Stephen Sondheim 1930-2021

How a master craftsman transformed his medium and what he leaves behind.

Stephen Sondheim 1930-2021
(Photo by Fred R. Conrad/New York Times/Getty Images)

In 1979, when I was still in college, I took a date to see a Broadway musical I’d been hearing about. We went in cold, as one did in the days before social media, and our seats were about as far back as you could get without being in the lobby. But I remember as clearly as I remember anything the galaxy-brain effect that hit me midway through the opening number, “Prelude: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” The line “Sweeney heard music that nobody heard,” sung by a dark and damning chorus around the figure of Len Cariou as the demon barber of Fleet Street, was like a trap door opening beneath the audience, under which were levels of madness and irony and brittle, exhilarating wordplay unlike anything I’d experienced in the theater. Before that first number was even over, I was a Stephen Sondheim convert for life.

He died unexpectedly the day after Thanksgiving — he was 91 but in good health, and it seemed at times as though he’d live forever, or at least until he finally got “Road Show” (a.k.a. “Bounce,” a.k.a. “Wise Guys”) right. Andrew Lloyd Webber may have sold more tickets, but Sondheim was the greater influence and by far the more profound artist. He is to the Broadway musical what Bob Dylan was to popular music: A protean change agent, transforming and deepening his chosen medium into a canvas of personal expression.

There’s a willful exuberance to the modern stage musical that has always struck me as a kind of show-kids naiveté, as though life were being perceived through a scrim of theater rather than theater serving as the basis for an exploration of life. Exceptions abound, of course, and Sondheim is the greatest of them, because in every one of his lyrics and even in his melodies you sense a mind that has grappled with a larger world outside the stage and that knows the comedy of its betrayals and the tragedy of its reconciliations. Who would think to write a musical about Presidential assassins? Who would think to make it a caustic treatise on the American need to be seen and the demented fury of the unseen? Who would write a song called “Marry Me A Little” and pour into it all our contradictory desires to be loved and left alone? How did he know this stuff?

After seeing “Sweeney Todd,” I started paying attention. I had a roommate who owned the original cast recording of “Pacific Overtures,” the 1976 musical about the opening of Japan in 1853 – again, not exactly dancing cats here. I found myself bewitched by the show’s musical melding of East and West and by insanely effortless rhymes like “If the tea the Shogun drank will/Serve to keep the Shogun tranquil.” Over the ensuing decades, I moved backwards and forwards through the work, the waltzing felicities of “A Little Night Music” leading back to the benevolent matricide of “Gypsy,” jumping ahead to the struggle between art and love of “Sunday in the Park with George” and the deconstructed fairy tales of “Into the Woods,” then back again to the wit and romanticism of the “West Side Story” lyrics and ahead to “Follies,” which to me is the most daring thing Sondheim ever did – a musical that exposes the beautiful lies of American entertainment and Broadway musicals themselves. They promise eternal youth, don’t they, to their performers and, by extension, to us? “Follies” says that that’s bullshit: We get old, we fade, we delude ourselves with hope. But it also says “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” and “I’m Still Here,” and this for Sondheim is the heart of the matter, the eternal human dance between our need for happy endings and an acceptance of the end.

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He worked with gifted collaborators: composer Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne; book writers John Weidman and James Lapine; actors Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Donna Murphy, Elaine Stritch. His shows could have second-act problems; I’m not sure that there’s one perfect Stephen Sondheim musical, but please feel free to argue the point in the comments. His melodic lines are elegant, intricate, intoxicating. The cliché that Sondheim couldn’t write hummable tunes is bunk: “Pretty Women,” from “Sweeney Todd,” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written for the theater. “Another Hundred People,” from “Company,” takes up residence in my head on a regular basis. When Sondheim did choose to complicate things, the results could be delirious. I still remember my older daughter in the back seat on the drive to New York to see “A Little Night Music” – we’d lucked out and gotten tickets to the 2009 revival starring Peters and Elaine Stritch – and watching her head explode in the rear-view mirror as we listened to a CD of the three Act I songs “Now,” “Later,” and “Soon” knitting together into one shimmering maypole of yearning. For me, the finest example of this contrapuntal gift is the “Johanna Quartet” from the second act of “Sweeney Todd,” with the young lovers’ vocals entwining, the Beggar Woman disrupting the flow, and Sweeney finally giving into the comforts of madness – “Wake up, Johanna!/Another bright red day!” – in a tune as jaunty as it is terrifying.

I think that what made Sondheim the most mature exponent of a too-often frivolous art form is that he recognized fear as an essential human condition and our attempts to deal with it as the stuff of drama, farce, and psychological truth. It could be a fear of commitment (“Company”) or of growing old (“Follies”), of opening up to the world (“Pacific Overtures”) or closing oneself to love (“Passion”). It could be the fear that we don’t matter and never did (“Assassins”). It could be the fear that you’ll never finish the hat (“Sundays in the Park with George”).  In “Sweeney Todd,” it’s the fear that the ones we love will be lost to us forever and that those who took them will go unpunished. Can you blame theatergoers if they preferred the dancing cats?

At the end of “Sunday in the Park with George,” Sondheim offered two lights against the darkness: “Children and Art.” In his next play, “Into the Woods,” he reminded us that “children will listen,” so tell the stories — keep the flame lit. He himself had no children, unless you count everyone who has written a musical in the past 30 years. Sondheim’s private life was just that – private – and at times the subject of rumor. Yet within the master of interior rhymes and lover of cryptic crosswords, this man with the crooked smile, one sensed a loneliness that the work was meant to assuage, maybe even dispel. This is how art works, pain turned to process and unhappiness to mastery. This is how one reorders the world into meaning. We are lucky to have lived in his time.

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