On Friday, I saw a tweet that Stephen Sondheim had passed away. My heart sank. If you don’t know who Stephen Sondheim was, you know at least one of his works. West Side Story. He did much more than that and had a huge impact on 20th century musical theater.
First off, Sondheim lived to be 91, which was a very long and prosperous life. While Sondheim had a very rough childhood, he became friends with the son of Oscar Hammerstein II, which turned out to be a huge life change for Sondheim. Hammerstein took Sondheim under his wing, introduced and developed a love of musical theater, as well as helped to develop Sondheim as a writer and lyricist.
While in his younger years, Sondheim learned to craft scripts and lyrics, in college, he studied music and learned how to craft songs. Throughout his early years, his connections in the musical theater world got him the opportunity to be the lyricist for Arthur Laurents’ adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet”, which we now know as “West Side Story”. Sondheim was 27 when “West Side Story” opened. The next musical that he wrote lyrics for was “Gypsy”. The first musical that he wrote music and lyrics to was “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.
In 1973, Sondheim wrote “A Little Night Music”, which featured a very popular song, “Send in the Clowns”. He continued to write music and lyrics for musicals, including two of his musicals that were adapted into movies, “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods”. Sondheim is known for his tackling unique topics in his musicals, and having a complexity to his music and lyrics.
That’s the story of Stephen Sondheim, now I’d like to share a few of my thoughts. When I was in high school, I was introduced to the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. I was in the backing band my senior year for our show choir, and they did a medley of West Side Story songs. It was there that I heard those lyrics, and became enthralled with the musical and it’s creative retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” in New York City. Also in my senior year, our musical was “Into the Woods”. I was disappointed at first by the choice. We had done “Guys and Dolls”, “Pirates of Penzance” and “The Music Man” the previous years, and this one just seemed to fall flat in my mind compared to those. Boy was I wrong. As we went through learning the music, and putting on the show, I loved it. It grew on me in it’s beauty, creativity and fun.
Stephen Sondheim will definitely be missed. And yet, his legacy lives on. Just released on Netflix is a musical called “Tick…Tick…Boom” which was written by Jonathan Larson, who wrote “Rent”, and Sondheim had a profound influence on Larson, which is shown in the musical. Along with that, in a couple of weeks, Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation of “West Side Story” will be in theaters. I’d encourage you to check out any of Stephen Sondheim’s musical works. I do think you’ll enjoy them.