Stephen Sondheim attends 2019 American Songbook Gala
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Stephen Sondheim’s Immeasurable Influence: How The Iconic Composer Helped Bring Musical Theater To The Mainstream
Up until the day Stephen Sondheim died, the American theater legend was still creating. "What else am I going to do?" the 91-year-old told the New York Times in an interview conducted just days before his Nov. 26 passing. "What else would I do with my time but write?"
In an artform full of cliches and overflowing with hyperbole, to say that Sondeim changed the very nature of the American musical is neither. In fact, it’s perhaps an understatement, with Sondheim living in the rarefied air names like Shakespeare reside.
Stephen Sondheim was the American musical; his influences ricocheting through American culture at large since the modern infancy of the artform. It’s a vast legacy that began in the 1950s — the decade he wrote the lyrics to West Side Story — to the present day, when the very plot of the Lin-Manuel Miranda-directed film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom (a movie that premiered the weekend of the icon’s passing), stands as a tribute to the deep reverence, hushed tones, and towering regard theater professionals take to when describing Sondheim.
"Future historians, Stephen Sondheim was real," Miranda wrote on Twitter before listing the composer’s most memorable characters. "Yes, he wrote Tony & Maria AND Sweeney Todd AND Bobby AND George & Dot AND Fosca AND countless more. Some may theorize Shakespeare's works were by committee but Steve was real & he was here & he laughed SO loud at shows & we loved him."
It was through those disparate personalities, whether the rag-tag and romantic Tony from West Side Story or the titular George of Sunday in the Park with George fame, that the master endeared himself to audiences and earned a treasure chest of acclaim along the way.
His first recognition from the Recording Academy came in 1959, when the then-29 year-old garnered a Song of the Year nomination at the second-ever GRAMMY Awards for "Small World," which he co-wrote with Jule Styne for the Broadway hit Gypsy. Demonstrating the scope of Sondheim’s career, it was a gig he accepted after both Irving Berlin and Cole Porter turned producers down.
How Sondheim was included in a list of those icons while still in his 20s had to do with an association with yet another theater legend. Sondheim looked to Oscar Hammerstein II — his mentor — like a father, both personally and creatively. As a child, Sondheim even attended the first previews of Oklahoma!, a revolutionary new show at the time, soaking up all he could. Hammerstein remained a guiding force in Sondheim’s life up until his death in 1960.
"For Gypsy, he had a couple things to say about song placement, not about rewriting a song," Sondheim later recalled of Hammerstein’s advice during his initial success. "He never said, 'Gee, I think that song is wrong' or 'I wish that lyric were more graceful.' He probably restrained himself from that purposefully. I wasn't calling him down to say, 'Is this line a good line?' I sought his advice as a grand master of musical theater."
He would quickly take that mantle and run with it, going on to collect eight GRAMMY trophies from a total of 17 nominations. Most recently receiving the National Trustees Award in 2007, he won Best Musical Theater Album (a category that has had various names throughout the decades) on a semi-regular basis: for Company (1970), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1988), and Passion (1996).
His first win in the category, Company, was another landmark in the genre thanks to its zig-zagging styles, from the zany ragtime of "Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You?" to stunning ballads like "Being Alive," "Another Hundred People," or "Ladies Who Lunch" — the latter of which would forever define Elaine Stritch, another Broadway legend. Now on Broadway for yet another revival, each Company song constitutes a character study of a group of friends all dealing with their own personal trials, emotional and otherwise.
"I mean, an awful lot of people have gone historically to musicals to 'forget their troubles, come on, get happy,'" he said in 1995. "I'm not interested in that. I'm not interested in making people un-happy, but I'm not interested in not looking at life. I don't know why I would write it otherwise."
In that vein he was a fierce experimenter, tackling ornery subjects for a musical, ranging from the men who have killed Presidents (Assassins) to mental institutions (Anyone Can Whistle) and even the vicious barbarism of serial killers (Sweeney Todd), demonstrating to future mentees that no subject was off limits, whether it was AIDS (Jonathan Larsen’s RENT) or stuffy American history (Miranda’s Hamilton).
"Sondheim was one of the first people I told about my idea for a piece about Alexander Hamilton, back in 2008," Miranda once explained. "He asked me what I was working on next. I told him 'Alexander Hamilton,' and he threw back his head in laughter and clapped his hands. 'That is exactly what you should be doing. No one will expect that from you. How fantastic.'"
As David Benedict, Sondheim’s official biographer, remembers, "He loathed the idea of repeating himself. He was forever searching for and creating new forms with which to express ideas. It’s that which made widespread commercial success for much of his work elusive. Yet it also made him the most influential theatre artist of the second half of the 20th century."
Songs like "Everything’s Coming Up Roses" and "Together, Wherever We Go" (both from Gypsy, which made Cole Porter reportedly gasp at when he first heard it) have so defined the Broadway style that they are representative of the artform: instantly hummable, serving as the epitome of a classic Great White Way tune, sung along to ad nauseam at Theater District piano bars. As distinct as singer Ethel Merman’s voice, Sondheim is the man who coined the very term "Everything’s coming up roses." At the same time, West Side Story classics like "America" are synonymous with the immigrant experience, while "I Feel Pretty" is synonymous with a feminine perspective.
Sondheim’s sonic impact changed the very nature of musical theater, exploding it into the mainstream in the ‘60s when the soundtrack for West Side Story the film — surpassing the likes of the Beatles, Elvis and Sinatra — became the biggest-selling album of the decade after sitting at No. 1 on Billboard’s album charts for a record-setting total of 54 weeks. No longer was the music of a Broadway hit culturally confined to the stage.
"Send in the Clowns," from A Little Night Music, has also transcended into the canon of American popular music, as it was recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Barabara Streisand and Judy Collins — the latter of whom received a nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female at the 18th GRAMMY Awards in 1976. (In a social media tribute to Sondheim, Paul McCartney called it one of his favorite songs.)
The vociferous reception to the theater pioneer’s daring output extended far beyond charts or awards, too: Sunday in the Park with George is one of only 10 musicals to win a Pulitzer Prize.
"The whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry — just making them feel — is paramount to me," he once explained to NPR, summing up a landmark career that not only set him apart from his peers, but made him peerless. It’s that feeling Sondhiem injected into the American musical that made him so revolutionary.
To send Sondheim off as eloquently as possible, why not borrow some lines courtesy the master himself? "How would we ever get through?" so goes one of Company’s many memorable tunes. "What would we do without you?"