Stephen Sondheim, 1930-2021

     Stephen Sondheim has passed away; he was 91.  If you love Broadway musicals, then Sondheim has brought you much pleasure and happiness.  See the long list below of musicals, most of which he wrote both music and words – for West Side Story, just the words (with Leonard Bernstein’s wonderful music). 

    Writing both words and music is really really hard.  Here is how The Economist describes it, in its obituary:

   “To do both things, write lyrics and compose, was rare and tricky. Music was fun, abstract and inside him; lyrics were a sweat, though he thought of himself as a playwright first. Combining them required not inspiration, like some girl twittering on his shoulder, but patient craft. He had to let the lyrics sit lightly on the melodic line, bubble and rise, while ensuring that the music made them shine and sometimes explode.”

      At school, Sondheim made friends with Oscar Hammerstein’s son James.   Oscar Hammerstein became Sondheim’s mentor.  The Economist:

    “He [Sondheim] was instinctively a mathematician, sidetracked while still at school by the great lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, the father of his best friend, who taught him almost all he knew.  Maths was kept for the puzzles and cryptic crosswords he invented where slowly, link by link, the solution gleamed into view. By contrast, the 15 musicals he wrote for the American stage, works that propelled him into the company of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Noël Coward, were studies in disconnection. Though he might place his characters in ostensibly jovial parties or reunions, deep emotional fissures soon appeared again.”

    Sondheim did not seek huge popularity.  Many of his musicals closed after very short runs.  The Economist:

    “Audiences …tended to leave the theatre baffled. Plenty walked out. They found him too intellectual, the subjects uncomfortable and nothing hummable in the flowing, conversational scores. With the exception of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962), his first foray into Broadway in both hats, his runs were short. His name could be twisted into the pleasing anagram, “He penned demon hits”. But his only one (big though it was) was “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music”, a song written mostly as simple questions and again about disconnection. (“Isn’t it rich?/ Are we a pair? Me here at last on the ground/You in mid-air?”) He treated the 32-bar torch songs, again really hard to write, as commentaries or little one-act plays to move the plot along. If there was a plot.  Lack of popularity did not bother him. He had never set out to be corporate or commercial; he loathed all that. His only desire was to experiment, to make himself nervous in new territory and not do the same thing twice.

    Sondheim’s childhood was very unhappy.  It impacted his life and his work right to his death:

    “Sondheim detested his mother, who was said to be psychologically abusive and to have projected her anger from her failed marriage onto her son: “When my father left her, she substituted me for him. And she used me the way she used him, to come on to and to berate, beat up on, you see. What she did for five years was treat me like dirt, but come on to me at the same time.” She once wrote him a letter saying that the only regret she ever had was giving birth to him. When she died in the spring of 1992, Sondheim did not attend her funeral. He had already been estranged from her for nearly 20 years.

     Sondheim was sent to military school as a child, then to another school.  You can sense this dark past in some of his musicas, especially Sweeney Todd.   The Economist:  “He saw himself as an outsider: an only child who got the best marks at school, Jewish, gay, shy…  He loved collaborating on musicals, notably with the producer Hal Prince and the writer James Lapine, because he had found such family feeling nowhere else. Until he was 61, he lived alone.”

    Here is Sondheim’s legacy – a part of it:

1954   Saturday Night         

1957   West Side Story                  

1959   Gypsy

1962   A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum                        

1964   Anyone Can Whistle        

1965   Do I Hear a Waltz?

1966   Evening Primrose 

1970   Company     

1971   Follies                        

1973   A Little Night Music         

1974   The Frogs     

1976   Pacific Overtures  

1979   Sweeney Todd       

1981   Merrily We Roll Along    

1984   Sunday in the Park with George          

1987   Into the Woods                  

1990   Assassins     

1994   Passion        

2008   Road Show 

     Often, deep powerful world-changing creativity comes from dark places, as it apparently did with Sondheim.  You do not have to suffer to be creative – but if you do suffer, sometimes you can transform the pain into works of lasting beauty.  Sondheim did.  Rest in peace.