Throughout my life, I have always loved musical theater. My parents were huge theater people and every year for Christmas I got tickets to a broadway show. Following this, I performed in shows during middle school and high school, which are all some of my most cherished memories. All of these connections help to make sense of why I cannot stop thinking about the legacy of Stephen Sondheim, who passed away at the age of 91 on Nov. 26.
Sondheim is without a doubt one of the most popular and prolific writers in musical theater history and he changed the way that people think of the American musical forever. It is such a hard thing to try and quantify the effects of his career when he wrote so much over so many years. However, I can speak with authority on the effects that his works have had on my life in particular.
Whenever you look at a musical by Sondheim, from “Sweeney Todd,” to “Into The Woods,” or “Sunday in the Park with George,” one of the major themes is how he changed what he believed a musical could do as a work of art. Before the rise of Sondheim’s first musical in 1957 with the release of “West Side Story,” the musical was mostly a vehicle for fairytale endings and peppy numbers that didn’t leave the audience with any unanswered questions. Sondheim wanted more. He focused on social and political issues, and the stories of characters who were at times unlikeable, or never got what they wanted.
In “West Side Story” there are no happy endings; it is a real representation of racially focused violence paired with the story of senseless violence in “Romeo and Juliet.” Within his musical “Company,” the characters take a hard look at what it means to be married, in a more emotional way than any other musical at the time. That idea was revolutionary in the field of musical theater and you can see his influence in so many other shows from other writers even today.
Creators like Lin Manuel Miranda, who is again changing what a musical can look like, credit Sondheim with inspiring him to think outside the box and take those risks. This idea has also had attention brought to it in the new movie, “Tick Tick Boom,” directed by Miranda, which focuses on the work of Jonathan Larson, the creator of the musical “Rent.”
Sondheim and his influence on Larson’s work plays a major role in the film, without giving too many spoilers, and it gives a good sense of how other writers look to the work of Sondheim for inspiration. I recently watched the movie and I loved the way that this relationship was shown.
To me, just hearing one of his songs can bring me back to a memory of when I heard it for the first time. When I heard “The Last Midnight” and “On The Steps of The Palace” from “Into The Woods,” I can still remember how I was immediately transported to another world when listening to these sweeping melodies and huge orchestral pieces with so many different elements. Music by Sondheim has a way of making the world around you look different after you listen to something that he has written.
My favorite and one of the most underrated pieces by Sondheim is “Sunday in the Park with George,” which is based on a fictional backstory to the painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat. This play looks at what it means to be an artist and how being the focus of artworks allows a person to become frozen in time. It also shows how isolating it can be to become an artist, and a lot of the musical feels biographical to Sondheim’s own life, which he spent most of alone. He had only one long-term romantic partner, who he met well into his seventies. Sondheim was committed to making art, and a lot of his work holds the reflection of the negative effects of this commitment.
The song “Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park with George” was performed in Times Square in New York City by actors from every show currently on Broadway in tribute to Sondheim and his work. I think the quote from the play that Lin Manuel Miranda spoke at the tribute helps to sum up the legacy of Sondheim. “A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.”
For all of these reasons, the passing of Stephen Sondheim has had a huge impact on the theater industry as well as me personally. From his lyrics to his melodies, and stories, there is no parallel to him in the world of theater. These plays and songs have such a special timeless quality to them. Even now, his musical “Company” is back on Broadway and already getting rave reviews.
There is something so special about a Sondheim musical that never gets old to me and never ceases to make me feel like a little kid at my first show again.