THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
In the early '70s Katharine Hepburn lived next door to Stephen Sondheim, who has passed at the age of 91, in the Turtle Bay district of New York, and supposedly would bang on his wall exhorting him to “quit the racket” as he laboured late into the night. Well, in just 3 short years, ’70,’71 and ’72, that racket produced Company, Follies and A Little Night Music. For any other composer, producing just one of those masterpieces would be enough to provide forgiveness for a lifetime of gentle flops to follow. For Sondheim it was a case of onwards and upwards.
Sondheim wasn’t just a part of musical theatre, for the second half of the 20th century he was the American musical theatre. He didn’t just excel; he changed his chosen form and very few artists succeed in that.
He got an exemplary musical education at the feet of Oscar Hammerstein II who was a family friend, neighbour, and mentor to the troubled, precocious, kid. By 27 he had written West Side Story with Bernstein and then Gypsy with Jule Styne.
The '60s were more fallow for him as he tried to find his feet. While his first solo outing as composer and lyricist A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum worked, his follow up, Anyone Can Whistle, closed after 9 performances. He then bounced back with the trio referred to above and that sealed his place in the pantheon of Broadway.
Some critics sniffed that he was too intellectual and lacked heart but that is disproven by any survey of his songs. ‘Losing My Mind’ and ‘Not a Day Goes By’ are a match for any of the torch songs from the Great American Songbook.
Sondheim had no time for what he called “Pack up your troubles, go on, get happy” type musicals as he wanted to do more, to always push the boundaries. What defines his work is ambiguity and nuance, that idea people can have two often conflicting thoughts in their head at the same time and it is this direct connection to these very human impulses that makes his songs work, no matter how complex they are or how odd the setting. While formally trained singers might struggle a little with his musical lines, actors adore him because he does the work for them, it’s all there, you just need to follow it.
His ever-restless brain meant he was never happy repeating himself, much to the chagrin of producers. In Follies, for example, which follows the travails of ageing showgirls across the early 20th century, each song’s style matches the popular song styles from their era. But these aren’t merely hollow pastiche, instead they also serve to propel the plot and reveal character, which is what musical theatre songs are required to do.
In Company he created a plotless musical taking place inside the head of the protagonist, in Merrily We Roll Along he told the story backwards, in A Little Night Music he set himself the insane task of setting all the songs in ¾ ‘waltz’ time and pulled it off. Every time he sought to ensure that content shaped form.
His influence on subsequent composers has been immeasurable. He loved collaborating and never resented the young crowd. There wouldn’t be a ‘Room Where it Happens’ in Hamilton without the exquisite ‘Someone in a Tree’ from Pacific Overtures, as Lin Manuel Miranda acknowledged.
In the early '90s, because of his respect for and trust in British musical theatre performers, he came to Leicester, where the Haymarket was reviving Merrily We Roll Along and collaborated with them on the show. It set the scene for a complete reappraisal of that gem and then subsequent revivals in the West End and on Broadway.
Similarly, when Marianne Elliott boldly asked him to change the gender of Bobby in her recent hit revival of Company, he was game. A few days before he died, he was feted at a preview of that Broadway transfer.
Just two months ago on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert he described the current show on which he was working. At 91.
We shall not see his like again.