Stephen Sondheim – A Giant in the Sky
New York magazine|December 6-19, 2021
The measureless, omnipresent influence of Stephen Sondheim.
By Mark Harris

WHAT IF STEPHEN Sondheim had never written a word, or a note of music, after his 30th birthday? What if, grief-stricken at the death of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, in 1960, the young composer had simply decided that he had done his part for musical theater and was ready to try something new? Had that happened, we would still, today, more than six decades later, be memorializing a man who, via his lyrics for Gypsy and West Side Story, made an indelible contribution to the history of American musical theater—specifically, to modernizing it, to darkening it, to helping it burst what were then thought to be the boundaries of its form.

Sondheim did not stop, of course. His writing for those two seminal shows was, in the context of his full body of work, a warm-up—a quick set of stretches before a career that would define and redefine an entire popular art. If it is true that, as Jack Nicholson remarked when Marlon Brando died, every other living actor just moved up one place, the image seems inadequate to mark Sondheim’s passing, at 91, after a long and astonishingly productive life. If anything, it means that the question of who America’s greatest living musical-theater artist is can finally lead to an interesting discussion, because for the first time in decades, the answer isn’t obvious. With Sondheim, there was no list of people waiting to move up one. He was his own list—and his measureless influence lives in the work of just about everyone who survives him.

His own work remains omnipresent: A production of his 1990 musical Assassins is running at Classic Stage Company, the third Broadway revival of his 1970 musical Company is in previews at the Jacobs Theatre, and on November 29 Steven Spielberg’s film of West Side Story had its premiere at Lincoln Center. So it’s shocking now to recall the decades when people insisted that there was anything to argue about—that you could like either the cool temperature intellectual natterings of Sondheim or the operettaish swoops and swoons of Andrew Lloyd Webber; that Steve, forever the smartest boy in the class, stroking his beard in his Turtle Bay townhouse as he frowned over a piano, may have been good for brainiacs with no emotional core, but if you wanted real feeling, real emotion, real songs, you had to look elsewhere. When Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics for La Cage aux Folles won the Tony over Sondheim’s score for Sunday in the Park With George (this has been fact-checked—it actually happened), Herman made a remarkable sore-winner speech in which, leaving little doubt whom he was trashing, he said, “There’s been a rumor around for a couple of years that the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway.” The rap on Sondheim was that he was a composer of ideas, not of melodies—the Tom Stoppard of musical theater. Puzzles over passion, cleverness over heart. Some people believed this.

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