later, he promised.
He achieved his first success using only words, providing the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story in 1957. Pictured: Spielberg’s adaptation of the musical, due out next month
Sondheim again played the lyricist for Gypsy, the life story of Gypsy Rose Lee, in 1959 after Cole Porter and Irving Berlin both rejected the work.
But he was determined to compose scores and had a big hit with Follies in 1971.
He followed it up in the 1970s with ambitious productions such as Pacific Overtures, Featuring Japanese Kabuki Styles, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.
Into the Woods cemented his reputation as an unparalleled theatrical composer in 1987, and throughout the final decades of his life he was constantly celebrated and celebrated.
But he was a ruthless perfectionist, never admitting to being completely satisfied with his work. One of his best-loved West Side Story songs, I Feel Pretty, had a line that irritated him: “It’s alarming how charming I feel.”
That didn’t sound like a working-class Puerto Rican girl, he worried—it belonged to a Noel Coward song.
Barack Obama, who awarded Sondheim the Medal of Freedom in 2015, said, “Stephen has reinvented the American musical. He loomed in the theater for more than six decades.
‘As a composer and lyricist, and a genre in its own right, Sondheim challenges his audience.
“His greatest hits aren’t tunes to hum; they are reflections on roads we haven’t taken, and wishes gone wrong, relationships so frayed and broken there’s nothing to do but send the clowns.’