No contemporary artist has been as influential in testing, torching, and redefining the boundaries of American musical theatre as Stephen Sondheim, who died on Friday morning at the age of 91 at his home in Connecticut. His influence has helped shape generations of composers and lyricists and will continue to do so in the future, and his loss stings like few others.
We tend to think of our cultural heroes as immortal, and Sondheim was an undeniable genius who was revered as a god. With the news of his death still fresh in our minds, it’s difficult to believe that we’ll never again feel the excitement of seeing a new Sondheim show for the first time.However, the continued vitality of his work — especially for an artist who had so successfully avoided the commercial mainstream — indicates that Sondheim is destined to remain with us.
He leaves an indelible cultural imprint that will inspire further investigation, reinterpretation, and reinvention, just as he welcomed radical new interpretations of his musicals during his lifetime. Assassins, Sondheim’s dark 1990 musical about historical figures who assassinated or attempted to assassinate American presidents, received a major off-Broadway revival in the weeks preceding his death.
The big-screen remake of West Side Story, the multiracial New York street-gang retelling of Romeo and Juliet for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics, will be released on December 10 by director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner. And, after being delayed for a year and a half by the pandemic shutdown, a gender-flipped revival of Company, the 1970 musical that rejected frothy conventions of romance to explore relationships and commitment with blistering ambivalence, opens on Broadway Dec.
How many nonagenarians working in the arts today can claim that level of cultural relevance? Last week, Netflix released Tick, Tick… Boom!, a film adaptation of Rent composer Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical first musical, which features a playful appearance by Sondheim as a character played by Bradley Whitford. That homage reflects Sondheim’s enormous influence on both the late Larson and Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who made his directorial debut with the film and has never been shy about acknowledging his debt to Sondheim.
There was a point in late 2019 when Sondheim seemed to be everywhere. In Noah Baumbach’s nonmusical drama Marriage Story, Adam Driver belted out the searing emotional confession “Being Alive” from Company, while Scarlett Johansson led a trio on “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” signaling her character’s emancipation from Driver’s.T
The theatre kids in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird auditioned for a high school production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, the reverse-chronological 1981 show’s rueful look back at the evolution of life and friendship strangely mirroring Saoirse Ronan’s protagonist’s fumbling steps toward growth and independence.
The commercially disastrous original Broadway run of that show is chronicled in the excellent 2016 documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, and a film version of Merrily is in the works from director Richard Linklater, to be shot at intervals over more than a decade, allowing leads Ben Platt, Beanie Feldstein, and Blake Jenner to age alongside their characters, as was Boyhood.)
On The Morning Show, Billy Crudup and Jennifer Aniston performed the tender duet “Not While I’m Around,” from Sondheim’s masterful 1979 saga of obsession, vengeance, and bloody barber-shop murder, Sweeney Todd.
But there were also more subtle references, such as Daniel Craig’s detective in Knives Out singing a few bars of “Losing My Mind,” from Sondheim’s ghostly 1971 reassessment of the past, Follies. That could have been writer-director Rian Johnson’s sly nod to another all-star whodunit, The Last of Sheila, a 1973 film co-written by Sondheim and Anthony Perkins that, despite being a flop at the time, remains ripely enjoyable.
My first exposure to Sondheim on stage came in 1984, during my first trip to New York when I saw Sunday in the Park With George in previews alongside original stars Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.
At the time, that complex diptych about the difficult balance of life, art, and commerce was still coming together. But, like so many Sondheim musicals, it has grown on me with each subsequent viewing, most recently in the ravishing 2017 Broadway revival starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford.
The celestial choral number “Sunday,” which closes the first act, is a rapturous hymn to beauty, nature, art, and capturing a moment in time; it may be Sondheim’s most exquisite song. You feel as if you’re flying when you hear it. (“Sunday” gets its own lovely riff in the Tick, Tick… BOOM movie, with a slew of Broadway luminaries dropping by.)Ruefulness, regret, loneliness, and fear of change are themes that run throughout many of Sondheim’s greatest works, so it stands to reason that they strike different people at different ages.
That was certainly the case for me with the melancholy nostalgia of Follies, which I knew almost by heart when a friend worked as wardrobe master on frequent Sondheim collaborator Harold Prince’s 1987 London production in my twenties. That access not only allowed me to see the show numerous times during its run, but it also allowed me to meet legends such as Diana Rigg, Dolores Gray, and the divinely eccentric Eartha Kitt.
During the run, the latter took over from Gray as Carlotta, who sings the ultimate showbiz survivor anthem, “I’m Still Here.”You can’t go wrong with any Sondheim, whether it’s in a recording or on film. This includes his more challenging works, such as the operatic 1994 tale of manipulative romantic obsession, Passion, or his final musical to be produced, the flawed but fascinating saga of two entrepreneurial brothers in early twentieth-century America, Road Show, which premiered off-Broadway in 2008.
Elaine Stritch, the magnificent Sondheim interpreter, may have best summed up my feelings. She shook her head with a mix of fear and reverence during an interview for The Los Angeles Times that had turned into a long, discursive chat about her mortification when she kept flubbing lines in the 2009 Broadway revival of A Little Night Music, and said, “It’s fuckin’ Sondheim, for God’s sake!”
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