Friday, December 03, 2021

Stephen Sondheim

Georges Seurat
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

Stephen Sondheim, the greatest composer/lyricist in American musical theater in my lifetime, and surely several lifetimes, died last week at age 91. The NY Times interviewed him a few days before, and other than a limping around on a sprained ankle, he seemed fine to the reporter. He went to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of friends, and died unexpected, early the next morning. He was not known to be in ill health. It's as good a way to go as any, save that he was working on a show and presumably we won't get to see that. If any of the songs are finished, whether we hear them will depend on his musical/literary executor and the terms of his will.

I learned one thing about him that I didn't know: he answered fan mail, whether you were a theater pro or a 12-year-old, and he was kind and respectful to everyone. He thanked people for sending him DVDs of their local production of one of his shows, he encouraged aspiring singers, songwriters, and playwrights, he was enthusiastic, he was appreciative of people's compliments.

I never sent him fan mail and I never met him, but I did love those shows of his that I have seen, and I can reasonably expect to love a bunch of the shows I barely know and haven't yet seen. I really cannot believe that I have missed two local productions of Sunday in the Park with George.

If you know my sense of humor, you can imagine how much I love Sweeney Todd and Assassins. The latter is a show that seems have come into its own, and rightfully so, many years after its creation. If you're in, near, or heading for NYC, you can see a production of it right now, in fact. Here's "A Little Priest" from Sweeney:

Many years ago, I played flute in the orchestra of a regional theater production of A Little Night Music, which has a wonderful score all around, beyond Sondheim's single greatest hit. Much of it is in some kind of triple or compound meter, a sly trick pulling the score together. Here's "A Weekend in the Country," which comes at the end of the first act. It is very funny even if you don't know all of the backstory, of which there's a lot, and of course it has Sondheim's amazing lyrics and a fabulous musical drive:

I have some qualms about the plot of Night Music, which revolves around a middle-aged man with a young adult son whose second marriage, after being widowed, is to an 18-year-old. There's a lot more plot than that and things work out reasonably well for all involved. It's a real shame that the film isn't that good and (sigh) the role of Desiree Armfeldt went to Elizabeth Taylor rather than Glynis Johns, who created the character. Oh, well.

He had a great life in the theater and a long life. If you're considering his accomplishments, keep in mind that while he had a lousy family life (his mother sounds like a real monster), his family seems to have been comfortably off, and he spent a lot of time with the Hammersteins, yes, those Hammersteins. That would provide some advantages to a budding lyricist/composer, advantages that most don't have. Knowing that, it's good to know about his kindness toward others and that he was a decent man.

  • Tim Page, Washington Post
  • Bruce Weber, NY Times (This obit was updated on 12/2/21 to state that the cause of death was "cardiovascular disease," which I take to mean "heart attack.")
  • Tom Sutcliffe, The Guardian
  • Many more tributes and obits can be found with a web search. On Twitter, dozens of people posted photos of letters they'd received from him, and they are a delight to read.

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