IIf you’ve ever used the phrases âeverything happens pinkâ or âthe ladies who eat breakfastâ, you have to thank Stephen Sondheim. He made them up in his lyrics to Gypsy (1959) and Society (1970), two of his most famous musicals. But for all the felicity of his work as a lyricist, he considered himself a composer. In truth, not only was he both, the combination catapulted him into a league of his own.
Moments after news of his sudden death in the early hours of Friday after a Thanksgiving dinner with old friends was announced, shocked tributes began to flood social media. It wasn’t just the theater in mourning. Sondheim’s remarkable influence on popular culture was surprisingly current for an artist still working at 91.
Before the pandemic, his work was everywhere. In 2019 alone, Adam Driver sang Being Alive, his hymn of hope from Society, in the movie Marriage story; Daniel Craig hummed a few bars of his Follies torch song Losing My Mind in Knives Out; his biggest hit, Grammy-winning Send in the Clowns, sounded ironic, sung by forwards point guard Joaquin Phoenix in Joker; Ryan Murphy’s Netflix Series The politician used numbers Assassins and Jennifer Aniston and Billy Crudup duo performed her bittersweet love song Not While I’m Around by Sweeney todd on AppleTV The morning show.
His primacy within a larger culture came from the broadest possible recognition that not only had Sondheim created a succession of revolutionary successes, but that in the predominantly reactionary world of American musicals he was a revolutionary. It all started with his Broadway debut, when he was hired at the age of 25 as a lyricist by director / choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and writer (Broadway term for librettist) Arthur Laurents for a show about New York gang violence. It was originally called Gang Way but luckily they changed the title to West Side Story.
Until its opening in 1957, no other Broadway musical had ended with a pile of corpses. His success gave him a license to continue in the vein he chose: breaking creative rules. Although he was later unhappy with his work on it – he particularly denounced his decision to give the poorly educated Puerto Rican Maria (in I Feel Pretty) the phrase: “This is alarming how charming I feel” – the Broadway hit and the 11- Oscar winning film that followed put him on the map and money in the bank. The soundtrack’s album ranked No. 1 on the charts for 54 weeks, a record breaking, and was the best-selling album of all of the 1960s. Right from the start, people were singing his songs.
Or rather his words. Sondheim didn’t become a Broadway songwriter until 1962 with the thunderous Roman farce A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. With his insanely funny book by Sondheim’s friend Burt Shevelove and Larry MASH POTATOES Gelbart, he lasted for three extremely profitable years, performed in London with Frankie Howerd. He formed the (unrecognized) inspiration for Howerd’s hit TV series Until Pompeii!
But Sondheim’s score was overlooked and he spent the rest of the decade being particularly aggrieved, grumbling at friends and struggling with little noticeable success until the opening of Society, which changed everything, not least because he inaugurated his historic partnership with the legendary producer / director and lifelong friend Hal Prince. Over the next 11 years, they created what is now considered the most daring succession of iconoclastic shows – musical or otherwise – in American theater history.
No one else would have had the nerve to write boldly without intrigue Society, the serial killer musical thriller Sweeney todd (later filmed by Tim Burton) or, the most daring of all, Pacific openings, his musical on the opening of Japan by the West. The last one contained Someone in a Tree, which he often described as his favorite song. No wonder since it weaves multiple perspectives into a richly complex song about doubt, about what people see and don’t see simultaneously.
His beautifully noted 1981 show, We ride happily, was radically structured (it was said backwards) and dealt with artistic hope shattered by blind ambition. A thunderous flop, he only managed 14 performances and Sondheim fell back. He would have been forgiven for coming back three years later with something everyone would like, but Sondheim always believed in safety last.
For the second half of his career, he became more, not less, experimental. Sunday in the park with George, In the woods and Passion, all created with writer / director James Lapine, have constantly reinvented the structural, thematic and dramatic possibilities of musical theater. He believed her theatrical voice was more present in her distinctive and vividly dramatic use of harmony. But he was also present in his fascination with ambivalence, his music and his lyrics in perfect balance to express the conflicts that cross the character. Critics claimed his lucid view was cynical, which he vehemently denied. He was actually a fascinating contradiction: a romantic moderated by realism.
Like British playwright Caryl Churchill, whose work he admired, each of his shows sounds and feels completely different while wearing his hallmark. He hated the idea of âârepeating himself. He was constantly looking for and creating new forms with which to express ideas. This has made the widespread commercial success of much of his work elusive. Yet it also made him the most influential theater artist of the second half of the 20th century. His expansion of theatrical possibilities paved the way for game changers such as Michael Bennett A choir line and that of Lin-Manuel Miranda Hamilton. It wasn’t until September that he announced the new musical, Square One, which he wrote with playwright David Ives. It will never be finished again. As absurd as it sounds to a man his age, it makes his death even more premature.
I asked him a few years ago if he feared death. “I think about it a lot now,” he mused. âI have to keep telling myself how close it is. You only feel this if you are sick. And, for the most part, I have been very lucky with my health. So I’m used to feeling that there are plenty of tomorrows. He looked at me and said decisively, âThe idea of ââdeath doesn’t bother me at all. I do not want to suffer. I don’t want to know that I’m dying.
Lucky for him, he got his wish.
David Benedict is Stephen Sondheim’s official biographer