What must it have been like to live at the same time as Shakespeare? To enjoy that proximity to a timeless creator whose vision was popular enough to please the masses but artful enough to influence generations of creators to come? In the opinion of many theater fans, until last year we had the equivalent of that privilege by existing in the same timeline as Stephen Sondheim, who wrote some of the most ambitious and enduring stage musicals of this century and the last one.
Though he won Tonys, Grammys, an Oscar, and a Pulitzer, none of Sondheim’s shows ever ran for more than a thousand performances on Broadway (most ran for far fewer); they weren’t runaway smashes on the scale of a Wicked or a Phantom. And only one of his songs – “Send in the Clowns” – was ever a radio hit.
On the other hand, at the time of Sondheim’s unexpected death last November, revivals of two of his shows – Company and Assassins – were running in New York. Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story, for which a 27-year-old Sondheim wrote the lyrics, opened in movie theaters in December and scooped up a bunch of Oscar nominations. And the buzzy film adaptation of the musical Tick, Tick… Boom! on Netflix includes Sondheim as a character. This was not exactly a 91-year-old relic fading into irrelevance.
And Sondheim’s reach, both as an example and as a generous mentor, is long. Without his example there’d be no Rent, no Avenue Q, no Hamilton.
Sondheim challenged himself and his audiences. He wrote musicals about serial murder, disappointing marriages, political violence, the westernization of Japan, and the fundamental nature of art itself; he based shows on impressionist paintings and Italian novels and penny dreadfuls and Ingmar Bergman films. Even his most accessible, least cerebral comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, grows out of an intimate knowledge of the Plautine comedies of ancient Rome.
If you don’t know Sondheim’s work, or you’re looking to get reacquainted, the Library has resources: musical scores, book scripts, audio and video recordings. Dive in and find out why every theatre kid you knew in school was moping in a darkened room on November 26, 2021.