Stephen Sondheim, Titan of Broadway, Dead at 91

That most American of art forms, the musical comedy, lost a dominant presence on Friday when composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim died at his home in Connecticut. He was 91.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein might be said to have popularized the Broadway musical with their hugely successful collaborative efforts in writing Oklahoma, Carousel, and South Pacific.  They invented the musical theater format where songs and dialogue mixed seamlessly to create a singularly American art form.

Sondheim, who began his career writing the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s revolutionary West Side Story, was both the composer and lyricist for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That play won a Tony Award and made comic actor Zero Mostel’s career.

New York Times:

In the 1970s and 1980s, his most productive period, he turned out a series of strikingly original and varied works, including “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) and “Into the Woods” (1987).

In the history of the theater, only a handful could call Mr. Sondheim peer. The list of major theater composers who wrote words to accompany their own scores (and vice versa) is a short one — it includes Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Jerry Herman and Noël Coward.

Sondheim took enormous chances. He staged the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street about a barber who returned from being wrongfully imprisoned to go on a murderous, bloody killing spree. It was made into a big-budget Hollywood film starring Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman, and Helena Bonham Carter.

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Making a musical comedy about a serial killer was nothing compared to Sondheim’s foray into the dark mind of political assassins. Assassins looked into the motivations of several presidential assassins and attempted assassins and explored the themes and motivations for their actions.

The musical won five Tony Awards after it premiered on Broadway in 2004.

Mr. Sondheim’s music was always recognizable as his own, and yet he was dazzlingly versatile. His melodies could be deceptively, disarmingly simple — like the title song of the unsuccessful 1964 musical “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Our Time,” from “Merrily,” and the most famous of his individual songs, “Send In the Clowns,” from “Night Music” — or jaunty and whimsical, like “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” from “Forum.”

They could also be brassy and bitter, like “The Ladies Who Lunch,” from “Company,” or sweeping, like the grandly macabre waltz “A Little Priest,” from “Sweeney Todd.” And they could be exotic, like “Someone in a Tree” and “Pretty Lady,” both from “Pacific Overtures,” or desperately yearning, like the plaintive “I Read,” from “Passion.”

Sondheim’s lyrics were thoughtful and his melodies were often whimsical. But it was his uncanny ability to meld the musical theater genre with topical and sometimes political themes that set Sondheim apart from others.

It’s not likely that much of Sondheim’s later work will end up being performed by high school drama classes or most community theaters.  Unlike Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim chose sometimes uncomfortable subjects for his work.

That he could still make the music and lyrics memorable was a gift that the musical theater lost with his death.

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