Profile: Stephen Sondheim

Published March 18, 2011

For more than half a century composer Stephen Sondheim has influenced the nature of musical theatre on both sides of the Atlantic. Caroline Bishop looks at the work and legacy of this year’s Special Olivier Award winner.

It was Sunday in the theatre with Stephen on 13 March when the Olivier Awards with MasterCard chose to honour American composer Stephen Sondheim with a Special Award for his contribution to theatre.

A tribute featuring performances from Sondheim devotees Adrian Lester and Angela Lansbury rounded off a ceremony that had featured wins for productions of his musicals Passion and Into The Woods, showing just how enduring an influence Sondheim, who turned 80 last year, still has on musical theatre on both sides of the Atlantic.

He began to make his mark over half a century ago, when, at age 27, he was asked by Leonard Bernstein to write the lyrics for West Side Story. Following that big break, Sondheim went on to forge a career that has included several other fruitful collaborations – among them, with Richard Rodgers and Jule Styne – and 14 original musicals for which he wrote both music and lyrics. Since his first big success, 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, his work has included Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, The Frogs, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday In The Park With George, Into The Woods, Assassins, Passion and Bounce.

Though his musicals have not always been instant popular successes – his often dark topics and unsentimental lyrics proving a departure for audiences more used to the saccharine fare of musicals that preceded him – time has cemented Sondheim’s place as one of the most acclaimed and revered composers in American musical theatre history. He has collected numerous awards, including the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Sunday In The Park With George and six Best Score Tony Awards, while his composition Sooner Or Later from the film Dick Tracy earned him an Academy Award for Best Song in 1999.

“When I discovered his work, something very deep in me felt everything made sense”

Born in New York in 1930 to parents who worked in the fashion industry, the 10-year-old Sondheim moved to Pennsylvania with his mother after his parents divorced. There, he found himself a neighbour of Oscar Hammerstein II and his family. The composer of Show Boat, South Pacific and Carousel became the young Sondheim’s mentor and was a great influence on his later work.

“He taught me individually how each song can tell a story, how each song can have a first act, second act and third act,” said Sondheim after receiving his Olivier Award. “Most songs, except for Oscar’s, were one idea over and over again, which is perfectly fine, but this was a whole other way of using songs and that’s what I learnt from him essentially.”

After attending college in Massachusetts and writing several musicals during his student years, Sondheim’s first composition as a professional was 1954’s Saturday Night. Though the musical didn’t make it to the stage until 1997, when it premiered in the UK, Saturday Night brought Sondheim to the attention of Leonard Bernstein, and the rest, as they say…

With a reputation for intellectual, sophisticated lyrics and beautiful music, Sondheim’s work has inspired many performers, including multi-award-winning British musical theatre star Maria Friedman, who first encountered the composer’s work in 1980 when she saw the UK premiere production of Sweeney Todd at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane. “I felt like I’d gone off in a rocket. I really felt pushed back in my seat with excitement,” she told Official London Theatre. It was a style of musical that hit a chord with the actress. “He doesn’t pretend that the day you fall in love is going to be the day that the sun shines forever. I’m not really into that as a human being, as a participant in this mad, difficult world. He’s complex enough, witty enough and his music breaks my heart. And everything he writes about is about love – everything.”

Friedman went on to originate the role of Dot in the UK premiere of Sunday In The Park With George in 1990, before appearing in London productions of Merrily We Roll Along, Passion and Sweeney Todd. “He really has given me a life,” she added. “Up until I did his work, I was just making a living singing, sort of dipping and diving into whatever. Then when I discovered his work, something very deep in me felt everything made sense and made me want to do it”.

Another, more recent, Sondheim disciple is West End star Hannah Waddingham, who appeared as Desiree in Trevor Nunn’s revival of A Little Night Music in 2008. “I absolutely fell in love with Desiree and never wanted to stop playing her,” the actress said last year. The production started a love affair with the composer’s work that saw Waddingham go on to appear in the Open Air theatre’s 2010 revival of Into The Woods, which last week won the 2011 Best Musical Revival Olivier Award.

The actress, whose mother was an opera singer, puts her affinity for Sondheim’s work down to its similarity to the genre. “I grew up with beautiful, detailed, intelligent music, and Sondheim is, without doubt, in that operatic vein. I love it when the accompaniment doesn’t remotely help you. It should be another voice. When you learn a Sondheim song, you can listen to the accompaniment and know what you’re meant to be feeling or know how you’re meant to say the words. It’s so detailed that even if the audience don’t realise what they’re feeling, he is making them feel it. It’s so clever. Every comma is there because he wants it to be there.”

The British theatre community’s esteem for this American composer is reciprocated by the man himself, who has welcomed new interpretations of his work. “What is nice about writing for the theatre is that different people get different chances to reinterpret the work, to direct it differently, to cast it differently,” said Sondheim. “Almost every musical that I’ve written that’s been done in Britain, I’d say three quarters of them have been done completely fresh, so I get to see them with new eyes as well.”

“I grew up with beautiful, detailed, intelligent music, and Sondheim is, without doubt, in that operatic vein”

Over the years Sondheim has nurtured fruitful relationships with several UK theatres, not least London’s Donmar Warehouse, whose stage has spawned multiple productions of his work including Assassins, Company and Merrily We Roll Along. It was fitting, therefore, that the Donmar should celebrate his 80th birthday last year with a new production of Passion.

Given the composer’s generous attitude towards the artistic interpretation of his work, it is no surprise that Passion’s young director Jamie Lloyd, who had the daunting task of reshaping the musical for the Donmar’s intimate stage, found Sondheim and book writer James Lapine to be a receptive audience: “We’ve cut some of the score and some of the book and we’ve reshaped it and they’ve allowed me to do that and they’ve been absolutely brilliant about hearing me out on those decisions and making suggestions themselves based on my ideas,” said Lloyd at the time. “So it’s a great privilege really to be able to rediscover it with them.”

Though it has been some years since his last major new production – Bounce, in 2003 – the reach and influence of Sondheim’s work has never been stronger. It is a fitting time for the composer to publish Finishing The Hat (the title is a line from Sunday In The Park With George), a collection of the witty, erudite lyrics that have become his calling card.  Only time will tell the extent of Sondheim’s legacy on musical theatre, but Lloyd must have spoken for many when he said: “Once upon a time someone knew who Beethoven was, or Mozart walked down the street. They’ve just become names, identities, massive icons of culture, and I guess one day Sondheim will be that. When I’m 80 I will be saying that he was in my rehearsal room, which is the biggest thrill in the world.”

CB