NEW YORK (AP). In 2010, when he turned 80, Stephen Sondheim had a public outcry when the Broadway theater was renamed in his honor.
At a ceremony in front of a 1,055-seat auditorium on West 43rd Street, the composer looked shy by the time he took the podium after the tumultuous words of fans including Patti Lupone and Nathan Lane. He also opened a window to his psyche.
“I’m excited but very confused,” he said burstingly as the mid-September sun fell on Stephen Sondheim’s Theater. “I’ve always hated my last name. He just doesn’t sing. “
The commentary showed how Sondheim’s brilliant musicality and perfectionism go hand in hand. The theatrical giant, who passed away on Friday at the age of 91, was as complex as his lyrics, dogmatic in his rules and not generous with praise for his work.
A single-minded, obsessed purist, he was also a wizard, creating lyrics and music for such high-profile shows as Little Night Music, Into the Woods, Company, Frenzy and Sunday in the Park with George. “
But he was also his worst critic. Take, for example, his relationship to the iconic song “America” from West Side Story, for which he wrote the lyrics to the music of Leonard Bernstein.
“Some of the lines in these lyrics are respectably sharp and crisp, but some melt in your mouth as gracefully as peanut butter and are impossible to understand, such as“ For a small fee in America, ”in which the letters“ l ”and“ f ”are connected together, doing it sounds like “For the Addict,” he wrote in his autobiographical self-criticism, which ranks over two volumes.
For the rest of us, Sondheim was a genius, whether it was simple lamentations: “The sun is rising / I think about you / a cup of coffee / I think about you” or slightly paranoid: “Be careful what you say / Children will listen,” or sublime “Marry me / Do it willingly / Make a few demands / I am able to fulfill.”
Six of Sondheim’s musicals won a Tony Award for Best Soundtrack, a Pulitzer Prize (Sunday in the Park), an Academy Award (for the song Sooner or Late from Dick Tracy), five Oliviers. Awards and Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008, he received the Tony Lifetime Achievement Award.
He was working on a new musical with playwright Venus in Fur, David Ives, who described his co-writer as a genius. “Not only are his musicals great, I can’t think of another theatrical figure who chronicled an era so eloquently,” Ives said in 2013. “In a sense, he is the spirit of the era.”
Early in his career, Sondheim wrote lyrics for two shows that are considered classics of the American scene: West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959). West Side Story brought Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the streets and gangs of modern New York. Gypsy, to music by Jules Stein, told the behind-the-scenes story of an outstanding stage mother and daughter who grew up to become Gypsy Rose Lee.
It wasn’t until 1962 that Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for the Broadway show, and it turned out to be loud – the bawdy “A Funny Thing That Happened on the Way to the Forum,” starring Zero Mostel as a wily slave from ancient times. Rome longs for freedom.
However, his next show, Anyone Can Whistle (1964), flopped with just nine appearances, but reached cult status after a recording of his cast was released. Sondheim’s 1965 lyrical collaboration with composer Richard Rogers – “Do I Hear a Waltz?” – also turned out to be problematic. The musical based on the play “Cuckoo Time” lasted six months, but was an unpleasant experience for both men who did not get along.
It was The Company, which opened on Broadway in April 1970, that solidified Sondheim’s reputation. The episodic adventures of a bachelor (played by Dean Jones) with an inability to enter into a relationship were perceived as reflecting the obsessive nature of energetic, self-centered New Yorkers. The show, produced and directed by Hal Prince, earned Sondheim his first Tony for Best Performance. Ladies Who Dine became the standard for Elaine Stritch.
The following year, Sondheim wrote the music for Follies, a look at the broken hopes and disappointed dreams of women who appeared in sumptuous Siegfeld-style revues. Music and lyrics nod to great composers of the past such as Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and the Gershwin.
In 1973, the premiere of Little Night Music opened with Glynis Jones and Len Cariou in the lead roles. In this sad romance of middle-aged lovers, based on Bergman’s “Smiles of a Midsummer Night,” there’s the song “Let’s Go Clowns,” which gained popularity outside of the show. The 2009 revival starred Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones was nominated for Best Tony Revival.
“Pacific Overtures” with a book by John Weidman, published in 1976. The musical, also produced and directed by Prince, was not financially successful, but it demonstrated Sondheim’s commitment to the original material by filtering his account of Japan’s Westernization through an American-kabuki hybrid.
In 1979, Sondheim and Prince collaborated on what many consider Sondheim’s masterpiece – the bloody but often darkly funny Sweeney Todd. It is an ambitious work in which Cariou stars as a barber murderer whose clients find themselves in meat pies baked by Todd’s willing accomplice, played by Angela Lansbury.
Sondheim and Prince’s partnership collapsed two years later, after the musical Merry We Roll, which traced the friendship from the characters’ compromised middle ages to their idealistic youth. The show, based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, ran on Broadway for just two weeks. But then again, as with Anyone Can Whistle, the original cast of the cast helped Merrily We Roll Along become a favorite with musical theater enthusiasts.
“Sunday in the Park,” co-written with James Lapin, may be Sondheim’s most personal show. The tale of uncompromising artistic creation told the story of the artist Georges Seurat, played by Mandy Patinkin. The artist immerses everything in his life in his art, including the relationship with the model (Bernadette Peters). It was last revived on Broadway in 2017 with Jake Gyllenhaal.)
Three years after Sandy’s debut, Sondheim collaborated with Lapin again, this time in the fairytale musical Into the Woods. In the series, Peters played a glamorous witch, and in it, first of all, it was told about the tumultuous relationship between parents and children using such famous fairy-tale characters as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. It was last revived in the summer of 2012 in Central Park by the Public Theater.
Assassins opened off Broadway in 1991 and looked at men and women who wanted to assassinate presidents, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. The show received mostly negative reviews in its original incarnation, but many of these critics changed their minds 13 years later when the show ended on Broadway and won Tony as Best Musical Revival.
“Passion” was another serious take on obsession, this time a desperate woman, played by Donna Murphy, in love with a handsome soldier. Despite winning the 1994 Best Tony Musical, the show barely lasted six months.
A new version of “The Frogs” with additional songs by Sondheim and a revised book by Nathan Lane (who also starred in the production) was played at Lincoln Center in the summer of 2004. The show, based on the comedy of Aristophanes, was originally made 20 years ago in the Yale University Basin.
One of his most troublesome shows was The Road Show, in which Sondheim and Weidman reunited and worked on it for years. This tale is about the Misner brothers, whose plans for enrichment in the early 20th century finally hit the Public Theater in 2008, going through several different titles, directors and actors.
Sondheim rarely wrote for films. He collaborated with actor Anthony Perkins on the 1973 murder script The Last of Sheila and, in addition to Dick Tracy (1990), wrote scores for films such as Alain René’s Stavinsky (1974) and Warren’s The Reds. Beatty (1981).
There have been many Broadway revivals of Sondheim’s show over the years, most notably “Gypsy,” which featured reincarnations starring Angela Lansbury (1974), Tyne Daly (1989) and Peters (2003). But there have also been productions of Funny Thing, one with Phil Silvers in 1972 and another starring Nathan Lane in 1996; Into the Woods with Vanessa Williams in 2002; and even less successful Sondheim shows such as Assassins and Pacific Overtures, both in 2004. Sweeney Todd has been staged in opera houses around the world. The revamped West Side Story opened on Broadway in 2020, and this year Off-Broadway Killers opened off-Broadway at the Classic Stage Company, and a mixed Sex-reassignment Company opened on Broadway. The film version of West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg, will be released this December.
Sondheim’s songs were widely used in revues, the most famous of which were Side by Sondheim (1976) on Broadway and Putting It Together, off-Broadway with Julie Andrews in 1992 and on Broadway with Carol Burnett in 1999. In 2011, the New York Philharmonic presented a stellar Company with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert. Melodies from his musicals have started popping up all over the place lately, from Marriage Story to The Morning Show. He himself was most recently portrayed in the Bradley Whitford film Tick, Tick … BOOM! Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. “It’s scary to have that commitment, but Lin was there to draw the blood out of me,” Whitford told The Hollywood Reporter.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits