The death of composer Stephen Sondheim at 91 is more than the end of an era. It is the end of a chain of great Broadway musicals dating back to the 1920s when Jerome Kern’s “Showboat” first dazzled theater audiences.
I met him only once. It was at Barbara Cook’s apartment in New York where she had invited a few friends following her performance of Sondheim songs at Carnegie Hall.
When I entered, he was sitting on a couch and talking to someone. When the man left, I sat down next to him. “Mr. Sondheim,” I said nervously, “I can’t think of anything to add to all of the wonderful things that have been said about your work, so I will just say thank you.” He smiled and said, “thank you” and uttered a pleasantry I have since forgotten, because I was in awe of him.
In 2008, Sondheim and Frank Rich, the former chief drama critic for The New York Times, conducted a series of interviews in several theaters around the country. In Portland, Oregon, Rich asked Sondheim how he at the tender age of 25 was chosen to write lyrics for “West Side Story”? Sondheim had stayed in the home of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, his great tutor.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green were originally picked to write the lyrics but were unavailable. Sondheim said he had written a show called “Saturday Night” that “died” for lack of financial backers before it could be produced. Yet, he had a folio of songs from the show. The story is a long one, but the basics are these: He knew playwright and director Arthur Laurents, who told him he was about to start work on a musical version of “Romeo and Juliet” and Leonard Bernstein was going to do the music. After hearing him play some songs from “Saturday Night,” Bernstein offered him the job. Hammerstein advised him to take it and he did. Sondheim’s lyrics, combined with Bernstein’s melodies, have become songs for the ages.
After later writing lyrics for “Gypsy,” Sondheim said he and others of his generation wanted to experiment with musicals that went beyond what he called the “linear,” where there is a song, some dialogue, another song, dancing and more dialogue and songs. Not that there was anything wrong with that, because Sondheim was making a good living writing “linear” and creating many memorable songs in addition to “West Side Story.” In the ’60s, as Bob Dylan sang, “the times they are a-changin,” so Sondheim and his friends wanted to explore new musical forms. These included complex human emotions and non-traditional melodic patterns.
Sondheim’s obituary contains many other details of his incredible life, so I won’t repeat them here, but I have often wondered where such genius comes from. Clearly it is a gift not given to many. I once asked Steve Allen, the first host and creator of “The Tonight Show,” about this. Allen wrote over 3,000 songs, played the piano, acted, was a comedian and wrote mysteries. “Did you go through the gift line more than once?” I asked him. He said he couldn’t explain it. Practice helps, but I couldn’t do what these creative geniuses did with any amount of practice.
People who create beauty stand out in an increasingly dark culture, even when their creations seem dark, as do some of Sondheim’s lyrics. It’s difficult to pick a favorite. Some songs are well known, like “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music.” Others, not so much, like the ones from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (although “Comedy Tonight” is a rousing and fun song).
If I was forced to pick my favorite from his “non-linear” work, it would be one I used in a proposal letter to my wife. It’s called “Being Alive” from “Company.” The line that touches my heart and touched hers is “alone is alone, not alive.”
Thank you, Mr. Sondheim.