How Stephen Sondheim Changed the Trajectory of Musical Theatre

On November 26, 2021, American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim died at the age of 91. He leaves behind one of the most impactful legacies in the world of theatre and his theatrical soundtrack that will long outlive the brilliant man who wrote them. 

In New York City, Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930 to a dress manufacturer and designer. At the age of 10, Sondheim’s parents split, leading him to grow up near Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where a neighborly friendship would transform Sondheim’s life. Sondheim became friends with Jamie, the son of Oscar Hammerstein II, a famous Broadway lyricist and producer who is well-known for his work with Richard Rodgers, creator of beloved works such as “Carousel” and “The Sound of Music.” Mentored under Hammerstein, a 16-year old Sondheim was left inspired by the power of musical art.

After attending Williams College and studying under the composer Milton Babbitt, Sondheim briefly worked in Hollywood before finding his calling back in New York City. His career was highlighted in his own productions, though surprisingly, he wasn’t always successful. His work with Leonard Bernstein started his career with the lyrics for “West Side Story” (1957), yet contrary to an artist’s idyllic dream, it wasn’t always uphill from there. Sondheim’s 1964 show “Anybody Can Whistle” failed after nine shows and “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981) flopped after only 16 performances. Nevertheless, when Sondheim succeeded, he soared.

His first hit was “Company,” (1970), which was nominated for 14 Tony Awards. Following its initial success, the show was revived countless times with the most recent version being a gender-swapped production on Broadway. In 1984, “Sunday in the Park with George” became just one of 10 musicals that won a Pulitzer Prize. Sondheim broke yet another record in 1994 when “Passion” became the shortest running show at 280 performances, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical. 

Sondheim stood out among other theatre geniuses for the complex and often dark themes he chose to indulge in. In 1995, Sondheim said that historically, people have turned to musicals for an escape from their troubles.  Yet in his own work, he admitted, “I’m not interested in making people unhappy, but I’m not interested in not looking at life.” Sondheim’s existential lyrics are integral to this vision. While other composers were concerned with providing an outlet for audiences to linger in the sentiments of joy, Sondheim sought to make his work true to his own life’s trials and tribulations. 

In “Company,” Robert, the main character, struggles to find a suitable life partner among his married colleagues. In Sondheim’s lyrical masterpiece “Being Alive,” Robert dreams of, “Someone to make you come through / Who’ll always be there / As frightened as you of being alive.” Despite wanting to change his lonely life, he is simultaneously terrified of the pursuit of an intimate relationship. What people often struggle to admit to themselves are tenderly captured by Stephen, who is gifted with the ability of saying so much yet so little. 

His shows always hint at maturity, even when it is disguised in the playful. “Into the Woods” twists traditional fairytales by spinning them into reality, as they explore the themes of choice and the true meaning of “happily ever after.” Sondheim writes about moral ambiguity and the conflict of the “would’s” of life: “I’m not good, I’m not nice / I’m just right.” After a dark and unexpected ending, Sondheim still fabricates an atmosphere of hope, showing that in spite of  people’s mistakes, there is good to be found: “Hard to see the light now / Just don’t let it go / Things will come out right now / We can make it so.” In the world of Sondheim, people are not only united by their virtue but also in their worst vices.

Sondheim let his authentic self be revealed through his musicals. In “Sunday in the Park with George,” it’s difficult to not connect Sondheim’s inner conflict as a writer to that of George, who laments, “I want to explore the light / I want to know how to get through / Through to something new / Something of my own.” Dot represents the light and sole motivator for George’s creativity, encouraging him to keep persisting despite his doubts; she believes there is bound to be a breakthrough: “Just keep moving on / Anything you do / Let it come from you / Then it will be new / Give us more to see.” Though Sondheim’s shows are often melancholic and inherently nostalgic in nature, his lyrics reveal a profound wisdom and moral consciousness. 

With moving insight that dove into the human condition, Sondheim explored the fine line between untethered joy and crushing defeat humans simultaneously experience throughout life. In “Losing My Mind,” Sondheim writes, “I want you so / It’s like I’m losing my mind,” noting the emotional conflict of love, yet in “Do I Hear a Waltz,” he contrasts this very theme: “With love, we’re gonna be all right,” with the lyrics capturing the multidimensionality of people. Where many find themselves tongue-tied, Sondheim always has a poetic melody at the ready.
Since his passing, Stephen Sondheim has been called the “Titan of Musical Theatre,”  which is hauntingly telling of the man to whom we must say, “Thank you so much / For something between / Ridiculous and sublime / Thank you for such / A little but lovely time.”