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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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FTT’s “Pippin” does remarkably well

“Pippin” revolutionized Broadway at the time of its debut in 1972. With a daring structure and an innovation of metalanguage, the musical won five Tony Awards for telling the tale of Prince Pippin, the heir to the throne of King Charlemagne, which follows a troubled existential journey in search of the meaning of life. Told by a theatrical troupe, the saga is led by a Leading Player and the music of Stephen Schwartz, author of “Godspell” (1971), “Wicked” (2003) and winner of Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe awards. 

A narrative ensemble invites the audience to immerse themselves in the magic of theater and accompany the vicissitudes of Pippin’s turbulent life. In a journey of self discovery, he faces battles, experiences power, simplicity and love.

It is a musical with a lot more substance and layers than one might originally assume. “Pippin” is a cynical comedy that features an absolutely modern protagonist, full of doubts and questions and with an existential void that can never be fulfilled. So much so, it has been dubbed the “Hamlet” of musicals. He rejects old cliches and breaks with some traditions of the genre. As if that were not enough, it takes up the idea of ​​the “theater of life within the theater of stage” and invites a theatrical group and the figure of the Leading Player to tell the story.

When I first saw this musical in high school, I must admit I did not love it as equally, as I had grown rapidly passionate about other musicals I encountered. The meta aspect of “Pippin” was its most creative and interesting development, and the ending related a sincere and profound moral. However, if I would have only reviewed my experience of the musical then, I would rate “Pippin” a moderate  3 out of 5 shamrocks. There were moments when I felt the story was dragging, and the writers inserted reflective songs without much narrative development to compensate. The jokes grew overused and crude, distracting from the uneventful plot.

I am glad, however, that Notre Dame students managed to make my second experience of the show considerably more enjoyable. Directed by senior Nick Buranicz, the department of Film, Television and Theatre developed a youthful and animating production. Although I had originally taken a more moderate liking of the play, Notre Dame’s “Pippin” earned 5 out of 5 shamrocks.

The actors were comical and idiosyncratic without being overbearing — except, of course, for the one character who is meant to be domineering, the brilliant and hilarious Charlemagne (Timothy Merkle). Pippin himself (Carlos Macias) perfectly captured the bright-eyed naivety of the character. His sweet and mellow rendition of “Corner of the Sky” was moving and ideal. Both the Leading Player (Evelyn Berry) and Fastrada (Olivia Seymour) superbly capture their characters’ scheming wiliness and oustanding charm. Grandma Berthe (Gavriella Aviva Lund) was especially vibrant as she led the audience through the chorus of “No Time at All,” and Catherine (Kate Turner) taught the audience the value of simple pleasures with her agreeable disposition. That is to say nothing of the fantastic vocals and each actor’s ingenious doubling as a member of the ensemble.

The scenes balanced the humor and philosophical weight of the show. Despite its great comedic moments, this version of “Pippin” seemed less rough and more principled. The cast of “Pippin” gave the ending its proper meaning, which is, of course, memorable for its rejection of the desire for extraordinary pyrotechnics in life and the exaltation of the menial and familiar. 

Choreography was marvelously executed, with much color and vivacity. Further, the set was also innovative, using gymnastics mats to construct each fluid scene. The rapidness and large-scale transitions with these mats were nothing short of impressive. Finally, the costumes were well-suited, given the unique and lively nature of the show.

Contact Marcelle at mcouto@nd.edu