The art of making art: A tribute to Stephen Sondheim

Influential composer took pride in works exploring the human condition

Bit by bit, legendary musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim fearlessly expanded the possibilities of what Broadway could be.

At the age of 27, his poetic, visceral lyrics for “West Side Story” catapulted his pedigree and mature proficiency of language, further propelled by his masterfully clever, Cole Porter-esque lyrics for “Gypsy.” Even so, his genius remained tied to other people’s music. He had so much more to offer. He had so much more to say.

In fact, when his first opportunity to write a complete score for Broadway arose with “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the show won the 1963 Tony Award for Best Musical, but he wasn’t nominated for his score. What an egregious moment in Tony history.

Nevertheless, in 1970, Sondheim revolutionized musical theater with his groundbreaking “Company,” an engaging yet stinging tale of marriage and relationships staged by his foremost directorial collaborator Hal Prince. Filled with insightful commentaries (“The Little Things You Do Together,” “Sorry-Grateful”), a frantic meltdown (“Getting Married Today”), a survival anthem (“The Ladies Who Lunch”), a hopeful plea (“Being Alive”) and the best song to ever capture the energy and essence of New York City (“Another Hundred People”), “Company” finally gave Sondheim the freedom and breathing room to reinvent the landscape his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II helped invent 27 years prior.

Many landmarks followed, guiding audiences onto sophisticated, thought-provoking paths exploring the human condition within a fascinating, unapologetic fabric. In particular, the disillusionment of the World War II generation (“Follies”), romantic complexities among the old and young in turn of the century Sweden (“A Little Night Music”), the culture clash opening of Japan to the West (“Pacific Overtures”), and the vengeance of a Victorian England barber (“Sweeney Todd”).

When Sondheim parted ways with Prince after “Merrily We Roll Along” flopped in 1981, he shifted toward exploring deeper themes of the heart, mind and soul in his acclaimed collaborations with director/librettist James Lapine: “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods” and “Passion.” Distinctly unique individually, all three musicals are collectively woven within the framework of family, community, love and forgiveness heightened by the reality that one must ultimately cope with letting go and learn to move forward.

In his memoir “Look, I Made a Hat,” Sondheim acknowledged his work with Lapine brought him closer to Hammerstein’s warmer stylistic sensibilities.

“When I look back as objectively as I can at the shows I wrote before James and contrast them with ‘Sunday in the Park with George,’ and the others I wrote with him, it seems clear to me that a quality of detachment suffuses the first set, whereas a current of vulnerability, of longing, informs the second... With James, detachment was replaced by a measure of compassion. When I think of songs like ‘Sunday’ or ‘Move On’ or ‘No One is Alone,’ I realize that by having to express the straightforward, unembarrassed goodness of James’s characters I discovered the Hammerstein in myself – and I was the better for it.”

As a fan of musicals for as long as I can remember, I’m still processing the magnitude of Sondheim’s death on Nov. 26 at age 91. After all, I’m the product of a generation who grew up being introduced to his works through exceptionally filmed presentations of the original casts of “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Into the Woods” (Bernadette Peters is iconic in both) in addition to D.A. Pennebaker’s marvelous documentary of the “Company” original cast recording.

As so, it was wonderful to be able to reflect on his legacy while in New York City on Nov. 27 seeing two of his finest musicals back-to-back: “Assassins” (Classic Stage Company’s outstandingly relevant off-Broadway revival splendidly led by Steven Pasquale as John Wilkes Booth and including Kettering native Benjamin Magnuson as an understudy) and “Company” (Broadway’s fresh, reconceived, gender-bent revival featuring Patii LuPone’s dynamic portrayal of tipsy Joanne). Witnessing the Broadway community sing the glorious “Sunday” at Duffy Square in Times Square the following day was a powerful moment of shared grief as well.

It’s difficult to fathom the reality of this loss because Sondheim always seemed invincible as a prolific, quintessential creator. Despite a smaller output in recent years, there was always anticipation of his next project. New stories waiting to be told in a prodigious, purposeful manner all his own. He truly was our Shakespeare.

Amid the sadness there’s comfort in knowing he left behind so many souvenirs of bliss for us to cherish whenever we need him most. His lyrics (the Witch of “Into the Woods” declaring “it’s your father’s fault that the curse got placed and the place got cursed in the first place”), melodies (“One More Kiss” from “Follies”) and musical sequences (“A Weekend in the Country” from “A Little Night Music”) will stand the test of time. I’m thankful that Sondheim, the greatest among giants, will amaze, challenge, educate and inspire forever.

Isn’t it rich?

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