In May, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington kicked off a celebration of the works of theater composer Stephen Sondheim. Six musical revivals of his Broadway shows are being produced between now and September. It is the first time the Kennedy Center has explored the works of a single artist on such a grand scale. It is all the more remarkable that Stephen Sondheim's shows have never really enjoyed a mainstream following. But in recent decades, the composer has nevertheless been credited with singularly dominating and transforming the American musical theater.
When Stephen Sondheim arrived on the Broadway scene in 1957 to write the lyrics for composer Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, few people took any particular notice of him. He had a "way with words," that was agreed, but when he applied for the job to write the score for the 1959 musical, Gypsy, star of the show, Ethel Merman flatly said, 'No.' However, Mr. Sondheim was signed on to write the lyrics, and gave Ethel Merman one of her biggest showstoppers ever.
The five month-long Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration will feature six of his works for which he wrote both the words and the music including Company, Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music. Frank Rich, a columnist for the New York Times and the paper's former theater critic, talks about what makes Stephen Sondheim's musicals stand out.
"First of all, they never fall into a pattern or a habit," he said. "A person who can write shows ranging from Sweeney Todd about a murderous barber in 19th century England, to Sunday in the Park With George about the painter George Seurat to Company, a musical about married couples in New York in the 1970s has an extraordinary range and his shows have always been events. It's just striking how different the different pieces are and that's not really true of any other songwriter in the history of the American musical theater."
Musical comedy, America's indigenous art form, has been around for about a 100 years. What started out as light entertainment comprised of songs, dances, comediennes and pretty girls, evolved into musical plays using song and dance to help forward the plot. Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, II, whose collaboration with Richard Rodgers for the musical Oklahoma in 1943, was largely responsible for the development of the new art form. Oscar Hammerstein was also Stephen Sondheim's mentor and surrogate father. Mr. Sondheim recalls how Oscar Hammerstein encouraged him to find his own voice.
"Oscar, though he was a city boy, wrote a lot of bucolic images and he did talk about 'larks learning to pray' and he said, 'I believe these, you don't and if you want to hear your lyrics, I know that's not the way you feel. He said 'Write the way you feel. Don't write the way I feel.' Then he said, the key thing he said, 'If you do that, you'll be 90 percent ahead of the game and 90 percent ahead of everybody else. And as soon as he put it on a competitive level, I thought, 'Oh, I get to be better than everybody else if I write like myself? And so I did, right from the moment."
Stephen Sondheim's writing style hasn't always appealed to everybody. He has been accused of writing songs that are too complicated or aren't immediately "hummable." Only one of his songs was ever a hit on the pop music charts Send in the Clowns, from 1973s A Little Night Music. But most theater performers will say that they love to sing a Sondheim song. He writes for the character each song in its way has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
"If you ask me to write a love song, I don't know what to write. But if you say, 'Now write me a love song about a girl who's just been jilted by a guy and she comes into a bar and she's in a red dress and she orders a grasshopper, that I can write, because you've started to characterize and give me specifics to write about. Now, I have drink to write about, there's a bar to write about, there's a dress to write about. Why did she choose that dress? Who is the guy who jilted her? But if you say, 'write me a torch song, what kind of torch song do you want?"
In the 40 years Stephen Sondheim has been writing musicals, many critics believe that no other theater artist has shown more originality, taken greater risks, or maintained audience interest in an art form that has continually been threatened by other popular forms of entertainment and musical tastes.
"One thing to remember about Sondheim is that the generation that he is part of, which is really the last big generation of Broadway songwriters and they all came in, just before rock music became a national phenomenon," says New York Times columnist Frank Rich. "They all had their first shows, in the mid-1950s, generally and they somehow have kept it alive all these years, in spite of the fact that America's most popular music ceased to be show music as it once was and it became rock music. If they could sustain it over these 40 years, I think a new generation has to come along to keep it going. And one thing that Sondheim finds himself, to his amazement, is that kids all over the country, some of them may never have been to New York and seen a show on Broadway, write him, try to find him, want to be him, because they're inspired by listening to his songs in some form or another a local community production, a high school production, a record, CD, whatever."
Stephen Sondheim, whose music and stories challenged the way people viewed musical theater, is today, at 72 years old, the undisputed giant of the Broadway stage. While he has enjoyed a cult following throughout his career, there seems to be more of a widespread appreciation for him today, as is evident in the enthusiastic response to the Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration. An activist in the theater, Mr. Sondheim has been a longtime supporter of young playwrights and a champion for the rights of artists, to help make the theater a better place to work. And, there is a new Stephen Sondheim musical in the works right now Gold! which will preview in Chicago next year. When asked about the future, Stephen Sondheim says he just hopes to "write music I've never heard before."