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Remembering Stephen Sondheim

On Nov. 26, 2021, the theater world mourned the loss of composer Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim, 91, passed away due to cardiovascular disease at his home under the loving care of his husband Jeffrey Scott Romley. One year after his passing, we look back at his career through his works, those he inspired and the legacy he has left behind.

Sondheim’s debut in the theater world was actually not as a composer but as a lyricist. His first two Broadway credits were for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.” The first piece that he both composed and wrote lyrics for was “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which earned him his first Tony Award for Best Musical. He continued to serve as both composer and lyricist on further shows of his such as “Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “A Little Night Music.”All of these shows were critical and commercial successes.

However, every show Sondheim wrote didn’t necessarily receive praise. Both “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Merrily We Roll Along” were commercial failures, though both have seen softer reception in recent years. After both shows failed to make an impact, Sondheim swore off songwriting and proclaimed he’d pursue different art forms.

Both times, he came back to the theater. 

In 1984, “Sunday in the Park With George” debuted, earning Sondheim a Pulitzer Prize. The revitalization of his career continued with “Into the Woods” in 1987; “Assassins” in 1990; “Passion” in 1994; and his last production, “Road Show” in 2008. A few months before his passing, Sondheim confirmed he was working on a new musical titled “Square One,” but it has since been shelved by his collaborators.

Sondheim in his lifetime mentored many up-and-coming composers in the theater industry. Composer Jonathan Larson received guidance from Sondheim on his project, “Superbia,” after they met at a workshop. Sondheim’s influence was so impactful that Larson’s autobiographical musical “Tick, Tick… Boom!” features Sondheim as a character. Sondheim took another budding lyricist under his wing. His promising Broadway debut landed him a job adapting “West Side Story” into Spanish with Sondheim. Many know him today as Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the widely successful “Hamilton” musical and composer of “Moana” and “Encanto.”

Sondheim’s legacy can be seen in his consistent presence on stage and on screen. Sondheim’s “Company” gained popularity after a revival on the London stage, where the main character was played by a woman instead of a man. This revival moved to Broadway where it won the 2022’s Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. “Sweeney Todd” and “Merrily We Roll Along” are opening on Broadway in the 2023 Broadway season, and an “Into the Woods” revival is currently in progress.

On screen, there have been many adaptations of his works, including two versions of “West Side Story” and feature-film adaptations of “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd.” An adaptation of “Merrily We Roll Along” is currently in development, but won’t hit the silver screen for a while. The “Merrily We Roll Along” film is directed by Richard Linklater and production plans to spend 20 years shooting the film to reflect the time span of the musical.

If film adaptations aren’t your speed, I recommend listening to cast recordings of the shows he has produced. If you’d like to learn more about his life, a notable documentary “Original Cast Album: Company” shows Sondheim’s work as a composer by documenting the production and cast recording of a Broadway show.

Contact Andy Ottone at aottone@nd.edu.

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