Stephen Sondheim's greatest triumphs as an artist

·8 min read

There are giants in the sky, and Stephen Sondheim is now among their number. The legendary composer and lyricist, considered by many to be the greatest musical theater artist of the last 60 years, left us (halfway through the woods) when he died Friday at 91.

He left behind a stirring collection of musical triumphs, a body of work that audiences will no doubt continue to rediscover for generations. Here, we examine the most enduring contributions Sondheim made to music and musical theater, work that embodies the highs and lows of simply being alive.

<em>West Side Story</em>

As a budding musical theater creator with Saturday Night already to his credit, Sondheim broke out as the lyricist for this all-time classic musical. His poetic lyricism paired with the soaring melodies of Leonard Bernstein combined to create one of the most iconic scores ever written — whether you're playing it cool, boy, feeling pretty, or just dreaming of a place for us. The original musical debuted on Broadway in 1957 and went on to be adapted for the screen in 1961, winning Best Picture at the Oscars. West Side Story has been revived and mounted on stages around the world ever since, including a 2009 Broadway revival featuring lyrics in Spanish, translated by Lin-Manuel Miranda. A new film adaptation from Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner is coming to cinemas in December.

WEST SIDE STORY, George Chakiris (center), 1961
WEST SIDE STORY, George Chakiris (center), 1961

<em>Gypsy</em>

Sondheim was originally hired to write both music and lyrics for this adaptation of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir, but he was demoted to only lyricist at star Ethel Merman's insistence that producers hire Jule Styne to write the music. Though Sondheim feared being pigeonholed as a lyricist, he took the job at the behest of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II. Gypsy opened on Broadway in 1959 and became another smash hit, creating one of the most sought-after leading roles for Broadway women in the character of Mama Rose. The likes of Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Linda Lavin, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and Imelda Staunton have taken their turns as Rose. A 1962 film version starred Rosalind Russell in the role, and rumors of a remake, potentially starring Barbra Streisand, have swirled for more than a decade.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

<em>A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum</em>

Now well-known for his witty, complex lyrics, Sondheim finally got to debut as both lyricist and composer with this musical comedy based on farces by Plautus. The show was a hit, winning Best Musical at the Tony Awards, following its 1962 Broadway debut. But Sondheim's score was not particularly lauded at the time. A 1966 film adaptation featured the show's original star, Zero Mostel, and there have been several buzzy revivals, most notably in 1996 with Nathan Lane in Mostel's role as Pseudolous. Notably, every actor who's opened in the role of Pseudolous (Mostel, Lane, and Phil Silvers) has gone on to win the Tony for Best Leading Actor.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

<em>Company</em>

Sondheim began a fruitful collaboration with director Harold Prince with this concept musical about a married man, Bobby, and his married friends. Company is widely regarded as one of the first musicals to explore adult themes and relationships, particularly as it does in its unique vignette style. The show, which won the Tony for Best Musical and earned Sondheim honors for Best Score and Best Lyrics, became the stuff of legend thanks to the 1970 film Original Cast Album: Company, a documentary from D.A. Pennebaker about the recording of the cast album. A revival is currently playing on Broadway, featuring a gender-bent cast with Tony-winner Katrina Lenk starring as a female Bobby.

Company
Company

<em>Follies</em>

Another collaboration with Harold Prince, Follies was notable as Sondheim's most lavish production when it premiered (and the second most costly ever performed on Broadway at the time). It centers on the reunion of performers from a musical revue known as Weismann's Follies at their Broadway theater, which is scheduled for demolition. A Chorus Line director Michael Bennett choreographed and co-directed. It features some of Sondheim's most recognizable tracks, including "I'm Still Here" and "Losing My Mind." One of its most celebrated productions was the 2011 Kennedy Center rendition that transferred to Broadway and featured stage luminaries Bernadette Peters, Elaine Page, and Danny Burstein.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

<em>A Little Night Music</em>

The string of successes with Prince continued in 1973 with this musical based on Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night. It showcases Sondheim's love of cinema and quickly became one of his biggest commercial successes, spawning a 1977 film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor. It features Sondheim's best-known song, "Send in the Clowns," first popularized by Frank Sinatra in 1973. Many artists have covered it since, including Judy Collins, Kenny Rogers, and Barbra Streisand. In 1976, Collins' rendition won the Grammy for Song of the Year.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

<em>The Last of Sheila</em>

Sondheim branched out into film, pouring his love of puzzles and mysteries into this whodunnit, co-written with longtime friend Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and inspired by intricate scavenger hunts the two devised for their industry friends. Set on a yacht, a mystery game turns into a macabre gathering in this Agatha Christie-esque tale. Directed by Herbert Ross, it stars Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, James Mason, Ian McShane, and Raquel Welch.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

<em>Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street</em>

Sondheim's most operatic work is also one of his most recognizable. Inspired by a figure from Victorian penny dreadfuls, this 1979 musical is a gory tale of a barber who murders people in his chair during a quest for revenge and turns his victims into meat pies, with the assistance of Mrs. Lovett. Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury famously originated the roles of Sweeney and Lovett, but it's been the domain of countless theatrical legends, including Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, Michael Ball, Imelda Staunton, and more. The original production won the Tony for Best Musical. In 2007, Tim Burton directed a film adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

<em>Sunday in the Park With George</em>

Though he received countless awards throughout the course of his life, Sondheim won his only Pulitzer Prize for this take on French pointillist painter Georges Seurat. His first collaboration with James Lapine, Sunday is often hailed as Sondheim's masterpiece and his most reflective work, when it comes to its examination of creating art and its cost. The original production starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters and has been revived numerous times since. Sondheim's artistic memoirs Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat take their titles from lyrics from this musical.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

<em>Into the Woods</em>

The show that launched a thousand community and school productions, Into the Woods is deceptively complex in its take on the dark side of beloved children's fairy tales. First hitting Broadway in 1987, it earned Sondheim the distinction of being named the first composer to include rap in musical theatre (he disputes this, pointing to The Music Man) with the Witch's section of the opening number. The original cast members, including Bernadette Peters, Chip Zien, and Joanna Gleason, were immortalized in a recording for PBS' Great Performances that was many kids' first introduction to musical theater, and Sondheim in particular. It remains one of his most enduring and oft-revived works. In 2014, Rob Marshall directed a film adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, and others.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

<em>Assassins</em>

Originally considered an Off Broadway oddity, Assassins has only risen in esteem over the years. The 1990 musical uses the revue form to explore the stories of a group of historical figures who attempted to assassinate the U.S. presidents. A 2004 production (featuring Neil Patrick Harris as Lee Harvey Oswald) finally brought it to Broadway, winning Tonys for Best Revival and Best Actor (for Michael Cerveris' portrayal of John Wilkes Booth). A production is currently running Off Broadway starring Will Swenson, Brandon Uranowitz, and Tavi Gevinson.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

<em>Dick Tracy</em>

Sondheim collaborated with Warren Beatty on two films, 1981's Reds and 1990's Dick Tracy, writing five songs for the latter. He won the Oscar for Best Original Song for penning "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)," sung by Madonna on screen. Madonna famously performed the track at the 1991 Oscars wearing in a look inspired by Marilyn Monroe.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

Mentorship

While Sondheim's work will be studied, revived, and appreciated for years to come, his absence may be most keenly felt in the influence and inspiration he held in the lives of the next generation of Broadway artists. He was eager to serve as a mentor, paying back the generosity of his own father figure Oscar Hammerstein II. Sondheim mentored a young Jonathan Larson (Rent), which has now been dramatized in Tick, Tick… Boom! with Bradley Whitford bringing the composer to life. Later Sondheim became a mentor and collaborator to Lin-Manuel Miranda, giving notes on the work that would become Hamilton. And perhaps that's his greatest legacy of all — the reminder that someone is on your side and we are not alone.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim

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