Last week, the great composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim died. He was 91 years old.
Although Sondheim knew that he wanted to write words and music, someone else composed the music for two of his early successes, in the 1950s. He wrote the words to go with Leonard Bernstein’s music in “West Side Story,” an adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” and he also wrote the lyrics for “Gypsy,” a musical version of Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoir (Jule Styne wrote the music).
By the 1960s he was writing words AND music. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” opened in 1962 and ran for 964 performances. Then 1973 brought us “A Little Night Music,” a score of waltzes, and the song “Send in the Clowns,” at hit for Judy Collins. And in 1979 we met “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” In 1987 he collaborated on “Into the Woods,” based on fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm.
He continued working in the 21st Century. In 2020, when he was 90 years old, he came close to joining the entertainment industry’s elite EGOT club, an acronym for those who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. All he needed was an Emmy, as Sondheim had eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, and an Oscar for Best Original Song (“Sooner or Later,” sung by Madonna in “Dick Tracy”). The first and only chance came with the variety special “Tell the Story: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins,” about men and women who killed or tried to kill American presidents. (He didn’t win.)
Sondheim also received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, Kennedy Center Honors and a Pulitzer Prize.
His lyrics were sometimes dark and complex, especially compared to the songs of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, but that’s because, in the words of critic and eulogist Jeremy Gerald, “Sondheim wrote for grown-ups.” And he also encouraged us. Toward the finale of “Into the Woods,” the company members sing:
“People make mistakes
Holding to their own ...
Just remember ...
No one is alone
Someone is on your side
No one is alone.”
The world is a little more lonely without Stephen Sondheim, but we still have his music and lyrics to bring us together.