What if Stephen Sondheim had never written a word, or a note of music, after his thirtieth birthday? What if, grief-stricken at the death of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II in 1960, the young composer had simply decided that he had done his part for musical theater and was ready to try something new? Had that happened we would still, today, more than six decades later, be memorializing a man who had, via his lyrics for Gypsy and West Side Story, made an indelible contribution to the history of American musical theater — specifically to modernizing it, to darkening it, to helping it burst what were then thought to be the boundaries of its form.
Sondheim did not stop, of course. He was just getting started. His writing for those two seminal shows was, in the context of his full body of work, a warm-up — a quick set of stretches before a career that would define and redefine an entire popular art. If it is true that, when Marlon Brando died, Jack Nicholson remarked that every other living actor just moved up one place, the image seems inadequate to mark Sondheim’s passing, at 91, after a long and astonishingly productive life. If anything, it means that the question of who America’s greatest living musical-theater artist is can finally be asked and lead to an interesting discussion, because for the first time in decades, the answer isn’t obvious. With Sondheim, there was no list of people waiting to move up one. He was his own list — and his measureless influence lives in the work of just about everyone who survives him.
His own work remains omnipresent: A production of his 1990 musical Assassins is currently running at Classic Stage Company, the third Broadway revival of his 1970 musical Company is in previews at the Jacobs Theatre, and on Monday, Steven Spielberg’s film of West Side Story will have its premiere at Lincoln Center. So it’s shocking now to recall the long stretch of years when people insisted there was anything to argue about — that you could like either the cool-temperatured intellectual natterings of Sondheim or the operetta-ish swoops and swoons of Andrew Lloyd Webber; that Steve, forever the smartest boy in the class, stroking his beard in his Turtle Bay townhouse as he frowned over a piano, was good for brainiacs with no emotional core, but if you wanted real feeling, real emotion, real songs, you had to look elsewhere. There was no shortage of composers who felt that way too. When Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics for La Cage aux Folles won the Tony over Sondheim’s score for Sunday in the Park with George (this has been fact-checked — it actually happened), Herman made a remarkable sore-winner speech in which, leaving little doubt whom he was trashing, he said, “There’s been a rumor around for a couple of years that the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway.” The rap on Sondheim was that he was a composer of ideas, not of melodies — the Tom Stoppard of musical theater. Puzzles over passion, cleverness over heart. Some people believed this.
In part, that may have been because, as early as the showstopper “Rose’s Turn,” some of Sondheim’s most memorable work involved characters who were in danger of getting permanently lost inside their own heads — Company’s emotionally self-entombed single guy, the connection-phobic Bobby, who stares at the entanglements of his closest friends as if they and he belong to different species, or the middle-aged former showgirls (and their husbands) of Follies, sifting through their phantasmagoric pasts and ruefully retracing the roads they didn’t take, or Sunday in the Park’s Georges Seurat, who accepts, as the fate of an artist, the understanding that his deepest relationship will always be with perfecting his own canvas, that people like him aren’t meant to partake of life so much as they’re meant “to watch the rest of the world/From a window while you finish the hat.” But Sondheim made the struggles of those characters vivid in songs that are anything but dry or cerebral; they soar, they ache, they break you. Finishing the hat is losing my mind, and losing my mind is being alive. Blood, soul, and tears flow through those melodies and lyrics. They always did. We just had to learn to listen.
Sondheim was gay; he was Jewish; and until settling down in his seventies with Jeff Romley, who became his first real long-term partner, the composer who concluded, in Into the Woods, that “No One Is Alone” was, more often than not, on his own, a solo flyer with a pack of A-list pals whose elite but ever-shifting membership he called “the Blob.” Who could possibly have been more qualified to transmute a form so many of whose early triumphs were about wholesome heartland heterosexuals finding true love into something more challenging and psychologically complex and even unresolvable? In so many of Sondheim’s shows, dreams — that a man will fall in love with you, that you can recapture your youth, that wishes come true — crash against reality. In Into the Woods, the words “ever after” and “I wish” don’t end the show; they end Act I. Act II is about the bill coming due (Ever after? You wish!), and it’s one of the great ironies of Sondheim’s career that the show, in the decades since its 1986 premiere, has become his most-performed work largely because of a junior-high and high-school version that lops off the second act entirely. Sondheim could be cruel in his art, but he was never heartless; he was willing to spare kids the bad news about death and loss until they were old enough to take it.
But — perhaps appropriately for a man who suffered a heart attack at 49 and then lived into his nineties — the second half, in Sondheim, always matters. The second half is the truth, and it’s also, often, the completion of a kind of symmetry, whether it’s the systematic fracturing of fairy tales in Into the Woods or the leap of a hundred years from the soul of one artist into the soul of his distant descendant in Sunday in the Park. Sondheim loved the elegance of duality; he even split his own invaluable and revelatory professional autobiography into two volumes, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. He loved puzzles, and his utterly dazzling rhymes, from the impeccably simple (Gypsy’s “No fits, no fights, no feuds, and no egos/Amigos,” a lyric he once proudly admitted made Cole Porter smile) to the riotously improbable (“When a person’s personality is personable” paired with “It’s harder than a matador coercin’ a bull,” from Company’s “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is an all-timer) to gorgeously internal (“This is how Samson was shorn/Each in her style a Delilah reborn” from the Follies opener “Beautiful Girls”). He was, in fact, this magazine’s first crosswords editor.
Now, out of his earshot and away from his quizzical expression—Sondheim, as his caricaturists understood, could turn the entirety of his face into a cocked eyebrow — we can begin to catalogue him even more obsessively: Rank the songs, pick the masterpiece (there isn’t just one), and, most intriguingly, find the entry point. Where to begin? The most obvious place is with the two musicals that would probably be the finalists in a bracket game: 1979’s vast, blood-splashed Victorian horror melodrama Sweeney Todd (the capstone of the first half of Sondheim’s career) and 1984’s intimate Sunday in the Park with George (the beginning of his second). They’re complete opposites: Huge vs. pointillist, rafter-shaking vs. human-scale, a thunderstorm about annihilation vs. a miniature about creation. But they’re united by other elements (aside from the fact that each contains some of his greatest songs): They both feature men whose singular vision of the world dooms them to a kind of solitude. “No One Is Alone” may be one of Sondheim’s loveliest and most wrenching songs, but it seems less a statement of belief than a plea; it’s sung at a moment of bottomless loss and grief. In many of his works, everyone is alone, and thus brought together. Sometimes, the only victory one can claim is I’m still here.
It’s a measure of the depth and breadth of his work that you can enter the Sondheim Extended Universe through any number of portals without even touching those two monuments. One way in is to explore his unparalleled run of early-1970s genius: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Pacific Overtures, a seven-year, four-show sprint that has, arguably, never been equaled. (Pacific Overtures contains the song that Sondheim himself chose as his favorite, “Someone in a Tree,” an argument about a historical moment from three different perspectives, all grasping something and all missing something; it seems fitting that such a perfectionist would favor a composition about the futility of trying to get something exactly right, and the irresistibility of the endeavor.) Or you could try a sampler: Sondheim: A Birthday Celebration, the 80th birthday concert at Lincoln Center; Take Me to the World, the 90th birthday concert on Zoom; or one of the shows — Side by Side by Sondheim or Putting It Together — that pilfered songs from previous Sondheim shows and restitched them into something both old and new. Or you could distinguish yourself from the pack and enter the oeuvre via one of the problem children — the told-from-back-to-front Merrily We Roll Along, with its score full of jewels and a story structure — the characters start in embittered and cynical middle age and end as exuberant youths who don’t yet know what they’re in for — that is notably resistant to staging. Or the gold-rush musical — titled, at various points, Road Show, Wise Guys, and Gold! — that he could never quite crack. Or the homicidal song suite Assassins.
I suspect that the last set of shows occupied a special place in Sondheim’s heart: He liked trying to solve the almost unsolvable. Sometimes, his songs land as perfect expressions of simple feelings such as optimism (Follies’s “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow”) or attraction (Sweeney Todd’s “Pretty Women”) or rue (“Send In the Clowns,” a melancholy reflection from A Little Night Music that crossed over to become a pop hit). But even in those, the curlicues — doubt, or self-consciousness, or irony, or sinister intent, or complicated subtext, or implicit air quotes — were usually there for anyone willing to hear them. More often, the songs he seemed to have the most fun with felt like the results of impossible self-created dares: Write a number about a hyperverbal nervous bride that’s so breathlessly syllable-packed that there’s no room for her to inhale (“Getting Married Today” from Company). Or: See how many bits of wordplay about cannibalism you can pack into three minutes (“A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd). Or: Write a ballad with a melody that would take you to the top of any early ’80s Adult Contemporary chart, but make it a love song crooned by John Hinckley to Jodie Foster (the still-shocking-but-only-in-context “Unworthy of Your Love,” from Assassins).
Where would Sondheim himself tell you to start? Hard to say. He was idiosyncratic in his tastes, perverse in his dismissals (he rarely missed an opportunity to trash his own wholly delightful lyrics for West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty”) and eccentric in his passions. He would discover an old movie, fixate on it, and burn copies for friends, who would then obediently watch oddities like the 1945 murder thriller Hangover Square and wonder if they were seeing the source material for the master’s next musical. It felt unlikely, but then again, it had worked before. Why question the man who saw A Little Night Music in Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night, or Passion in an Italian movie adapted from an 1869 novel, or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in the 2200-year-old writings of Plautus? In his late eighties, he spent time working on a two-act musical that was to be based on Luis Buñuel’s films The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the connective thread of which was “dinner parties.” He liked a challenge.
Because Sondheim had such a restless intellect, because he was such a virtuoso with language, and perhaps because he first rose to fame as a lyricist, it is possible that, incredibly, we still underrate him as a composer. He himself made fun of the imperative for easy-to-remember songs in Merrily, writing:
There’s not a tune you can hum
There’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum
You need a tune to go bum-bum-bum-di-dum
Give me a melody
It should not need pointing out that he gave us hundreds — playful, romantic, thunderous, parodic, mournful, celestial, raucous, stately, joyful, inspiring, and even a few that might make you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum. But because he was, rarity of rarities, equally fluent in lyrics and composition, his music seems inseparable from the thoughts and feelings he wanted his songs to express. Which was everything, because there was very little Stephen Sondheim thought a musical could not do. He spent his life proving it.