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.
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.
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.