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People Are Mourning The Passing Of Stephen Sondheim, Musical Theater Titan Of ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Into the Woods,’ ‘Sweeney Todd,’ And More

Stephen Sondheim — the musical theater scribe’s musical theater scribe, the wordsmith who loved an impossible challenge, the composer of some of the genre’s densest and most difficult (and, let’s not forget, some of the most melodically gorgeous) songs — is dead. He was 91, which may mean that the news was due at some point, perhaps soon. But that doesn’t mean the news didn’t leave countless people, from colleagues and contemporaries to the audiences that made sure his career lasted seven decades, feel floored.

Sondheim had major crossover hits. His breakthrough was writing the lyrics for West Side Story, to Leonard Bernstein’s music. He next collaborated with Jule Styne for Gypsy, another monster hit, also turned into a hit movie. He broke out own his own with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a lighthearted — but very, very busy — Roman romp that, too, was turned into a movie.

From 1964’s Anyone Can Whistle, though, he found his voice: musical based on subjects that didn’t seem very musical-friendly, with lonely, often broken people whose hopes and desires kept them away from others, singing songs that might as well have been arias about why they may never find happiness.

Their premises were hard sells. Company, first staged in 1970, was a genre game-changer: an adult-themed show about damaged people, with no set story, with psychological songs that weren’t in any noticeable chronological order. Follies looked at the alumni of an old, turn-of-the-century Broadway revue. A Little Night Music was inspired by an Ingmar Bergman movie — a Bergman rom-com, not one of his lacerating art films, but still. Merry We Roll Along told its story backwards, following its characters from old and miserable to young and bright. Sunday in the Park with George was about Georges Seurat. Assassins was about presidential assassins, some would-be; in it, John Hinckley Jr. sings a love song about Jodie Foster.

Hard sells, they may be, but Sondheim could sell them. Even the shows that seemed trickier than most found audiences. Some even found movies. Tim Burton had the macabre heart to turn Sweeney Todd, about a grisly murderer, into a holiday gorefest. Into the Woods became another end-of-year hit, though he didn’t keep quiet about some of the more alarming changes. Richard Linklater is in the midst of filming the decades-spanning Merrily We Roll Along, though he won’t be done till around the year 2040. Then there’s Original Cast Recording: Company, D.A. Pennebaker’s direct cinema great showing the marathon recording session of Company, which even defeats Elaine Stritch. (The movie made for an extra excellent episode of Documentary Now!, with John Mulaney as the Sondheim stand-in.)

Sondheim, as many will be quick to note, wasn’t known for his karaoke-friendly hits. He wasn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber. His melodies could, like his characters, be tricky to nail down, demanding you meet them halfway, or even farther than that. But untold people were willing to do that. Assassins is currently being staged in New York City, with Company about to open. Meanwhile, West Side Story movie, directed by no less than Steven Spielberg, is opening in a fortnight. His work will live on because they were demanding, not vice versa. After all, demanding more of your audience is what brings them back for more.

Upon news of Sondheim’s death, the internet was flooded with tributes. They included performers, many of whom were lucky enough to stage his work, often for the first time.

Andrew Lloyd Webber was quick to pay honor to one of his contemporaries.

And others, from fellow creatives to the sitting mayor of the town that staged so much of his work, chimed in as well.

RIP Stephen Sondheim. The world won’t be the same without you, just as it wasn’t the same with you.

(Via NYT)

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