Steve Sondheim: A life in musical theatre

Share “Stephen had a way of capturing the universal experiences of shared loss,” says The Classical Musician’s Charles Gilchrist. “He had a brilliant take on human experience.” Gilchrist believes that not many of Sondheim’s…

Steve Sondheim: A life in musical theatre

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“Stephen had a way of capturing the universal experiences of shared loss,” says The Classical Musician’s Charles Gilchrist. “He had a brilliant take on human experience.”

Gilchrist believes that not many of Sondheim’s own collaborations over the years have been as widely celebrated as Sunday in the Park with George, the 1965 Broadway musical about John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s visit to Central Park, where the famous couple led a vigil to commemorate Lennon’s murder.

Sondheim’s songs, says Gilchrist, provide “a strong emotional hook – there’s something that’s uniquely Sondheim about them – even though in some ways the process of creating them is not always that different from how Sondheim wrote his other musicals.”

The first U.S. Sondheim production was in 1975 when his musical Company opened at the California Repertory Theatre. By the next year, he was directing three more shows himself.

“He was a great musical comic writer, and couldn’t just write a song. He loved musical numbers. He loved putting musical notes in big places,” says Sheridan Morley, a composer and lyricist best known for his Broadway show Bug. “He created a whole new way of thinking about songwriting. I think he did more than anyone to introduce the sense of the heartfelt, emotional song.”

Tony-winning choreographer Susan Stroman, who has worked with Sondheim on a number of productions over the years, says that his unique musical sensibility earned him the imprimatur of critics and audiences alike.

“He was always hyper-creative,” says Stroman. “No question about it. He really is unique.”

One of Sondheim’s most enduring gifts, says Stroman, is that he was never afraid to take risks.

“He pushed the envelopes and had the courage of his convictions,” she says. “You just put him in a room, and Stephen was amazing.

She went on to describe him as having a lightness of touch that made his work accessible.

“He’s very good at connecting very specific situations to people in ways that have really universal points of view,” says Stroman. “The humour sometimes comes and goes, but his story-telling is so great.”

“He had a keen insight into different sections of the culture at different times. He always was connecting to audiences who understood the material in ways that other people didn’t,” she says.

Sunday in the Park with George brought Sondheim unprecedented critical acclaim. That “egradaration” of the show may explain why Sondheim was a passionate advocate for the continued production, especially after he himself had fallen into decline, says Gilchrist.

“I think it was [George Steiner’s] belief that Steve Sondheim would carry it out… even though his health was failing,” he says. “He was speaking in two different languages, but he understood the basic point of them both and what they meant.”

Although the theatrical world mourns the loss of Sondheim, so too do the world of music.

Sheridan Morley reflects: “I don’t think the world of music has been the same since the passing of Sondheim.”

The U.S. Sondheim Festival celebrates the works of Sondheim over the course of this year’s holiday in August.

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