Stephen Sondheim showed us exactly what musicals can be: complex, grand, and unabashedly earnest
Good musicals bring you a spectacle; great musicals bring you humanity on otherworldly levels
A certain kind of musical story has captured our pop cultural attention recently, especially in this new age of the movie musical. It usually concerns the, shall we say, exaggerative elements of the form — Ben Platt's age in the Dear Evan Hansen film, the inappropriate campiness of Diana, the Musical (which recently opened on Broadway and released on Netflix), all of Cats.
Musical theatre has always been over-the-top — an understatement — and sometimes it can slip into something that feels garish. With the level of cringe associated with stories like that, it's easy to understand those who feel allergic to the forced artifice of a person breaking out into song, muscles pulled into a stony smile, telling a story with an upbeat tune and a happy ending. For the most part, trends in the world of commercial theatre and the movie musical haven't always done many favours to contradict them.
And yet, there was Sondheim.
There has always been Sondheim, ever-present, gently reminding us of the power of musical theatre at its strongest. When we would get distracted by the spectacle, Stephen Sondheim — who died last week at 91 — was a North Star, a grounding force, bringing the spectacle back into reality. And we reached for him often.
As the grandfather of the American musical as we know it today, his works were never hard to find. But Sondheim was in a particularly poignant moment of celebration when he died, and not just within the Broadway sphere. Yes, it helps that his 90th birthday was a landmark opportunity for his devoted followers to pay tribute to his legacy, which they did often — any why not, when it means performing the best pieces in musical theatre history.
But in the same year that Cats was baffling movie theatre audiences in 2019, Sondheim classics popped up from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story, Daniel Craig in Knives Out, and the well-suited bullies who pushed Joaquin Phoenix's Joker to the brink. In Lin Manuel Miranda's Tick… Tick... Boom!, which was released this month on Netflix and chronicles the life of Rent creator Jonathan Larson, Sondheim appears twice — once portrayed by Bradley Whitford and another with his own voice on an answering machine. This December, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's West Side Story will hit cinemas. Richard Linklater also recently started production on a real-time film of Merrily We Roll Along, a story about three friends in showbiz over the course of 20 years, told in reverse (where content meets form, created in an abundance of time, steeped in meaning — the anti-Cats). And in New York City, Sondheim lived to see two more revivals: Assassins off Broadway and the highly anticipated Marianne Elliott production of Company, both delayed by the pandemic in 2020.
Such a swell of attention focused on one creator is, on one hand, not surprising, simply because he's responsible for so many pieces worth citing, adapting, and returning to the stage. In addition to the shows already mentioned, there's Follies, Into the Woods, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and — generally considered his masterpiece — Sunday in the Park with George. At last Friday's performance of Company, Elliott called him "truly the greatest artist that we, in our lifetime, possibly will ever know." The winner of the Pulitzer, eight Tonys, eight Grammys and an Oscar, Sondheim has been called America's Shakespeare, even "Godheim," by fans since he died. His first two major Broadway projects, West Side Story and Gypsy, came before he turned 30 — and he's been the best ever since, virtually indisputably so.
I saw Company on Broadway a couple of nights ago. The moment Patti LuPone finished belting out The Ladies Who Lunch, the whole audience leapt to their feet and applauded for nearly a full minute. That’s the power of Sondheim.—@cruising_utopia
Beyond being the GOAT composer/lyricist, Sondheim always held forth on his scrupulous artistic process and shared ethic and knowledge generously. He made us see how deep an artist can care. He loved being a teacher and we’re all the better for it.—@RonaldPederson
Stephen Sondheim was as great as all the accolades say. An absolute giant. When I finally started paying attention, his words & music changed my writing more than anything else since I was a kid. He was my adult Beatles.—@stevenpage
At the same time, commercial success only came over the decades. At first, his shows were too complex to fit the Broadway mould; they favoured character depth over hummable melodies and ambiguity over bright escapism. And though he fervently argued against considering song lyrics as poetry, he had an unparalleled grasp of language. A lifelong puzzle fan and former crossword editor, he's responsible for rhyming "personable" with "coercin' a bull" and lines like "We've no time to sit and dither, while her wither's wither with her" and "It's a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension."
But he deployed those skills, always, "all in the service of clarity," his number one rule in writing. His words are simple because he knew they would be elevated by melody, orchestrations, performance and stagecraft. He also knew he was asking a lot of his audiences — on top of everything, he required them to consider some deep truths.
Company, for example, caps off an exploration of New York City living, singledom and marriage, partnership and loneliness, with the protagonist Bobby coming to terms with his desire for companionship with these words in "Being Alive":
Somebody crowd me with love
Somebody force me to care
Somebody let me come through
I'll always be there
As frightened as you
To help us survive
Company received mixed reviews, and Sondheim has since said that the only rave fundamentally misunderstood Bobby's journey, and this song, to be anti-marriage and not simply about marriage — all of it, the highs and lows. There was an expectation, which Sondheim rejected every time, that because his lyrics were simple his message would be too.
In Sunday, Dot reflects on leaving her relationship with the pained artist Georges Seurat:
I chose, and my world was shaken
The choice may have been mistaken
The choosing was not
At once, she mourns and celebrates the end of their romance at the same time as she reflects on the beauty and fruitlessness of our choices and the passing of time. What better mantra for life can you ask for than those four lines?
From sympathetic serial killers to tragic fairy tale characters to former showgirls exploring the beauty and the ugliness of aging, Sondheim used the art form of the musical not to flatten the human experience but to uplift it. He put it to song, let it ring out into the rafters, let it start in your gut and ring out in your brain for days, weeks, and years.
To borrow another phrase from Company, his death is "sorry-grateful, regretful-happy." His loss is simply and purely sad. And yet, we have so much to be thankful for. This complex mourning is something he, evidently, would have appreciated. Thankfully we have his works to keep returning to, and returning to, and returning to, when the façade becomes too much.