The musical comedy is one of America's many contributions to the world of art and entertainment. Loaded with songs, dancing, music and stage magic, the musical has made its home on Broadway, New York's fabled boulevard that houses the city's glittering theaters. One of America's most famous composers for the Broadway theater will be honored this summer in Washington. But as we hear in this edition of Dateline, the honored composer and lyricist has transformed the American musical theater on his terms, not the public's.
When Stephen Sondheim arrived on Broadway in 1957 to write the lyrics for composer Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story, he was 27 years old and few people took any particular notice of him. He was clever with words, that was agreed. But when he applied for the job to write the score for the 1959 musical, Gypsy, the 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 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will stage six works of Stephen Sondheim in Washington this summer. The five month-long Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration is featuring shows for which he wrote both the words and the music including Company, Sweeney Todd and the Pulitzer prize-winning, Sunday in the Park with George. Critics say that Stephen Sondheim's shows have never really enjoyed broad support among the mainstream theater-going public. Nevertheless, he is credited with saving the Broadway musical in an age when the theater has to compete with a variety of alternatives in entertainment.
Frank Rich, a columnist for the New York Times and the paper's former theater critic explained, "I think most people would agree that in what has not been a great era for musical theater, Stephen Sondheim has done more to keep the Broadway musical alive, to refurbish it and make it exciting than another creative artist of any sort actor, director, playwright, and in this case, songwriter." Mr. Rich recently interviewed the composer to kick off the Kennedy Center Stephen Sondheim Celebration.
"Sondheim's shows stand out for a couple of reasons. First of all, they never fall into a pattern or a habit. A person who can write shows ranging from Sweeney Todd about a murderous barber in nineteenth 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 1970's has an extraordinary range and his shows have always been events," Mr. Rich said.
Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born March 22, 1930, in New York City, the only son of a dress manufacturer and a dress designer. His parents divorced when he was young and he moved with his mother to rural Pennsylvania. A troubled and lonely child, he was welcomed into the home of his next-door neighbors. The neighbor just happened to be the most successful lyricist working on Broadway at the time, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, II and his wife, Dorothy, and their children.
Stephen Sondheim credits meeting Oscar Hammerstein as the single most defining moment of his life. "Well, he was a surrogate father. And when I was fifteen, I wrote a show for George School, the Quaker school I went to and it was about the students and the faculty. And so I gave it to Oscar and asked him to read it as if he didn't know me, as if it were just a script that had crossed his desk. And he said, 'In that case, it's the worst thing I ever heard.' And he saw me blanche visibly. And he said, 'I didn't say it wasn't talented. But let's look at it.' And he treated it as if it were a serious piece. He started right from the first stage direction. And I probably learned more about writing in that afternoon than I learned the rest of my life," Mr. Sondheim said.
Mr. Sondheim added: "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 ninety percent ahead of the game and ninety 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 songs couldn't have been more different that those of his mentor or anybody else's, for that matter. He went beyond the standard "boy-meets-girl" topics that spoke of passionate, everlasting love. Instead, Sondheim writes about disappointment, ambivalence, the glory of being in love, and the anxieties that come with making a decision.
"He's just one of these people who has just an incredible tuning fork almost in his brain for human behavior. . . . ", said New York Times columnist Frank Rich. "And what's really shocking when you think about it, is some of the most amazing songs that he's written about love, The Little Things you Do Together, were written when he was a very young man. So he was ahead of his time, whatever his personal life may or may not have been, he just was mature ahead of his time."
But even though Stephen Sondheim has been credited with elevating the sophistication of the Broadway show tune, his songs have also sometimes been accused of being too complicated, or not instantly "hummable." But most theater performers will say that they love to sing a Sondheim song they say that each song is, in a way, its own little play, with 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 (mixed drink) grasshopper that I can write. Now, I have a drink to write about, there's a bar to write about, there's a dress to write about," Mr. Sondheim said. "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 forty 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. New York Times columnist Frank Rich:
"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 they 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 keep "writing music he's never heard before."