Stephen Joshua Sondheim: prolific composer, lyricist, and former resident of Southeastern Pennsylvania. It’s incredible to imagine that had Sondheim never lived in Bucks County, his death on November 26th may not have been immediately documented outside of a local obituary in Roxbury, Connecticut, where he died at 91 late last week.
Children Will Listen
Sondheim was born in New York City on March 22, 1930. His parents divorced when he was ten, after which Sondheim’s mother moved him to Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Her treatment of him was deplorable and abusive, as she took out her frustrations over her failed marriage on her son. Sondheim sought refuge in the friendship of James Hammerstein, who he met at the Quaker George School in Newtown. The son of lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein, James became a confidante — and Oscar became a surrogate father to the young Sondheim. Oscar, of Rogers & Hammerstein, fame, helped bring to the world stage and screen classics including The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, South Pacific and Carousel.
Sondheim adored Oscar Hammerstein. “I wanted to do what Oscar did,” Sondheim said in an interview for a revue of his work. “I’ve often said if he had been a geologist, I probably would have been a geologist.”
When Sondheim was fifteen, he wrote his first musical, a story about his school called By George — and proudly presented it to Hammerstein, who promptly panned the effort. Hammerstein didn’t just tell him it was terrible — he told him why it was terrible. It was a master class taught by a true master that formed the basis of Sondheim’s approach to musical theatre.
Not a Day Goes By
Sondheim’s relationship with Hammerstein endured for the rest of Hammerstein’s life. Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda shared an email from Sondheim one week prior to his death. Miranda had emailed Sondheim about conversations he and other writers were having about the many kindnesses Sondheim had shown them. Sondheim replied, “It’s an aspect of my life I’m proud of. I feel as if I’ve repaid (partially, at least) what I owe Oscar:” Sondheim felt he owed Hammerstein for his initial commercial successes, and for the introduction to one of his most prolific partners over a lengthy career.
One summer during his college years, Sondheim was hired as a production assistant for the 1947 production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Allegro, which allowed him to watch his mentor at work. The production ultimately was a failure, which taught Sondheim an important lesson: even the greats can fail. This formed Sondheim’s belief in the never-ending process of learning, collaborating and teaching to improve one’s output.
Prior to making his Broadway debut as a composer/lyricist, Sondheim wrote the lyrics to West Side Story with composer Leonard Bernstein at the age of 25, and those of Gypsy along with composer Jule Styne, which starred Ethel Merman. Sondheim initially did not want to take either job. It was Hammerstein who urged him to do so, saying he would benefit from working with Bernstein and Styne and from writing for a star like Merman. He was right.
And it was at the opening night of Hammerstein’s South Pacific that Sondheim met his longtime collaborator, director and producer Hal Prince. The duo reimagined what a musical could be with their first hit, 1970’s Company, by telling the story through a series of vignettes within the show, instead of a more traditional linear plot. They continued to push the limits of the genre through that storytelling method and the intricacy of the music with Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd.
No One is Alone; It Takes Two
Sondheim wrote in solitude. He enjoyed kick-starting his writing process with a shot of liquor to, as he said in the song “God” in Sondheim on Sondheim, “lose the inhibitions.” He wrote lying down in his studio using soft lead pencils that wore down quickly. He said he liked to lie down while writing because it made naps more likely.
Despite that setup, Sondheim believed theatre was a living art that had to be constantly made relevant. In his opinion, the best way to make it relevant was through collaboration. His two main collaborators were Prince and James Lapine, with whom he would create Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George and Passions.
Sondheim believed theater was a living art that had to be constantly made relevant.
Sondheim created and collaborated until the very end, recently telling Stephen Colbert that he hoped to have a new musical on Broadway next season. His next film collaboration, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, can be seen in theatres starting December 10th. Sondheim was a known skeptic of movie musicals, but raved about this particular adaptation in several interviews.
He was heavily involved in the London revival of his breakthrough hit Company, now playing on Broadway. In this production, most of the roles are gender-swapped, which required extensive rewrites of the score and script. Director Marianne Elliott said in her onstage tribute to Sondheim on the evening of his death that despite Company already being a beloved musical that didn’t need to be changed, Sondheim “became the greatest enthusiast for [the revival]. Every single line of George Furth’s and every single lyric we talked about, we debated, we argued, we chatted, we laughed. He was hugely involved in this particular production and very proud of it. I’m so happy to say … he really understood the now and why art should speak to the now. It’s not a museum piece. It’s about speaking to its audience.”
Or as Sondheim said in a PBS Newshour interview in 2010, “The audience is the final collaborator on any show.”
I’d Like to Propose a Toast
While Sondheim’s beloved mentor in Bucks County preferred happy endings and escapism from the darker side of life, Sondheim wanted to write about real life. He believed that by writing about the experiences of real people, his work would be easier to connect to for both the performers and the audience.
Without hits like Company and Follies, two stories told in a nonlinear format, it’s hard to imagine shows like Chicago, Hair or A Chorus Line finding their place in modern theatre. Without his lifelong desire to repay the debt he felt he owed to Oscar Hammerstein, we may not have some of the most important works of the last 25 years. Sondheim was a mentor to Jonathan Larson, who wrote Rent. This relationship was recently portrayed in Netflix’s biographical tick, tick… BOOM!. Sondheim, portrayed by actor Bradley Whitford, encourages a downtrodden Larson by coming to his read-through and offering advice in a voicemail that Sondheim himself recorded for the film.
tick, tick…BOOM! was directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, another recipient of Sondheim’s wisdom and tutelage. So indebted to Sondheim was Miranda that in his acceptance speech for his first Tony Award, won for his musical In The Heights, he shouted Sondheim out by exclaiming in a freestyle rap, “Mr. Sondheim, I made a hat,” a reference to Sondheim’s lyric in Sunday in the Park with George.
Now It’s Time to Leave the Wood
Over the course of his career, Stephen Sondheim won eight Tony Awards, an Oscar, eight Grammys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. In 2010, the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway was named in his honor. Those marquee lights, and the lights of all Broadway theatres, dimmed last week in his memory, a traditional honor given to major Broadway figures who have passed away.
It doesn’t feel like enough. The lights of Broadway will never shine as bright without Stephen Sondheim here to bask in them. Sondheim has left us, but he has left us with so much: his work, the genre he redefined, his protégés, and the countless people who owe inspiration to his musicals.
The lights of Broadway will never shine as bright without Stephen Sondheim here to bask in them.
Friday, November 26th brought new meaning to the term “Black Friday.” For many, it was the day the music died, to co-opt the Don McLean lyric. If there is to be any solace, it is in the belief that Sondheim has finally been reunited with his mentor Oscar Hammerstein, whom he first met on a farm in Bucks County.
Sondheim was the quintessential artist, working until the very end. Just like the character George Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George, he was always looking for the next project. Sondheim said, “Art has no beginning or end. It’s just one thing.” This is certainly true of Sondheim’s work and his legacy.
As he concludes the show, George Seurat says looking ahead to what’s next: “White: a blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” Those possibilities now exist in the countless productions that will reinterpret and present Sondheim’s incredible body of work on the stage and screen, for generations to come.
Ben Wren is an Associate with Long Nyquist & Associates and a Fellow with the O.V. Catto Leadership Initiative. He has participated as a performer and Director in Theatre for over 25 years, and is currently the Chairman of the Board for Split Stage Productions. Opinions do not reflect those of his employer. @benwren
Ben Wren’s Sondheim glossary:
“Something Just Broke” is a song from the musical Assassins that catalogues the reactions of ordinary Americans to the Kennedy Assassination.
“Children Will Listen” is the final song in Into The Woods. The song advises parents, both in the musical and in the audience, to be mindful of the lessons they unknowingly pass on to their children.
“Not a Day Goes By” is a song from Merrily We Roll Along, The song is first used to celebrate the fact that not a day goes by during which the singer doesn’t think about her friends’ presence. It is later sung to mourn the same friends’ absence.
“No One is Alone” is a song from Into the Woods sung to comfort two young characters faced with the deaths of their mothers.
“It Takes Two,” also from Into the Woods, is a duet between the Baker and the Baker’s wife as they celebrate their teamwork in trying to break a spell placed on their house.
“I’d like to propose a toast” is the opening line in the song “The Ladies who Lunch” from Sondheim’s 1970 hit Company.“
It’s time to leave the wood” is a line from Into the Woods used as a euphemism for death. The line is sung most poignantly in the song “Moments in the Woods.”