It is with great sadness to learn of the passing of Stephen Sondheim at the age of 91, on the 26th of November 2021. Sondheim is one of the most well known and respected musical impresarios of his time. Even to the theatre rookie who hasn’t delved into his deep back catalogue, or those who rate his work less than others, it is hard to escape the cultural impact that Sondheim had on musical theatre in the 20th and 21st century.
Many of his pieces have been converted to the big screen and been host to some of the biggest names in musical theatre, Hollywood greats, and even James Corden has tried his best to ruin a modern masterpiece.
Without fail Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman brought Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street to the masses in a highly acclaimed film version of Sondheim’s incredible musical. The actors and Tim Burton's fantastic vision are to be applauded, but would all have been in vein without the high quality Stephens musical brought to the piece.
West Side Story, based on Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet is one of the best musical adaptations in the 1960’s, and has recently been picked up for a remake by Stephen Spielberg, set to release on the 10th of December this year. The star studded cast of Into The Woods including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick, again showing that the greatest names in Hollywood would give anything to bring a Sondheim character to life.
For me the love of Sondheim came with the musical Gypsy. As a young man first starting to explore musical theatre I fell in love with this musical and was overwhelmed by the different versions of ‘Roses Turn’ found online, from Bette Midler to Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters to Chris Colfer in Glee. Inspiring me to record my own version, being one of the songs I am most proud of to this day.
The musical follows the life and development of June, Louise and Rose on the vaudeville circuit, the death of vaudeville and the creation of burlesque and stripping as an art form. The story of Gypsy Rose Lee has never been better told thank through this comic but deeply compelling iteration.
From this I was inspired to delve further into the back catalogue of this great writer, again falling madly in love with his complex lyrical wizardry that tells stories in a way I had never seen done before. The stories told within each of his songs are so gripping and beautiful, each word so carefully cultivated to give maximum impact to the audience. Sondheim Musicals could never be accused of being a ‘play with songs’ as the music is so intertwined to the plot, and done so with such a craft.
I had a deep connection with the song ‘Send in the Clowns’ from the musical ‘A Little Night Music’, the song in isolation is such an amazing telling of emotions that we all feel from time to time, but with great imagery that the audience can really buy into. Put it in context of the play, and performed by the greats, it’s hard for this song not to reach out and grab you by the heart and fiddle with your emotions. Yet another song I have a deep emotional connection with is ‘Loosing my mind’ from Follies. Broadway Musical Theatre legend Jeremy Jordan’s version of this song remains, to this day, my most watched YouTube video of all time, teamed with his intense performance, the content of the song packs such a punch in terms of emotional character development - it’s a masterclass for any budding writers.
But one of my favourite musical gems has been a little hidden away for so long, behind the powerhouses of West Side Story and Sweeney Todd, but for me is the perfect piece and would suit an Elemental Theatre Audience and production down to a tee thanks to its very unique nature. Company, following the life of single man Bobbie and his want/need to find love in New York City. The live cinema screening (available on YouTube in chunks) starring Neil Patric Harris, Patti LuPone, Stephen Colbert and Jon Cryer, I simply do not have words to describe how it makes me feel time and time again. The 2018 revival in the West end with LuPone, Mel Giedroyc, Rosaline Craig and so o forth was equally as inspiring and amazing.
It cannot be quantified how much Stephen Sondheim has changed the world of Musical Theatre, how many people he was touched, helped and inspired. The countless actors and actresses who owe so much of their career to the man who created such wonderful roles for them. Writers are often overlooked in Theatre, but the difficult craft of creating the characters and the voices for them, the countless hours writing rewriting, editing, screwing up the paper and starting afresh are never truly understood by the audience. But without him, these wonderful musicals that make the world a better place, would never have existed. So I urge you, to find your way through his back catalogue, watch his films, see his musicals, and be inspired by the man, the legend, the writer, Stephen Sondheim.