As a big fan of Broadway musicals and the Great American Songbook (I run the indie label, Eclectus Records, that releases my wife, Laura Ainsworth’s, retro jazz albums), like many, I was shocked and saddened to hear of the death Friday of legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim at 91.
It’s hard to imagine being shocked to hear that someone died at 91, but Sondheim seemed both ageless and timeless. He’d been writing landmark musicals longer than many of us have been alive, and it seemed as if he would always be here and working on a new show.
An abused child of wealthy divorced parents, he wrote his first musical in prep school in the early ‘40s. His best friend’s dad, Oscar Hammerstein II, became his surrogate father and mentor, and Sondheim worked as an assistant on the original productions of “South Pacific” and “The King And I.” Frustrated that the powers on Broadway wouldn’t let him write both words and music, he started out by writing the lyrics to such classic shows as “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”
He finally got to create an entire score in 1962, for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” with its rousing opener, “Comedy Tonight!” It’s regularly revived and is still his most profitable show. He went on to create a string of ground-breaking musicals that forged new, sometimes uncomfortable ground for Broadway, but opened the genre up to more serious, adult themes. It’s ironic that Cameron Mackintosh, producer of such touristy spectacles as “Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats” and “Miss Saigon,” is quoted praising him in his obituary, since his shows were seen as the antithesis of everything Sondheim stood for.
Some were hits, like “Follies;” “Company,” (which yielded the standards “Being Alive” and “The Ladies Who Lunch”); the Ingmar Bergman adaptation “A Little Night Music” (“Send In The Clowns” became one of the most-recorded songs of all time); “Into The Woods,” his version of classic fairy tales that follows the characters beyond “happily ever after,” and whose great score includes the gorgeous “No One Is Alone” (it became an all-star Disney movie, but the original Broadway cast version filmed for PBS is far better and viewable on YouTube: https://youtu.be/kqCsQCsinK4); and the dark masterpiece “Sweeney Todd.”
Some were just too esoteric for Broadway, like “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Assassins,” “Passion,” and “Pacific Overtures” (ten Tony nominations, closed in six months.) “Sunday in the Park with George” ran for over 600 performances but still lost money. But their original cast albums are considered works of genius and include many great songs that will keep cabaret performers in material for years to come.
Sondheim was the recipient of virtually every honor the performing arts world can bestow, some of them many times over, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Since you depend on me to give you the trivia other obits overlook, here are three things you might not know that Stephen Sondheim did:
His love of intricate wordplay wasn’t limited to the tongue-twisting lyrics of songs like “I’m Not Getting Married Today” or “Your Fault.” He earned a little money early in his career by writing 11 episodes of the witty early ‘50s sitcom, “Topper.” After pocketing the paychecks, he immediately left Hollywood and fled back to New York.
His love of puzzles and murder mystery games inspired him to write the 1973 murder mystery movie “The Last of Shiela” with “Psycho” star Anthony Perkins.
And his smoldering faux-1940s torch song “Sooner Or Later” was definitely the highlight of Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” movie. Here’s Madonna singing it at the Oscars in 1991 (it won for Best Original Song) and proving that she cleaned up real good when she wanted to: https://youtu.be/8bgNyaAz1jg
If you’re a theater nerd and would like to dig deeper into Sondheim’s creative process, check out the documentaries “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” about the failed original production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” and “Original Cast Album: Company,” about the tortured recording of that classic LP under Sondheim’s perfectionist oversight. At one point, the engineer aptly says, “‘You Could Drive A Person Crazy,’ take ten.” (It was parodied on the TV series “Documentary Now” as “Original Cast Album: Co-op.”)