Stephen Sondheim: The Master of the Musical

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Stephen Sondheim is our greatest musical theater dramatist. From his first produced work, West Side Story, to his most recent, Road Show, he has brought a playwright’s careful plotting and an actor’s toolbox of subtext, timing, and stagecraft to the writing of music and lyrics. His songs are complete dramatic texts, conceived as written “performances,” with nuances, pauses, and stage action written into the score.

In 1957, when West Side Story was in development, young Sondheim showed his “Maria” lyrics to Jerome Robbins, the show’s brilliant but blunt director. As Sondheim remembers it, “Jerry said: ‘What do you see happening on the stage?’ I said: ‘Well, Tony is singing this love song…’ Jerry said: ‘Well, what’s he doing?’ I said: ‘He’s singing…he’s full of emotion.’ He said: ‘You stage it!’”

Sondheim had violated the first rule of theater: Show, don’t tell. After that encounter he was careful to mentally stage every song “within an inch of its life.” Whether or not a director or actor uses his staging, that kind of writing gives a song an inner theatrical life, an implied action, a right to hold the stage.

Sondheim wrote only the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. But he had been trained as a composer and he longed for the complete control of writing both music and lyrics. He got his chance in 1962 with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Now he could carefully tailor the songs to the drama—or rather the comedy, as Forum was very much a musical comedy. He could use music to time the jokes, punctuate physical business, and undermine his own pretty tunes with deadpan idiotic words (“I’m lovely, all I am is lovely, lovely is the one thing I can do”). But his real breakthrough, the emergence of the Sondheim so valued today, would have to wait until the great series of collaborations with director Harold Prince, beginning in 1970 with Company.

Company is one of the first of the so-called “concept” musicals—shows organized around a theme rather than a plot. Company explores the dangers and the rewards of committing to another person, using Bobby, a 35-year-old bachelor spooked by his friends’ marriages, as its central character. Lyrically, Sondheim has the friends struggle to explain the pros and cons of marriage in a mash-up of antonyms: “You’re sorry-grateful, regretful-happy.” When Bobby finally makes a positive decision, it’s one with a sting: “Somebody hold me too close, somebody hurt me too deep.” This verbal inventiveness is matched by Sondheim’s modernist score: the soundscape of Bobby’s busy-busy life is rendered through the big-city jangle of songs like “Another Hundred People,” and Bobby’s reluctance to choose a mate is musicalized through the suspended, going-nowhere feel of “Someone Is Waiting”—yearning as a substitute for doing.

In less skilled hands, Company could have been simply a revue of clever songs about relationships. But Sondheim creates real drama by adhering to the advice of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein: Sondheim Quote

The Sondheim-Prince musicals comprised four landmark shows: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and two less-successful pieces: Pacific Overtures, which failed to find an audience but was nonetheless a stunning artistic creation, and Merrily We Roll Along, a disappointing failure.

Sondheim continued to perfect his method of writing the staging into his musical sequences—“songs,” by now, was an inadequate term for his creations; they were too extended, too free in form. This developing style began to divide the Broadway audience. The very vocal support of the pro-Sondheim enthusiasts irritated the die-hard traditionalists and vice-versa, leading to the tabloid-worthy “showdown” at the 1994 Tonys: Passion vs. La Cage aux Folles; Sondheim (“musical structures”) vs. Jerry Herman (“good old-fashioned show tunes”). Herman’s show won Best Musical, but it would be his last production to date on Broadway.

After the bruising failure of Merrily We Roll Along in 1981, Sondheim moved to the more welcoming world of off-Broadway and non-profit theater, where he used his now-perfected techniques to explore the psyches of some unusual people: blank-faced figures in a painting in Sunday in the Park with George; fairy tale denizens in Into the Woods; a male “beauty” and a female “beast” in Passion (an off-Broadway show produced, for financial reasons, on Broadway); and most daring of all, disgruntled Americans who take a shot at the president in Assassins.

Sondheim’s last produced musical was Road Show, which had a brief run at the Public Theater in 2008. At age 85 he’s working on a new show based on two of Luis Buñuel’s surreal films, a challenge that may result in another rich work from the acknowledged master of the modern musical.


Assassins is the annual co-production between The 5th and ACT Theatre. Performances take place at ACT, and run from February 27 through May 8. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.

By ALBERT EVANS, 5th Avenue Artistic Associate
Artwork/Design by JEFF CARPENTER, Senior Graphic Designer

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