A musical theater legend has died. stephen sondheim, the greatest composer and lyricist of his generation, passed away on november 26 at the age of 91.
His dramatic genius combined a rare blend of elements, that of a surprisingly versatile and sophisticated composer and an incredibly witty wordsmith. His extraordinary output includes a staggering 16 musicals as composer and lyricist, another three as a solo lyricist, as well as four musical revues featuring hit compilations from his shows.
sondheim’s main contribution to musical theater lies in reinvigorating the broadway show in the footsteps of rodgers and hammerstein. Among many accolades received, Sondheim’s songs for the film Dick Tracy (1990), starring Warren Beatty, Madonna and Al Pacino, earned him an Academy Award.
Unusually, he has theaters named after him both on Broadway and in the West End. such is his far-reaching influence that he even appears as a fictional character in the new movie Tick, Tick… Boom! on netflix, based on the autobiographical musical by songwriter-for-hire jonathan larson.
When faced with such a prolific and fascinating production, it’s hard to praise just a few shows, but here are five of Sondheim’s best.
1. west side story
shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers are given a contemporary twist in this celebrated romeo and juliet tale. Transposed to the New York City setting of the 1950s, he saw the romance as a turf war between a white American street gang and Puerto Rican immigrants. The show, which premiered in 1957, was something of a big break for the young Sondheim, who was later hired as a lyricist along with more established composer Leonard Bernstein, book writer Arthur Laurents, and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins.
The score is packed with hit songs, including “Maria,” “Something’s Coming,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Tonight’s Quintet,” which features a remarkable five-way exchange between three characters Major Plus The Two Gangs The iconic 1961 film adaptation received an impressive ten Academy Awards and excitement is growing for the soon-to-be-released Steven Spielberg-directed remake.
after two years after west side story, gypsy used the same creative team but replaced jule styne as songwriter. Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the show tells the story of the burlesque performer of the same name and her overbearing mother, Rose.
Highlights include “Rose’s Turn,” one of the most demanding solos in all of musical theater repertoire, in which Sondheim’s lyrics vividly depict the exploitative matriarch pondering the consequences of past actions. Twice adapted for film, in 1962 and 1993, the musical was most recently televised in its 2015 West End revival production starring Imelda Staunton as Rose.
Embodiment of the “musical concept,” in which a show crystallizes around a broad theme rather than an overarching story, the 1970 troupe, set to music and lyrics by Sondheim, presents a series of unrelated short scenes between the main character, bobby, and his best friends.
Notable productions include the 2006 revival starring Raúl Esparza, in which the cast doubles as instrumentalists onstage; the 2011 new york philharmonic concert version, with neil patrick harris in the title role; and the gender-swapped 2018 West End revival, featuring Rosalie Craig as Bobbie. Jayma Mays impressively performed “(Not) Getting Marsing Today,” one of the most challenging musical theater songs of all time for its prominent use of small talk, on an episode of glee.
4. sweeney todd
Inspired by the sinister Victorian character Penny Dreadful, Sweeney Todd: The Devil Barber of Fleet Street (to use his full name) has become arguably Sondheim’s best-known musical. Premiering in 1979 with many subsequent high-profile revivals, including a concert version starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in 2014, it makes artful use of the show’s ensemble in a role akin to a classical Greek chorus, reflecting on the action to throughout the musical without advancing it.
A gruesome tale of a barber who seeks revenge and the pastry chef who turns the men he murders into meat, it lent itself perfectly to Tim Burton’s directorial treatment in the acclaimed 2007 film, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. , who approached sondheim’s demanding music and lyrics admirably.
5. in the woods
My final selection on this list, from 1987, is towards the woods. The musical is creatively based on four well-known fairy tales: Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, intertwined with an original story of a baker and his wife, and the witch who has cursed them never to have children. .
sondheim’s music and lyrics meld most effectively in songs like “tu culpa,” in which the constituent characters artfully combine to recap the complex set of circumstances that have brought them together. The use of fairy tales made the musical a good fit for its 2014 Disney adaptation, with an all-star cast headlined by Meryl Streep, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick.
Honorable mentions from other Sondheim shows include: Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Assassins (1990).