Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Stephen-SondheimNEW YORK – Stephen Sondheim, the composer lyricist extraordinaire and Renaissance man in all things theatrical, reaches a milestone birthday of 80 on March 22. Most theater people and critics agree he is the last genius from the American musical theater’s golden age.



As an example of his staying power, he currently is represented on Broadway by two successful revivals: "West Side Story," the 1957 classic for which he wrote the lyrics, is entering its second year at the Palace Theatre; and "A Little Night Music," a 1973 operetta-style musical for which he wrote both the music and lyrics, is playing to full houses at the Walter Kerr Theatre and stars Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Soon, a new multimedia evening of his songs, "Sondheim on Sondheim," with Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat, will begin previews at the Roundabout’s Studio 54 Theater. Scheduled also are myriad birthday celebrations and concerts. He also is preparing a two-volume tome of his lyrics for publication.

There have been few successful seniors among the Broadway show folk of our time. Offhand, I can think of a couple, both frequent Sondheim collaborators. They are Arthur Laurents, 91, who wrote the books for two of his biggest hits, "West Side Story" and "Gypsy"; and Harold Prince, 82, who produced and directed a slew of his Tony award-winning shows.

But no one on the theater’s musical scene today has provided, as Mr. Sondheim has, the quality and quantity of brilliantly inspired work over so long a period of time. By my count, he has been the lyricist or composer-lyricist for 17 musicals ranging from "Gypsy" to "Company," "Follies," "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday in the Park with George," "Into the Woods" and last season’s "Road Show." He is a unique icon on the modern-day Broadway landscape.

When Mr. Sondheim was born in 1930, the only child of Herbert Sondheim, a dress manufacturer, and Janet Fox, a dress designer, the American musical was not the revered art form it is today. Most of the musicals in those days were tailored for the tired businessman. They were full of pretty songs sung by a bevy of pretty beauties and held together by the silliest of storylines imaginable. Things began to change with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s seminal work "Showboat," George and Ira Gershwin’s "Porgy and Bess," and, in 1943, the watershed arrival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Oklahoma!" It was only then that the American musical began to be taken seriously as an original commodity to be reckoned with.

When Mr. Sondheim was 10, his parents were divorced and he and his mother moved to a farm in Bucks County, Pa., where he became a chum of Jamie Hammerstein, son of playwright-lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. In the elder Hammerstein, young Sondheim found not only a surrogate father, but also his mentor and teacher after Mr. Hammerstein learned that his son’s friend had an interest in writing for the musical theater. Mr. Hammerstein taught him the craft of writing a musical by giving him assignments to write a musical adaptation of a fictional story. Young Sondheim chose "Mary Poppins" and then a flawed play, Maxwell Anderson’s 1936 chestnut, "High Tor."

Mr. Hammerstein’s best piece of advice to the young Sondheim was: "Say what you feel, not what other songwriters feel." He also gave him gofer jobs on such Rodgers and Hammerstein shows as "Allegro" so he could see firsthand how a show got put on its feet.

After graduating from Williams College, Mr. Sondheim studied composition with composer Milton Babbit and spent time in Hollywood writing for the 1950s television series "Topper."

Then serendipity hit. He was recommended to be Leonard Bernstein’s co-lyricist on a new musical, "West Side Story." Mr. Bernstein is quoted as saying that he learned much from his young collaborator. On the day after the show’s successful pre-Broadway opening in Washington, in a gesture of extraordinary generosity, he called Mr. Sondheim’s agent and told her he had decided to take his name off as a co-lyricist, giving Mr. Sondheim sole lyric billing. After "West Side Story," Mr. Sondheim accepted a couple of lyric-writing gigs – "Gypsy" with Jule Styne and "Do I Hear a Waltz?" with Richard Rodgers – before settling into a career of writing both music and lyrics.

Over the many years he has been composing music, a whole generation of young and now middle-aged songwriters have tried unsuccessfully to emulate him. Clearly, they have not taken Mr. Hammerstein’s advice about finding their own individual voices. The other and perhaps more serious problem facing young composers today is economics, the enormous cost of getting any show on today.

Mr. Sondheim addressed this fact recently. He said the only solution is subsidized theater, which he went on to point out has worked very well in civilized countries around the world.

Approaching his eighth decade, Mr. Sondheim told a reporter recently that he is still composing songs and "nibbling" at a few ideas that he has for a new musical. But I suspect he will have to put a hold on work for a few weeks until birthday festivities end.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.