One of the true architects of the Broadway musical leaves us with a rich legacy of deep, personal, and moving songs.
“We have lost a giant.” That was pretty much the consensus a couple of Friday evenings ago as word began to circulate that famed composer Stephen Sondheim had died. Almost at once, social media came alive with memories and tributes. People who knew him personally spoke of his friendship and the way he mentored and supported younger composers. People who knew only his music spoke of him in terms hardly less personal. His songs were like that: personal, intimate, and open.
When I heard the news, I took solace in listening to singer Melissa Errico’s wonderful collection of his songs called Sondheim Sublime. A better collection of music you won’t find. Start there.
Stephen Sondheim was born in New York City in 1930. His father was a dressmaker and his
mother a dress designer and they lived in one of the most luxurious apartment houses on Central Park West. His home life however was not a particularly happy one and while he was still very young his parents divorced.
He wrote his first musical while he was still in high school. In 1946 he enrolled at Williams College in Massachusetts where he studied music, wrote more shows, and graduated with honors.
Leonard Bernstein, who first worked with Sondheim in the mid-1950s, called him “a charming, gifted boy” and the two became close friends. “Friendship is a thing I give and receive rarely,” he told Bernstein in 1957, “but for what it’s worth, I want you to know you have it from me always.”
Over the course of his career Sondheim won nine Tony Awards, eight Grammys, an Academy Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and in 2015 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In his remarks, President Obama said that Sondheim’s “greatest hits aren’t tunes you can hum; they’re reflections on roads we didn’t take and wishes gone wrong. …Even as he exposes the imperfections of everyday life, he transcends them.”
In 2017, Lin-Manuel Miranda said that Sondheim was “musical theater’s greatest lyricist, full stop. The days of competition with other musical theater songwriters are done,” he said. “We now talk about his work the way we talk about Shakespeare or Dickens or Picasso....”
This coming Friday, two weeks after his death, the musical that was Sondheim’s big breakthrough—the show whose lyrics made him a name on Broadway—is going to be introduced to a new generation. More on this next week.