By Charles Passy
If you’re a fan of musical theater, it’s fair to say you’re a fan of Stephen Sondheim, the Broadway legend who died Friday at age 91.
A gifted composer and lyricist, Sondheim was his generation’s most artistically significant creator of shows. And what shows they were: “Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Pacific Overtures,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “A Little Night Music” “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods,” among others. Oh, and let’s not forget his early efforts — a couple of now landmark shows, “Gypsy” and “West Side Story,” for which he just happened to supply the lyrics.
It’s not merely Sondheim’s catalog itself that’s so impressive. It’s the fact he was a living link to Broadway’s Golden Age — the era of Rodgers and Hammerstein (and Sondheim was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein), Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser and countless others. At the same time, he showed us a future Broadway, one that could be more daringly dark and complex in its subject matter and tone. And one that could be both shamelessly melodic — you can almost always hum a Sondheim tune, despite what some critics say — and fiendishly clever and sophisticated.
Sondheim didn’t need to write operas to prove his artistic worth. He understood that the great American musical was indeed that — an art form that was very much great (and very much ours), but that could evolve to suit the times. And while Sondheim didn’t write in the contemporary musical vernacular of rock (that’s more the territory of Andrew Lloyd Webber — at least with “Jesus Christ Superstar”— and others) or hip-hop (that’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s turf), his work never sounded old-fashioned.
I’ve been following Sondheim’s career for about as long as I’ve been going to the theater — first as an everyday audience member and, in more recent years, as an arts critic and reporter. In fact, my first Broadway show was the original production of “Company” in 1970 — I was only six years old (I suspect my parents were too cheap to hire a baby-sitter), so I can’t say the musical made much of an impression. But by the time I saw an off-Broadway revival as a teenager, Sondheim was just about everything to me.
“Company” is as good a place as any to start when understanding Sondheim. It’s a show that examines the loneliness and isolation of contemporary life in the form of a man who finds company among his married friends, but can’t forge a deeper personal connection in terms of a relationship of his own. In other words, this is heady, grown-up stuff — and that’s only amplified by the fact it has one scene set in the bedroom and another involving marijuana (this is Broadway in 1970, remember).
Lest “Company” sound a little too serious and full of itself, consider a few of its tunes: the achingly bittersweet “Sorry-Grateful” (as profound a summation of love and marriage as any writer has penned, be it for Broadway or in the form of a poem or novel); the lilting buddy number that is “Side by Side by Side” ; and the ultimate Broadway torch song, “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
Still, my favorite Sondheim musical — and I’m hardly alone here — would have to be “Sweeney Todd,” a grim reaper of a show about murder, cannibalism and…love. An odd combination for sure, but one that works to such haunting effect. And oh, its many brilliant songs! If I had to name just one that has glued itself to my ears over the past few decades, I’d say “Johanna,” which manages to convey both a profound tenderness and a disquieting eeriness.
The knock against Sondheim has always been that he’s not exactly commercial. Sondheim won his share of Tony Awards, the industry’s highest honor, and plenty of other accolades, but he never had a mega-hit in the vein of “Hamilton.” I remember once talking to a successful Broadway producer about what shows he decides to invest in and he told me the key was to know where not to put your money — and Sondheim was one of his big no-nos.
Perhaps he had a point, though I’d have to believe an investment in at least a couple of Sondheim musicals yielded some profit. But the funny thing is even if Sondheim wasn’t a surefire money-maker, his presence on Broadway made it all the richer — certainly artistically, but perhaps financially on a certain level. In a word, Sondheim made Broadway vital — and he did so during some of the industry’s toughest times (basically, the 1970s).
And through Sondheim’s mentorship and encouragement of many young artists, he also saw to it that Broadway would continue. If you’ve watched “Tick, Tick…Boom!,” Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical that has been re-imagined as a film (and is now on Netflix /zigman2/quotes/202353025/composite NFLX -2.83% ), you know that Larson received the boost he needed at a critical juncture in his career when Sondheim gave him a big vote of support. (And may I remind you that Larson went on to write “Rent,” the definitive musical of the ‘90s.)
It’s also worth noting how relevant Sondheim continues to be. One of the most anticipated shows of the new Broadway season? A daring, gender-bending revival of “Company.” One of the most anticipated movies of the holiday season? Steven Spielberg’s take on “West Side Story.” I’m sure I’ll see both.
In the meanwhile, I’ll listen to the cast recordings of “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” and so many Sondheim shows that challenged and thrilled me all at once. To borrow a song title from “Company,” thank you, Mr. Sondheim, for being alive.