Scotsman Obituaries: Stephen Sondheim, giant of American musical theatre

Stephen Sondheim, composer and songwriter. Born: 22 March 1930 in New York City. Died: 26 November 2021 in Roxbury, Connecticut, aged 91.

Stephen Sondheim at the Olivier Awards in London in 2011 (Picture: Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Stephen Sondheim was just 27 when West Side Story opened on Broadway. He wrote the lyrics for such classic songs as Maria, America and Somewhere and Leonard Bernstein wrote the music – though Sondheim would subsequently write both lyrics and music for a string of innovative, award-winning shows.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet reimagined with New York immigrant gangs, West Side Story is now widely regarded as one of the greatest stage and film musicals of the 20th century. But it was controversial at the time – many theatre-goers walked out.

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Sondheim was 91 when he died. In the intervening years he established himself as the preeminent genius of musical theatre, redefining the form and winning a slew of Grammy and Tony awards, an Oscar and a Pulitzer. He has theatres named after him in both New York and London. And he remains as relevant today as ever. Steven Spielberg’s new film version of West Side Story opens next week. And Sondheim figures as a character, and a huge presence, in Tick, Tick… Boom!, the autobiographical film about Jonathan Larson, who wrote the musical Rent and who was mentored by Sondheim.

In the 21st century Sondheim’s musicals Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods have both been filmed with Johnny Depp. And director Richard Linklater has an ongoing project to film Merrily We Roll Along over several years, reflecting the development and ageing of the characters. Like the original show, it will be told backwards.

As Rodgers and Hammerstein had done before him, Sondheim expanded the subject range of musicals, pushing the boundaries with the likes of Assassins, his 1990 show that turned assassinating US presidents into a game.

And yet the average punter might struggle to whistle or hum any of his songs, beyond those from West Side Story, the music for which was composed by Bernstein.

Sondheim’s music was often complex, and always written for a very specific context. His musicals did not rival Phantom or Les Mis at the box office, often losing money when first staged. But, more intimate and often emotionally or morally ambivalent, they scored better with critics.

“I certainly feel out of the mainstream because what’s happened in musicals is corporate and cookie-cutter stuff,” he said in an interview with the New York Times in 2000. “And if I’m out of fashion, I’m out of fashion. Being a maverick isn’t just about being different. It’s about having your vision of the way a show might be.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber called him a genius. “Since the golden era of Rodgers and Hammerstein nobody has come near what he achieved in American musical theatre,” he wrote in the Sunday Times, perhaps reserving the claim to the greatest achievement in international musical theatre for someone else.

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born into a middle-class Jewish household in Manhattan in 1930. His father owned a dressmaking company, where his mother was a designer. His parents separated when he was ten and he lived with his mother. They had a difficult relationship. She continually undermined his confidence and in the 1970s, the night before she was to have heart surgery, she wrote a letter to him saying: “The only regret I have in life is giving you birth.”

However, it was through his mother that Sondheim became close to the legendary Oscar Hammerstein. She was a friend of his wife and Hammerstein became Sondheim’s mentor, offering guidance and often fierce criticism, dismissing his first schoolboy effort as the worst thing he had ever seen.

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Sondheim studied theatre and music at college, though his first showbiz job was as a writer on 1950s TV sitcom Topper, in which Leo G Carroll was a banker who sees ghosts. Sondheim also co-wrote the glossy 1973 movie The Last of Sheila with Anthony Perkins and he compiled crosswords for New York magazine.

He got his big Broadway break on West Side Story, which was produced by Hal Prince, who later became Sondheim’s regular director. Sondheim also provided the lyrics for Gypsy before writing both lyrics and music for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Giving an early indication of his unconventional approach to musical theatre, Sondheim’s base material was farces by the Roman playwright Plautus.

It was actually one of his more conventional shows, beginning with the memorable song Comedy Tonight. It opened on Broadway in 1962 and ran for 964 performances, making it the longest-running show on which Sondheim was both lyricist and composer.

It was also my first Sondheim show when I saw it at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh in the early 1970s, with Phil Silvers combining toga with the trademark glasses he wore as Bilko on TV.

Sondheim went on to write Company – which includes the song Ladies Who Lunch, a phrase that was to enter common usage – Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, a hugely ambitious show, which is partly about the artist Seurat and his obsession with painting, even at the cost of losing the woman he loves.

Lost love is a recurring theme in Sondheim’s work. His most famous single song is Send in the Clowns, from A Little Night Music. It is told from the viewpoint of a woman (or man) who belatedly realises she is in love with a man who has been besotted with her, only for her to realise that she is too late, for he no longer loves her.

Just when I stopped

Opening doors

Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours

Making my entrance again with my usual flair

Sure of my lines

No one is there

The show opened in 1973, but the song gained momentum when Judy Collins recorded it a couple of years later and had a UK Top Ten hit with it. There are also versions by Sinatra (later used for the film Joker), Streisand (with an extra verse that she requested to spell out the meaning more explicitly for the hard of thinking), Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Kenny Rogers and even Krusty the Klown on The Simpsons.

Sondheim lived alone until he was in his sixties. In 2017 he married Jeff Romley, a theatre producer 50 years his junior. Romley survives him.

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