American musical writer Stephen Sondheim (91) has died. He was a theater innovator who remained unknown to the general public in the Netherlands, although everyone knows his work: from West Side Story to Sweeney Todd and Send in the Clowns.
Dutch musical actors were eager to sink their teeth into the complex songs of Sondheim. As the Shakespeare of Broadway, he dared to give an unprecedented psychological depth to his musical theater. No wonder he is being hit higher in the theater world than his colleague Andrew Lloyd Webber, the genre‘s major popularizer outside the US.
As a child, Sondheim had come into contact with the musical world because after a relocation from New York, he came to live near musical composer Oscar Hammerstein, known for The Sound of Music and The King and I. Sondheim became friends with his son, after which Hammerstein soon became a became surrogate father for him.
Inspired by Hammerstein’s work and convinced of his own genius, at the age of 15, he asked the composer to judge a musical he had written as if it were a professional work. “In that case, Hammerstein replied, it‘s the worst thing I’ve ever read,” Sondheim was happy to tell. “That wasn‘t meant to be heartless, then he went word for word, dialogue for dialogue why it was so worthless.”
“That afternoon, I learned more about writing than in the rest of my life.”
Sondheim was hired in his twenties as a lyricist of West Side Story, the musical that later became a success film. He made a name for himself with songs like America, Maria and I Feel Pretty. The early success gave him the freedom to experiment with the musical as an art form.
Sondheim wanted to take Broadway shows differently. “A lot of people go to musicals to forget their concerns. “Come on, get happy.” I don’t care about that. I don‘t have to make them unhappy, but I want to be able to look at real life. I wouldn’t know how to write it differently.”
It led to the groundbreaking Company in 1972, about an inveterate bachelor‘s vision of married life. It was an unprecedented everyday subject for a musical, with a narrative form that consisted of loose scenes instead of an ongoing story. With A Chorus Line and Cats, that idea of a concept musical would later be successfully applied, the psychological dimension in the Netherlands would influence Annie M.G. Schmidt’s musicals.
meantime, Sondheim himself sought new challenges, such as performances about Japanese-American relations in the 19th century, the British serial killer Sweeney Todd and the origin of the painting La Grande Jatte. An oeuvre that Leonard Bernstein said was the American equivalent of opera. It earned him a mantelpiece to Tony‘s and Grammys, alongside a Pulitzer Prize rare for musicals and an Oscar for music from the film Dick Tracy.
However, Sondheim not only achieved successes, the avant-gardist also experienced dramatic failures. After just two weeks, his partly autobiographical Merrily We Roll Along closed, a reverse story about show business life. Ironically, Sondheim here had a Broadway producer warn the protagonist that musical songs must be humble, hummable. “When did Strawinski have a hit!?”
It was a reproach that Sondheim himself was often told, that his songs were too complex, too cerebral, with interchangeable characters, deviating measures or constantly subtly changing melodies. Sondheim did not let his audience dream away in their seats, his musicals required unwavering attention.
Artists walked in the challenges of Sondheim, with songs that interlock like complex timepieces. “There always comes a moment when you understand why he wrote it that way and composed it like that,” explained musical singer Stanley Burleson once to the NRC. “Every break, every change of key serves the emotion. If your character is angry, you’re not in a fixed rhythm, that wouldn‘t fit that emotion. Everything is right, everything makes sense.”
Remarkably enough, that complexity lacks precisely with Sondheim’s only unadulterated hit single: Send in the Clowns. Sondheim himself acknowledged to be surprised when Frank Sinatra put that song on the record, after which it became a jazz classic with performances by July Collins, Barbra Streisand, Cher and Shirley Bassey.
The sex comedy A Little Night Music that featured the song was staged in 2019 with Paul Groot, one of the rare times that Dutch audiences were able to get acquainted with Sondheim. Almost never did he get opportunities here like the commercially more attractive Andrew Lloyd Webber (with whom Sondheim shared March 22 as a birthday), who, with shows like Cats, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, the genre.gave international allure.
Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep
Theatre lovers here had a special place in their hearts for Sondheim, but his style may have been too intellectual and elitist for the general public. And his songs are quite untranslatable with their precisely composed inner rhyme and their word jokes. Even movie adaptations of Sweeney Todd with Johnny Depp and Into the Woods with Meryl Streep couldn‘t change that much.
Despite his legendary status in the Anglo-Saxon world (Broadway and knowing the West End after him named theaters), Sondheim remained a touchstone for insiders here. “Andrew Lloyd Webbers musicals will find you,” a British theatre journalist once typified. “Stephen Sondheim’s musicals are waiting for you to discover them.”