The Mystique of Sondheim

His uncommon voice is at home on the Broadway stage and in the opera house.

He was the most respected composer and lyricist in musical theater. And the most challenging.

Stephen Sondheim was a rarity in the theatrical world, a composer who was also a lyricist. He approached both tasks with intellectual honesty and a refreshing disregard for convention.

In that spirit, Opera Tampa will defy convention by performing Sondheim’s award-winning musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, April 21-23 in Ferguson Hall.

The piece – which is essentially a hybrid American musical – has been a challenge for opera companies since its premiere in 1979. Not only does the score make demands on the best singers, the subject is a modern-day verismo that addresses the always-current issues of poverty, unfair prosecution of the poor and revenge through violence.

Certainly, most people who buy tickets to an opera don’t want to be reminded of society’s woes, and this brutal melodrama can make for uncomfortable moments that draw the line between art and literalism. If that doesn’t keep an opera director up at night, nothing will.

Musically, Sweeney Todd contains plenty of magic. As a composer, Sondheim used unusual time signatures and melodies that sometimes seemed only marginally related to the accompaniment.

One singer described the anxiety that feature can cause when performing a Sondheim piece as “the panicky sensation of being unsure, mid-song, whether the right note is about to come out of your mouth.”

And yet, many performers love to perform his works. Some may be attracted to the challenge, others to the emotional weight of the songs.

Sondheim’s lyrics didn’t simply comment on or foreshadow a scene in the play. They were an intricate and essential part of the story.

As an article in The Guardian put it, he had “the ability to create with music precisely the feelings of the character he is writing for.”

One of Sondheim’s most well known songs, “(Not) Getting Married Today” from Company showcases a bride’s inner turmoil on their wedding day in spectacular (and hilarious) form.

Those feelings could be as messy and contradictory as real life. Sondheim’s gift was capturing that conflict in a way that resonated with performers and audiences alike.

Certainly, Sondheim’s gifts are obvious, and recognized through numerous accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Tony Award® for Lifetime Achievement. The New York Times called him an intellectually rigorous artist who perpetually sought new creative paths, and will stand as “the theater’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th century, if not its most popular.’’

Sondheim (right) with Bernadette Peters (left) during the recording of the Into the Woods cast album (1987). Sondheim frequently worked with Peters on his shows and considered her to be his muse.

Part of this popularity and mystique is his artistic ambiguity: His best work sits comfortably on both Broadway stages and in the opera house. His box office numbers in either genre are significant, and what might seem lighthearted musical fare on first glance is given serious analysis in much of the musical literature. The New Penguin Opera Guide, for instance, describes in detail nearly a dozen of his creations, alongside Mozart, Puccini, Verdi and all the other big names.

As a lyricist who wrote his own scores, Sondheim belongs to a rarified group that includes Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Noël Coward on the musical side, and Richard Wagner under the opera tent.

Not unexpectedly, interest in Sondheim skyrocketed after his death at age 91 in 2021.

“There’s even greater demand to see the work of Sondheim, and we’ve been feeling the benefit,” Chris Harper, a lead producer of the revival of Company, told The New York Times. “What has also been pretty extraordinary to watch is that audiences are listening much more intently, and it feels like a much richer and deeper experience.”

The 2021 Broadway revival of Company is notable for casting a woman in the lead role of Bobbie, originally played by a male actor in all previous incarnations.

Rich experiences began early in Sondheim’s career. He established himself on Broadway, writing lyrics for Gypsy and with great success in West Side Story, working alongside the American musical icon, Leonard Bernstein. Then he consolidated his talents by writing both music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. After an unhappy experience trying to write with Richard Rodgers for Do I Hear a Waltz, Sondheim only worked on projects in which he was both composer and lyricist.

Company, from 1970, was the first in a series of musicals that form the core of Sondheim’s catalog. Company is a look at modern marriage that deals with divorce, infidelity and alienation. The recent revival was a hit on Broadway and garnered 14 Tony® nominations. It also is coming to The Straz next year as part of the 23-24 Broadway season.

Follies and A Little Night Music followed, the latter featuring perhaps Sondheim’s best-known song, “Send in the Clowns.”

“Send in the Clowns” has been performed by such well-known performers as Bernadette Peters, Carol Burnett, Glenn Close, Judy Collins, Barbara Streisand, Angela Lansbury and Judi Dench, among others.

Sondheim’s oeuvre might be described as consistently inconsistent. Passion was a hit, and a Tony Award® winner, at its premiere in 1994 while Merrily We Roll Along of 1981 wasn’t, despite its cult following and the coming-of-age musical comedy film now in production by director Richard Linklater. This cinematic adaptation follows its main character over 20 years in reverse chronological order. Sondheim’s works explored relationships, the way they change and the way they change people in them.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) also explored relationships, although these are marked by vengeance, insanity and murder. Did we mention it’s a comedy?

One of the standout pieces from Sweeney Todd, “A Little Priest” is a number brimming with black humor and witty lyrics.

Sondheim worked closely with director-producer Hal Prince through the 1970s. Prince’s staging and his work with the actors were essential to bringing Sondheim’s stories to life.

The two parted ways, however, following the failure of the previously mentioned Merrily, which closed after 16 performances. Sondheim considered leaving Broadway behind but instead rebounded with 1984’s Sunday in the Park With George, which was built around French painter Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (the painting Cameron freaks out over in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Into the Woods, based on tales of the Brothers Grimm, appeared in 1987.

“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat, the painting around which Sunday in the Park with George was based.

Revivals of Sondheim’s work often populate Broadway, West End and other international stages as producers, directors and stars can’t seem to resist his bait. Recent film adaptations − Into the WoodsSweeney ToddWest Side Story − have drawn big names and big box office bucks.

He continued to write until his death, including the musical Here We Are (formerly titled Square One), which is set to premiere Off-Broadway this fall for a limited engagement.

Joe Mantello, notable for directing the Broadway smash hit Wicked as well as recent revivals of The Boys in the Band and Glengarry Glen Ross, will direct Here We Are.

Whatever the setting, Sondheim strove to capture the ways we act, react and respond to life’s defeats and victories. The characters in his songs weren’t heroes or villains, just humans navigating sometimes rocky emotional terrain.

His commitment to realistic portrayals of human emotions was reflected in his no-nonsense view of what he did. His art, he said, came from hard work, not a mythical muse.

Sondheim credited one of his college professors with helping him to “realize that all my romantic views of art were nonsense. I had always thought an angel came down and sat on your shoulder …  It never occurred to me that art was something worked out.

“You think it’s a talent, you think you’re born with this thing,” Sondheim said. “What I’ve found out and what I believed is that everybody is talented. It’s just that some people get it developed and some don’t.”

Check out the above playlist of Sondheim’s Masterclass sessions at the Guildhall School in London, where he taught students how to perform his music.

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