A musical theatre legend has died. Stephen Sondheim, the greatest composer-lyricist of his generation, passed away on November 26 at the age of 91.
His dramatic genius combined a rare blend of elements, that of an astonishingly versatile and sophisticated composer, and an incredibly witty wordsmith. His extraordinary output includes a staggering 16 musicals as composer and lyricist, a further three as lyricist alone, as well as four musical revues featuring compilations of hit songs from his shows.
Sondheim’s principal contribution to musical theatre lies in having reinvigorated the Broadway show in the wake of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Among many accolades received, Sondheim’s songs for the film Dick Tracy (1990), starring Warren Beatty, Madonna, and Al Pacino, earned him an Academy Award.
Exceptionally, he has theatres named after him in both Broadway and the West End. Such is his far-reaching influence that he even appears as a fictionalised character in the new film Tick, Tick… Boom! on Netflix, based on the autobiographical musical by Rent composer Jonathan Larson.
When faced with such a prolific and fascinating output, it is difficult to single just a few shows out for praise, but here follow five of Sondheim’s best.
1. West Side Story
Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers are given a contemporary twist in this celebrated retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Transposed to the setting of 1950s New York City, it saw the romance as a turf war between a white American street gang and Puerto Rican immigrants. Premiering in 1957, the show was something of a big break for the young Sondheim, who was latterly brought in as lyricist alongside the more established composer Leonard Bernstein, bookwriter Arthur Laurents, and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins.
The score is replete with hit songs, notable among them “Maria”, “Something’s Coming”, “I Feel Pretty”, and the “Tonight Quintet”, which features a remarkable five-way exchange between three principal characters plus the two gangs. The iconic 1961 film adaptation received a highly impressive ten Academy Awards and excitement is mounting over the soon-to-be-released remake directed by Steven Spielberg.
Following two years after West Side Story, Gypsy used the same creative team but substituted Jule Styne as composer. With its basis in the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the show tells the story of the eponymous burlesque performer and her overbearing mother, Rose.
Highlights include “Rose’s Turn”, one of the most demanding solos in the whole musical theatre repertory, in which Sondheim’s lyrics vividly depict the exploitative matriarch reflecting upon the consequences of past actions. Twice adapted for film, in 1962 and 1993, the musical was more recently televised in its 2015 West End revival production starring Imelda Staunton as Rose.
Epitomising the “concept musical”, in which a show crystallises around a broad theme rather than an overarching story, 1970’s Company, with music and lyrics by Sondheim, presents a series of unrelated short scenes between the lead character, Bobby, and his best friends.
Notable productions include the 2006 revival starring Raul Esparza, in which the cast double as onstage instrumentalists; the 2011 New York Philharmonic concert version, with Neil Patrick Harris in the lead role; and the gender-flipped 2018 West End revival, featuring Rosalie Craig as Bobbie. “(Not) Getting Married Today”, one of the most challenging musical theatre songs of all time for its prominent use of patter, was breathtakingly performed by Jayma Mays in an episode of Glee.
4. Sweeney Todd
Inspired by the sinister character of the Victorian penny dreadful, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (to use its full name) has become arguably Sondheim’s best known musical. Premiered in 1979 with many subsequent high-profile revivals, including a concert version starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in 2014, it makes ingenious use of the show’s ensemble in a role akin to a classical Greek chorus, reflecting on the action throughout the musical without advancing it.
A gruesome tale of a barber intent on revenge and the piemaker who turns the men he murders into meat, it lent itself perfectly to Tim Burton’s directorial treatment in the acclaimed 2007 film, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, who admirably tackled Sondheim’s taxing music and lyrics.
5. Into The Woods
My final selection on this list, from 1987, is Into The Woods. The musical creatively draws upon four well-known fairy tales – Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel – intertwined with an original story of a baker and his wife, and the witch who has cursed them never to have children.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics coalesce most effectively in songs such as “Your Fault”, in which the constituent characters are artfully combined to recapitulate the complex set of circumstances that have brought them together. The use of fairy tales made the musical well suited to its 2014 Disney adaptation boasting an all-star cast led by Meryl Streep, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick.
Honourable mentionsof other Sondheim shows include: Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Assassins (1990).