I was most fortunate to spend a good part of my childhood through my twenties not far from Broadway. From 1957 to the middle 1990s, if you lived in New York, you were acutely aware of the artistry of Stephen Sondheim. From his collaboration with the great composer, Leonard Bernstein, as the lyricist for “West Side Story” to his last full length Broadway musical, “Into the Woods” (“Assassins” was revived on Broadway in this century), he was one of the vital life forces of Broadway theatre.
Almost everyone knows the beautiful words of “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.” “Let Me Entertain You” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy” are Broadway and showbiz anthems. Many of his songs were covered by some of our foremost singers including Johnny Mathis, Diana Ross, and Barbra Streisand.
I became a devoted fan when I saw “Company” on Broadway in 1970. It still remains my favorite musical. Sondheim’s song about interpersonal commitment, “Being Alive” changed my own views on marriage and children. I was about 21 when I saw it. When I became engaged to my husband, I even wrote the words down for him, “Someone to need me too much. Someone to know me too well.” Recently I found out Sondheim, who did not even fall in love until later in life, asked some married friends over to tell him about their relationships. He took notes and wrote “Company.”
Of course, “Company” was not Sondheim’s first solo production. After he collaborated with Jule Styne on “Gypsy,” Sondheim wrote music and lyrics for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Anyone Can Whistle.” He would then collaborate with Richard Rodgers on “Do I Hear a Waltz?” before going back to the Great White Way on his own with “Company,” quickly followed by “Follies” and “A Little Night Music.” Then came “Pacific Overtures” with a large Asian cast; the very dark “Sweeney Todd;” the optimistic “Sunday in the Park with George;” the twisted fairy tale story, “Into the Woods;” and finally “Assassins,” a look into the minds of those who killed or tried to kill our political leaders.
Many of Sondheim’s musicals were made into films, “Gypsy,” “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd,” and most recently, “Into the Woods.” He won eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards and an Oscar. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for “Sunday in the Park with George” and was honored with a Kennedy Centers Honors for Lifetime Achievement. He is a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame. In November 2015, Sondheim was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Those are just a small sampling of his accolades and honors.
It is clear from his body of work that he took chances. He had some flops—“Frogs,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” and “Road Show.” He stopped creating in 2008, at least for the public. However, he remained a supporter of American musical theatre until the end. It is reported he actually went to the theatre just over a week before he died to see the gender-swapping revival of “Company.” Broadway honored him on his 90th birthday with “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration.”
His reach was not only on Broadway. I would wager there is not a musical theatre group, large or small, in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada who has not produced at least one of his shows.
Sondheim grew up near Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His father left his mother, and she told the young Stephen that her only regret was giving birth to him. He did not even attend her funeral. Sondheim went to Williams College in Massachusetts. He knew he wanted to write music for the theatre and graduated magna cum laude in 1950. Probably looking for a parental figure, he became close friends with the great lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II, who took him under his wing. Hammerstein actually tutored the young Sondheim on how to write a musical. He came out when he was 40 but Sondheim was always private about his personal life. He is survived by his husband, Jeffrey Scott Romley, whom he married in 2017.
I believe his impact is mammoth, not just to American theatre, but to theatre all over the world because his first love was the theatre. In an interview with Terry Gross, he said, “I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry—just making them feel— is paramount to me.”
His presence will be missed.