Stephen Sondheim, Titan of the American Musical, Is Dead at 91

“One of the first things you have to decide on with a musical is, why should there be songs? You can put songs in any story, but what I think you have to look for is, why are songs necessary to this story? If it’s unnecessary, then the show generally turns out to be not very good.” Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was the most important figure in American musical theater of the last half-century. [singing] “Will it be? Yes, it will.” In shows like “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park With George,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985, he created songs essential to the stories and changed the nature of the Broadway musical. “I like to change styles. That’s one of the things that appeals to me about stories, is if I’ve never done anything like it before. It has to be some unknown territory. It’s got to make you nervous. If it doesn’t make you nervous, then you’re going to write the same thing you wrote before.” We sat down with him in June 2008 to talk about his own story and his accomplishments. “What is it about the theater that attracted you so, that made you want to spend your career, your life working in it?” “It was very simple. It was when I was 11 years old, I met Oscar Hammerstein, and he became a surrogate father, and I just wanted to do what he did. And he was a songwriter for the theater, so I became a songwriter for the theater. If he was a geologist, I would have become a geologist. Which is, I’m sure, an exaggeration, but not much.” [music playing] Sondheim wasn’t known for Top 40 hits, but one of his songs, “Send in the Clowns,” from “A Little Night Music,” rose to the top of the charts. [singing] “But where are the clowns? Quick, send in the clowns.” He wrote it specifically for Glynis Johns, one of the show’s stars, and it remains without a doubt his most popular and financially successful work. “Wrote it during rehearsals, brought it essentially overnight. Glynis Johns could not sustain notes, so I thought, I got to write a song with short phrases. And if they’re going to be short phrases, what are better short phrases than questions? So the whole idea of, ‘Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair?’ Question, which ordinarily would not occur to me, came into my head. And once I’ve gotten that, once you get the idea of questions, then it’s quite easy to write.” [SINGING] “Isn’t it bliss? Don’t you approve?” “Once you get the notion of, ‘Isn’t it rich? Aren’t we schmucks not to be together?’ I mean, you get that tone, that takes a very short period of time.” [singing] “Send in the clowns.” Stephen Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, to upper-middle-class parents on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His father manufactured dresses, and his mother designed them. But his childhood wasn’t all privilege. His family life was difficult, with a distant and remote mother and parents who didn’t get along. “When I was 10 years old, my parents divorced. My mother got custody of me, and she bought a place in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, as a sort of summer residence. And I was an only child. And because she was a working woman and also a celebrity hunter, she knew the Hammersteins slightly, and they had a son my age, a year younger, Jimmy. And so we became friends and companions. And Oscar obviously realized that I had some gift for songwriting, so he encouraged me during my teen years, and in fact, taught me. And I brought him a show when I was 15 years old that I thought he would want to produce. It was a show about the school I went to, George School. And I was very disappointed to find out that he wouldn’t produce it. But I wanted to be the first 15-year-old on Broadway with a show. But he said, if you want to know what’s wrong with the show, I’ll tell you. And he went over it page by page, starting from the first sentence. He treated me like an adult instead of like a kid. By the time the afternoon was over, I really knew more about the nuts and bolts of writing a musical than most people learn in a lifetime.” Hammerstein and his partner Richard Rodgers were fresh from the success of ‘Oklahoma!’ and ‘Carousel’ when they hired the teenage Sondheim to work on their next musical, ‘Allegro,’ in 1947. [singing] “His hair is fuzzy, his eyes are blue.” Unusual for its day, it followed the life of an everyman from birth to age 35. It was their first failure, but it would influence Sondheim tremendously. “It was experimental, and so that incurred in me the whole notion of doing experimental stuff, which I’ve done, one way or another, most of the shows I’ve done.” Hammerstein laid out a course of education for his teenage protégé, suggesting he write four musicals, each in a different style. “The first one being an adaptation of a play that I thought was good. The second being an adaptation of a play that I liked but was flawed, that maybe I could feel I could improve. The third, something that was a non-theatrical story, but adapt it and make it theatrical. And then the fourth was to write an original. And that’s exactly what I did over a period of years.” In the mid-1950s, when Sondheim was in his early 20s, he wrote his first professional show, ‘Saturday Night.’ [singing] “The moon’s like a million-watt electric light. It shines on the city —” It was headed to Broadway when its lead producer suddenly died, forcing the show to close out of town. The ambitious young composer was still without a credit, but then came an opportunity to work on Broadway, albeit as a lyricist only and not as a composer as well. It all began when he bumped into renowned playwright and librettist Arthur Laurents at a party. “And we fell to talking, and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m about to start on a musical version of “Romeo and Juliet.”’ And I said, ‘And who’s doing the score?’ He said, ‘Leonard Bernstein.’ I said, ‘Who’s doing the lyrics?’ And he said, ‘Oh, my god. Well, I never thought of you.’ And he literally smote his forehead. And he said, in his typical Arthur Laurents fashion, he said, ‘I didn’t much like your music, but I thought your lyrics were kind of good.’ I said, ‘All right.’ He said, ‘Would you like to come and play for Lenny?’ Now, I had no intention of just writing lyrics. I wanted to write music. But I thought, chance to play for Leonard Bernstein? Why not? So the next morning, I played for Lenny. And Lenny said, ‘I will know within a week, and I’ll let you know.’ And I said, ‘Thank you so much, Mr. Bernstein.’ Sure enough, a week later, the phone rang, and he said, ‘Would you like to do it?’ And I said, ‘Let me call you back.’ Because I didn’t want to do just lyrics. And I called Oscar, who’s my adviser on everything. And I said, ‘You know, I don’t want to do this.’ But Oscar said, ‘Look, you have a chance to work with very gifted professionals on a show that sounds interesting, and you could always write your own music eventually.’ He said, ‘My advice would be to take the job.’ That’s why I took it. And I learned a great deal.” [singing] “Maria. I just met a girl named Maria.” Sondheim didn’t always agree with Bernstein on how the lyrics should be written. “I knew that there were great dangers of pretension with this whole show, and the only way to write the lyrics was to underwrite them and make them very simple.” “You’ve said over the years that you’re not really happy with the lyrics you wrote, even though they’re so popular. You are?” “No, no, no, they’re very self-conscious. Lenny wanted everything, the lyrics to be very poetic. But his idea of poetry and my idea of poetry are simply not the same. I mean, you know, I was 25 years old, and he was a big, big force, and Lenny kept pushing me to be very fruity. ‘Today, the world was just an address.’ That’s a perfectly fine line on paper, but the boy from the streets is singing that?” [singing] “Today, the world was just an address, a place for me to live in.” “And I’ve often quoted, you know, ‘I Feel Pretty’: ‘It’s alarming how charming I feel,’ says this girl from the streets, and she sounds like Noel Coward.” [singing] “It’s alarming how charming I feel.” “I do like ‘Something’s Coming.’ That’s my idea of a poetic lyric, in the sense that it uses imagery.” [singing] “Something’s coming. I don’t know what it is, but it is going to be great.” “And I like the ‘Jet Song,’ too.” [singing] “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day.” “But you know, songs like ‘Somewhere,’ I mean, that’s deeply embarrassing. So —” “West Side Story” got mixed reviews when it opened in 1957, and didn’t win the Tony Award as Best Musical, but it was revolutionary in its combination of music and dance, and in its searing plot. Sondheim had made his first mark. He still longed to write both music and lyrics on Broadway, and it looked as if he was going to get the chance with a new musical based on the early life of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. [singing] “You’ll be great! Going to have the whole world on a plate!” But the show’s star objected. “Ethel Merman was already signed to play Rose, the mother, so it was all set. And then Ethel Merman said she would not have me as a composer, because she had just done a show called ‘Happy Hunting,’ with two young writers, and it was a flop. And she didn’t want to take a chance on an unknown composer. And she’s perfectly happy to have me do the lyrics. So I said no, and Arthur tried to persuade me, and I said, ‘No, I really want to write music, this is nonsense.’ Again, Oscar stepped into the breach, and he said, ‘Do it.’ He said, ‘There are two advantages. First of all,’ he said, ‘you have the experience of writing for a star, which is different than just writing a show. I mean, you’re tailoring material not only for the character, for the character as played by that specific actor or actress.’ That’s one thing. He said, ‘Secondly, it’s six months out of your life. Do it.’ And that’s exactly what happened. We wrote that show in about four months. We wrote very quickly. That’s probably the quickest I’ve ever heard of a major Broadway musical being written. But it wrote, as Barbra Streisand would say, like butter.” [singing] “Honey, everything’s coming up roses and daffodils!” “It’s considered one of the best, if not the best, Broadway musicals of all time.” “Yeah, absolutely, it is. I think it’s probably it’s the culmination of that era, that told musicals in chronological order, in a linear style. I’d certainly say it was the best.” In 1970, Sondheim teamed up with director Harold Prince to write his breakthrough musical, ‘Company.’ Just as ‘Gypsy’ had been the culmination of the era of the narrative musical, ‘Company’ broke new ground. It fractured the narrative, told the story in a nonlinear manner, and opened the way for similar musicals, like ‘A Chorus Line’ and ‘Chicago.’ Sondheim and Prince followed company with more breakthroughs: ‘Follies,’ ‘A Little Night Music,’ ‘Pacific Overtures.’ They were revolutionary, but mostly, they weren’t financial hits. “It takes an audience a while to get used to new ways of storytelling. There are exceptional plays that break with the tradition, like ‘Death of a Salesman,’ and are hits at the same time. But usually, if you bring a new way of storytelling to the stage — ‘Oklahoma!’ is the perfect example of taking a chance and is a gigantic hit, but that is not the usual case.” [singing] “These are probably the worst pies in London!” ‘Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ is considered by many to be Sondheim’s best and most powerful work. A gruesome tale of death and revenge, it shows the composer at the peak of his talent. [singing] “Is that just disgusting —” “It was full of blood and gore and controversy. And though it, too, didn’t make money in its original run, it has often been revived, has been performed by opera companies, and in 2007 was turned into a movie starring Johnny Depp.” [singing] “I will have vengeance!” “You want to talk about dark?” “Well, it’s not so dark. It’s really kind of funny, that show, you know? I mean, nobody takes it seriously. It’s not dark the way — it’s a melodrama. I don’t think melodramas are dark. Anyway, but I get it. The point is, yes, there’s a lot of blood.” “And there’s a lot of comic relief, there’s no doubt about it.” “It’s not about comic relief. It’s the fact the attitude is not a real attitude. They’re all cartoon figures. I mean, it’s an operetta. These are not real people, and they’re not supposed to be. They’re supposed to be big, larger than life.” “But isn’t there a real sense in it about injustice and evil?” “If there is for you, then there is for you. I know Hal always thinks, always thought it was about the Industrial Revolution. I thought it was about scaring people.” “You all know Steve is a great dramatist and our greatest living composer and lyricist.” In 2010, Sondheim received an ultimate stage accolade. “I cry easy.” A Broadway theater was renamed in his honor. “This is so much more moving, to christen a theater the Stephen Sondheim as opposed to the British Petroleum Playhouse or —” “What do you think — if you think about this, what would you like your legacy to be?” “Oh, goodness. Oh, I just would like the shows to keep getting done. Whether on Broadway, or in regional theaters, or schools or communities, I would just like the stuff to be done. Just done and done and done and done and done. You know, that would be the fun.”