“If I cannot fly, let me sing.”
― Stephen Sondheim
And sing he did. In a career that spanned over 50 years, Stephen Sondheim, who died at 91 last Friday strode like a giant, writing music and lyrics that raised and reset the artistic standard for American stage musicals. An intellectually rigorous artist who energetically sought new creative paths, Sondheim was the most revered and influential theatre composer-lyricist in the second half of the 20th century, if not its most popular. His works melded music and words in a way that enhanced both, from the late 1950s when he wrote lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Gypsy, through the 1990s, when he wrote the music and lyrics for two audacious musicals – Assassins (giving voice to the men and women who tried to kill American presidents), and Passion, an operatic probe into the nature of true love.
The 1970s and the 1980s were Sondheim’s most productive period, when he turned out one after another strikingly original works, notably Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), about 19th-century French Neo-Impressionist artist Georges Seurat, and Into the Woods (1987), a pastiche of several children’s fairy tales. Five of his works for Broadway shows won Tony Awards for best musical and six won for best original score. Although Sunday in the Park with George won neither, it took the 1985 Pulitzer Price for drama. After this, followed a string of honors few American artists could match: the Kennedy Centre Honors for lifetime achievement (1993), a Tony Award for lifetime achievement (2008), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2015) among others. In 2010, in perhaps the ultimate show business accolade, Henry Miller’s Theatre, a Broadway house on West 43rd Street, was renamed in his honor.
Sondheim spent long hours in solitary labor, usually late at night, when he was composing or writing, he often spoke humbly of the collaborative nature of theatre. That may be the case, but no one would argue that Sondheim was a singularly innovative creative force. In the history of the theatre, the list of major composers who wrote words to accompany their music is a short one. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Jerry Herman and Noel Coward. Stephen Sondheim sits easily among these titans.
A Sondheim Sampler
The Grammy-winning Send in the Clowns from his 1973 musical A Little Night Music. It was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Judy Collins, among others.
A wonderful tribute to Sondheim on his 90th birthday in March 2020 by a veritable list of who’s who in Broadway and Hollywood.
Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration
Documentary: 60 Minutes Archive: Stephen Sondheim