Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist, 1930-2021

“The important thing is to write something on paper,” Stephen Sondheim told me in one Lunch with FT 2010 interview. “’I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.’ OK, that’s a cliché, I’ll fix it tomorrow. You wake up in the morning and it’s there. It is something to work with. “

The famous figure in the modern musical scene is discussing writing lyrics, which he finds more complicated than composing music. Every struggle on the desk can not detect the result. Sondheim, who passed away on Friday at the age of 91, was prized for the subtlety, wit, intelligence and psychological depth of stagnations like The company and Follies. He sees the cliché of the Broadway musical as a frivolous parade of bullies and stalkers — and fixes it for good.

Sondheim was born in New York in 1930. He grew up the only child in a Jewish family, living in an apartment overlooking Central Park. His father, Herbert, made high-class women’s dresses that his mother Janet designed. It was a childhood comfortable materially but emotionally cold. After Herbert ran off with another woman, he was taken by his mother to live in Pennsylvania.

Janet, nicknamed Foxy, was an indispensable presence in his life: she once told Sondheim that she regretted giving birth to him. He found a warmer surrogate parent in the person of the famous Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, a nearby neighbor. Co-creator Oklahoma! and South Pacific became his mentor after Sondheim developed an interest in musicals: he wrote his first piece at the age of 15.

Hammerstein, with his collaborator Richard Rodgers, brought a new level of complexity to the musical scene. Sondheim took the process even further. His break came when he successfully auditioned to be a lyricist for a song by Leonard Bernstein West story, which opened on Broadway in 1957. The ballad “Maria” demonstrated his mastery of the musicality of language. It’s a love song that finds “all the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word” – the name of the famous heroine.

He was the lyricist for another Broadway hit, 1959 Gypsy: A Musical Fable, composed by Jule Styne. Not wanting to become a blacksmith, Sondheim also started composing. His first musical in both roles was a fun comedy A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. First staged in 1962, its vaudevillian hilarity gave way to riskier themes and a more nuanced tonal range in later works.

Stephen Sondheim in 2004

Stephen Sondheim 2004: his compositional style is flexible but also very personal; he avoids the trap of pastiche © AP

Held for the first time in 1970, The company dramatizes the inability of a middle-aged New Yorker to enter into a romantic relationship. Follies (1972) talks about unfaithful and broken marriages. His narrative spans from the Victorian horror film (1979 .) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) to the fairy tale Grimm Brothers (1986 Go to the forest) and American political history (1990s Killer).

His daring in bringing the stylized, escapist form of the musical into the complex realms of real life was recognized early on: The company critically acclaimed and won a Tony Award. But it proved too bold for some. His work is mistakenly described as emotionally cold and overly tense. “Half too smart” was a repeated objection, a concept he found inexplicable.

1981 Let’s have fun together closed after 16 shows, one of the biggest flops in Broadway history; it has been reevaluated as a major work. A tireless innovator, Sondheim sometimes had to wait for the world to catch up with him.

His compositional style is flexible but also very personal: he avoids the pitfalls of mockery. He can write showstopers like The companyThe film’s “The Ladies Who Lunch”, which ended with its character singing the line with arms crossed “Everybody get up!”, in what Sondheim admitted was a pitch to a standing ovation. (Opening-night audiences aren’t required; later ones are.) But his use of tunes is much more subtle than that of the typical Broadway musical. His songs represent a smooth synthesis of music and lyrics.

A lover of puzzles and murder mysteries, Sondheim was interested in a rhyming art form; he once made Cole Porter gasp with a Bravura four-letter rhyme scheme. However, for all the excellence of his words, he does not like to show off. The language and music must be true to the character.

He’s openly gay in his 40s but prefers to keep his private life to himself; he is survived by his husband Jeffrey Romley. He had a generous air about him, without being pompous or pretentious. Despite his mother’s estrangement, or maybe because of it, he has written great roles for women. Although he defies the conclusion that pats the happy endings, a sense of curiosity about the possibility runs through the course of his work. In the words of “Our Time” from Let’s have fun together: “This is where we start, is what we can.”

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