Humanity

Stephen Sondheim: America’s Greatest Living Writer

There are many virtuoso musical writers and performers in the United States. The most successful and long-standing artists are the ones that have the ability to adapt and possess well-established careers that have been able to cross over and interconnect people throughout many decades and generations. One of those artists happens to be one of the most prominent lyricists and musicians in theatre: Stephen Sondheim.

He will be turning ninety-one this month, on March 22nd to be exact. Some of the most beloved musicals that he has written and composed would be Into the Woods, West Side Story, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Gypsy. Over his sixty-six year-long career he has won eight Tonys, six Grammys, an Oscar, and a Pulitzer Prize.

Though most of his musicals have not been considered megahits on Broadway such as Phantom of the Opera, it is because of what Sondheim focuses on in his musicals. While Broadway thrives on larger-than-life plots and music, Sondheim finds the beauty of the world through the authentic complexity of human emotions that fall into liminal space or into the darkness itself. He states in his second volume of collected lyrics, “There is a tonic in the things men do not wish to hear, it’s been said. But not much money.”

 

 

Unlike most starving artists who are discovered while in obscurity, Sondheim started his career in the mid to late 1950s creating the megahits West Side Story and Gypsy. Before he reached the age of thirty, he had already done more than what most writers have done in a lifetime. But these musicals do not represent who Sondheim is at his core. Through collaboration with directors Hal Prince and James Lapine, then a decade of hits and misses, he created the musical ‘Company,’ which started another quarter-century of success for Sondheim with musicals varying from topics of middle-aged showgirls in Follies and the American opening of Japan in Pacific Overtures.

What makes Sondheim’s musicals come together though is that each of them is essentially a piece of literature that has a musical score. He based Company off of a novel and essay that were written in the late 1960s, when he wrote the musical, and spoke of the sexual revolution occurring during this time period in the United States which is reflected in the musical through vignettes of each of the characters and how they handle the culture shock.

 

Image via Time Out

Company won a Tony for Best Musical in 1971 but left many people confused. New York Times critic Walter Kerr left the production feeling ‘cool and queasy.’ Sondheim reflects on the fact that the adjective cold is frequently used by critics of his musicals stating that, ‘It all began with Company.’

 

Sondheim’s musicals were being compared to brass comedies like Hello Dolly and The Sound of Music. But the biggest difference between them is how the music portrays emotions. Most Broadway musical characters know how they are feeling, what they want, and show that through music. In Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Todd shows his contempt towards people and society through the song ‘No Place like London.’ But Todd is not unlike other characters of Sondheim’s. Sondheim uses music in all of his works to illustrate a self-conscious, reflective, unknowing mindset that is more in line with how people actually process their emotions, wants, and state of being. We do not know until after the fact. An example of this can be seen in the song ‘Send in the Clowns’ from the musical A Little Night Music where the character believes that she is a fool after proposing to her lover who rejects her for a younger woman. It tells the audience of the self-contempt that the character possesses for herself without telling the audience.

 

Image via Playbill

It sounds like none of Sondheim’s characters get what they want, but in his musical Into the Woods they do. Act 1 shows the fairytale aspect of each character; Cinderella gets the prince, Jack climbs the beanstalk. But then in Act 2, just like people, when they do get what they want they begin to want something else. So the cycle repeats itself, resulting in the fact that there is no such thing as a happily ever after in reality. The only thing we can learn to accept is peace in the past and the future. Sondheim is a realist in an industry that relies on vice versa. Seeing the brutally honest humanity that Sondheim portrays in his musicals is the reason why his works are still standing.

 

 

Featured Image via NPR
juneteenth

Ten Powerful Quotes About Juneteenth

Today marks the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The proclamation was declared by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1st, 1863, but the news did not reach Texas until two-and-a-half years later. Since then, generations have celebrated the day as Juneteenth and forty-five states recognize it as a state holiday.

As we remember this historic day in United States history, below are ten powerful quotes by central figures about the ugly history of slavery and this holiday’s meaning.

 

Image via CNN

 

1. “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” – Frederick Douglas.

 

2. “I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.” – Harriet Tubman.

 

3. “We’re in denial of the African holocaust. Most times, people don’t want to talk about it. One is often restless or termed a racist just for having compassion for the African experience, for speaking truth to the trans-Atlantic and Arab slave trades, for speaking truth to the significant omission of our history. We don’t want to sit down and listen to these things, or to discuss them. But we have to.” – Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X.

 

Image via CNN

 

4. “If the cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. Because the goal of America is freedom, abused and scorned tho’ we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

 

5. “Anytime anyone is enslaved, or in any way deprived of his liberty, if that person is a human being, as far as I am concerned he is justified to resort to whatever methods necessary to bring about his liberty again.” – Malcolm X.

 

6. “My people have a country of their own to go to if they choose… Africa… but, this America belongs to them just as much as it does to any of the white race… in some ways even more so, because they gave the sweat of their brow and their blood in slavery so that many parts of America could become prosperous and recognized in the world.” – Josephine Baker, legendary entertainer and activist.

 

Image via CNN

 

7. “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” – Abraham Lincoln.

 

8. “Where annual elections end where slavery begins.” – John Quincy Adams.

 

9. “…the 19th of June wasn’t the exact day the Negro was freed. But that’s the day they told them that they was free… And my daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with [gun] powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.” – Haye Turner, former slave.

 

10. “Every year we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations. That’s why we need this holiday.” – Texas Rep. Al Edwards.

 

 

Featured Image Via CNN