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Broadway Icon Stephen Sondheim Shaped The American Musical As An Art Form

Stephen Sondheim, Bernstein, Adolph Green, and Roddy McDowall, June 1962
Image CreditLOC /Public Domain

Thank God for all the people who hated Stephen Sondheim.

Not the man himself, Lord knows. The titan of Broadway musical composers, who died last Friday at age 91, was a legendary collaborator and inspirer of dozens of other creators of American musicals.

Rather, the haters were the legions of theatergoers who protested all through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that they “didn’t really like Sondheim” even as they kept getting dragged by friends to all of his new shows.

The skeptics’ experience of sitting in the audience and having a shock of recognition of a suddenly luscious musical refrain here and a recognizable human dilemma there, in between all the jagged rhythms and slightly off-kilter melodies, kept converting patrons into Sondheim fans until he became mainstream.

And what a good thing that turned out to be. Without Sondheim’s dark, stark objectivity and ambiguous or back-where-we-started circular endings, the Broadway genre might not have survived long enough to power through to today’s more Disneyfied and jukebox musicals. I mean, you didn’t really believe that Curly and Laurey were going to live happily ever after at the end of “Oklahoma!”, did you?

All the arguing among patrons, critics and hangers-on was mighty good for Broadway business. When Sondheim’s angular and brilliant “Sunday in the Park with George” about both a 19th-century pointillist painting and the more general challenge of artistic originality “lost” at the 1984 Tony Awards to Jerry Herman’s mildly ribald but straight-on jazzy Broadway score for “La Cage aux Folles,” it was said to be a victory for “hummable tunes.”

But the passionate debate only reflected a dialectic that has always animated the history of music and boosted its popularity. Or stated more simply, both sides won, just as they had in the past in expanding the market.

The rivalry in the mid to late 19th century between Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner – or, more precisely, their fans and advocates – carried up all the way to World War I to keep “classical music” roaring in Europe and newly established in Boston, New York, Chicago and elsewhere in the industrializing America of the time.

Of course in a million years, Sondheim would never write a lyric like “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” in the allegedly “corny” style of 1940s and 1950s musicals like “Carousel.” And yet, people forget or never knew that he was originally a protégé of Oscar Hammerstein II, the very progenitor of wholesome lyrics to Golden Age of Broadway musicals from “Oklahoma!” to “The Sound of Music,” because as a teenager he lived near Hammerstein in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Hammerstein taught Sondheim the importance of character, not just plot, in a song, and cutting out unnecessary narrative. In reality, the two shared a bond in pushing forward musical theater from where it stood when they each started. The Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals newly – or at least permanently – latched dialogue and musical lyrics into an integrated if sometimes preachy whole, while the Sondheim shows musicalized historical or contemporary situations into a jagged semi-resolution that at least left everyone thinking and talking.

Another surprise about Sondheim is that for all the heavy subject matter of his shows, many of his star actresses had a close connection to Cold War-era popular culture and wound up with some of Sondheim’s best songs.

In Sondheim’s surprisingly tuneful 1971 magnum opus “Follies” – ironically about the death of a Broadway house being demolished for a parking lot, and true to the cultural threats of the time – Yvonne De Carlo stepped out of her 1960s slapstick sitcom role as Lily Munster to sing the driving ballad “I’m Still Here.” In the same show, 1940s and 1950s Hollywood star Alexis Smith made her late-career Broadway debut singing a more stereotypically Sondheim stick-in-the-eye number called “Could I Leave You?” with an ambiguous ending lyric, “Will I leave you? Guess!” – and pocketed a Tony Award for it.

Going into the other direction of breakout mainstream stardom, Sondheim’s 1970 ensemble musical about the tribulations of love and marriage, Company, featured Beth Howland, prior to her long run as a heart-of-gold, semi-ditzy waitress on the 1970s-1980s sitcom “Alice,” in one of Sondheim’s great patter songs with a New York urban rhythm. Watch Howland at the recording session for what’s officially titled “Getting Married Today” – but what everyone remembers, in a classic piece of Sondheim ambiguity, as “Not Getting Married Today” – for a master class in musical theater diction.

If Sondheim’s output has now started to become an almost too-sainted part of American cultural literacy at least among a class of urbanites and suburbanites, it’s partly because he himself contributed to a more general cultural and historical literacy among those who needed it.

The Art Institute of Chicago recently became enmeshed in a woke-era controversy over its volunteer docent program. But it still has Sondheim to thank for popularizing its permanent-collection holding of the Georges Seurat work “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” “painted” by the title character in “Sunday in the Park with George” to the brilliant accompaniment of a pointillist motive in the orchestra. And Sondheim’s musical “Assassins” brought a certain kind of perhaps warped but needed attention to Gilded Age American presidents like James A. Garfield and William McKinley.

And almost unwittingly, Sondheim has helped save American opera companies. Around the country they now routinely include one American musical in their seasons, and overwhelmingly the leading one – or at least the first one that any company will lower itself to include – is his masterpiece “Sweeney Todd.”

That 1979 musical, along with later Sondheim works, also helped “complicate up” the American musical, with compound rhythms and key signatures that gained the genre new respect among classical musicians and crossover artists in general. The technique of having different characters on the stage sing in different meters at climactic points in the show has been adopted by later Broadway composers like Jason Robert Brown, in his musical “Parade” about anti-Semitism in the 1913 Leo Frank trial in Atlanta, and others to heighten tension before release points in the plot.

Finally, Sondheim himself deserves credit for his own personal objectivity and his ability to learn on the job. The part that even musical theater mavens sometimes forget about Sondheim is that he actually began by writing the lyrics to Jule Styne’s music for “Gypsy” in 1959 and, most notably, to Leonard Bernstein’s music for “West Side Story” in 1957. But Sondheim never forgave himself for a metrical error and terrible (if famous) lame joke that is stuck forever in a repetitive “West Side Story” lyric – Everything free in America / For a small fee in America! – and promised himself never to make such a mistake again.

If only “serious” composers (typically with university sinecures) of lousy music that symphony orchestra audiences secretly hate would have the same self-discipline today!

Yet Sondheim certainly knew when he was absolutely right. Bernstein eventually told a young Sondheim to dispense with all the “wrong-note stuff” once he started writing his own music and lyrics together, even though Bernstein himself liked to throw plenty of just-off-the-scale notes into his own ballets, symphonies, and musicals.

It’s a good thing that Sondheim didn’t listen to Bernstein this time. Without the slightly “wrong notes” in the orchestra accompaniment of “A Little Priest,” the very darkly hilarious Act 1 finale of “Sweeney Todd,” audiences might think that Sondheim was really endorsing the idea of fresh human flesh as the core ingredient in Mrs. Lovett’s delicious meat pies, as sung by Angela Lansbury prior to her TV success in “Murder, She Wrote.”

In the end, the man knew what he was doing, and the once again roaring cultural success of the American musical has a great deal to thank him for it.