Perfectionist. Genius. Icon. It was Stephen Sondheim | WGN 720 radio


NEW YORK (AP) – In 2010, his 80th birthday, Stephen Sondheim had to endure public turmoil when a Broadway theater was renamed in his honor.

At a ceremony outside the 1,055-seat auditorium on West 43rd Street, the composer looked sheepish as he stepped onto the podium after the gushing words of admirers including Patti LuPone and Nathan Lane. He also offered a window to his psyche.

“I am delighted, but deeply embarrassed,” he said, crying as a mid-September sun fell over the Stephen Sondheim Theater. “I have always hated my last name. It just doesn’t sing.

The commentary revealed how Sondheim’s brilliant musicality and perfectionism went hand in hand. The theater giant, who died on Friday at the age of 91, was as complex as his words, dogmatic in his rules and not generous in praise for his work.

A passionate and obsessive purist, he was also a magician, creating lyrics and music for shows as big as “A Little Night Music”, “Into the Woods”, “Company”, “Follies” and “Sunday in the Park” with George. “

But he was also her worst critic. Take, for example, his take on the iconic song “America” ​​from “West Side Story,” for which he provided the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music.

“Some lines of these lyrics are respectable and crisp, but some melt in your mouth as gracefully as peanut butter and are impossible to understand, such as ‘For a small fee in America’ which crushes the l’s and f’s together. , making it sound like ‘Pour un smafee’, ”he wrote in his autobiographical self-review, which took two volumes.

To the rest of us, Sondheim was a genius, whether it was with the simple lament “The sun rises / I think of you / The cup of coffee / I think of you” or the slightly paranoid “Watch out for this. that you say / The children will listen ”, or the sublime“ Marry me a little / Do it with a will / Make some requests / I am able to fulfill.

Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for Best Score, and he also received a Pulitzer Prize (“Sunday in the Park”), an Academy Award (for the song “Sooner or Later” from the movie “Dick Tracy “), five Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008 he received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.

He was working on a new musical with “Venus in Fur” playwright David Ives, who called his collaborator genius. “Not only are his musicals brilliant, but I can’t think of another theatrical person who told a whole era so well so eloquently,” Ives said in 2013. “He’s the spirit of the world. ‘era in a way. ”

Early in his career, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for two shows considered classics of the American scene, “West Side Story” (1957) and “Gypsy” (1959). “West Side Story” transplanted Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to the streets and gangs of New York today. “Gypsy,” with music by Jule Styne, told the behind-the-scenes story of the ultimate stage mom and the girl who grew up to be Gypsy Rose Lee.

It wasn’t until 1962 that Sondheim wrote both the music and the lyrics for a Broadway show, and it turned out to be a success – debauchery. ”A funny thing happened on the way of the forum, “featuring Zero Mostel as a cunning slave in ancient Rome aspires to be free.

Yet his next show, “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964), failed, presenting only nine performances but reaching cult status after the release of his recording. Sondheim’s lyrical collaboration in 1965 with composer Richard Rodgers – “Do I Hear a Waltz? – has also proved problematic. The musical, based on the play “Cuckoo Time”, lasted six months but was an unfortunate experience for the two men, who did not get along.

It was “Company”, which opened on Broadway in April 1970, that cemented Sondheim’s reputation. The episodic adventures of a bachelor (played by Dean Jones) unable to engage in a relationship have been hailed as capturing the obsessive nature of selfish and self-centered New Yorkers. The show, produced and directed by Hal Prince, earned Sondheim his first Tony for Best Score. “The Ladies Who Lunch” has become a standard for Elaine Stritch.

The following year, Sondheim wrote the score for “Follies”, a look at the shattered hopes and dashed dreams of women who had appeared in lavish Ziegfeld-style magazines. The music and lyrics paid homage to great composers of the past such as Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and the Gershwins.

In 1973, “A Little Night Music”, with Glynis Johns and Len Cariou, opened. Based on Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night”, this sad romance of middle-aged lovers features the song “Send in the Clowns,” which gained popularity outside of the show. A 2009 revival starred Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones was nominated for Best Tony Cover.

“Pacific Overtures”, with a book by John Weidman, followed in 1976. The musical, also produced and directed by Prince, was not a financial success, but it demonstrated Sondheim’s commitment to offbeat material, filtering his account of the westernization of Japan through an American-Kabuki hybrid style.

In 1979, Sondheim and Prince collaborated on what many believe to be Sondheim’s masterpiece, the bloody but often dark and funny “Sweeney Todd”. An ambitious work, it starred Cariou in the title role of a murderous barber whose clients find themselves in meat pies cooked by Todd’s willing accomplice, played by Angela Lansbury.

The Sondheim-Prince partnership fell apart two years later, after “Merrily We Roll Along,” a musical that traced a friendship back from the compromised middle age of its characters to their idealistic youth. The show, based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, lasted only two weeks on Broadway. But again, as with “Anyone Can Whistle,” her original cast recording helped “Merrily We Roll Along” become a favorite among musical theater enthusiasts.

“Sunday in the Park”, written with James Lapine, is perhaps Sondheim’s most personal show. A tale of uncompromising artistic creation, it told the story of the artist Georges Seurat, played by Mandy Patinkin. The painter submerges everything in her life, including her relationship with her model (Bernadette Peters), for her art. It was recently relaunched on Broadway in 2017 with Jake Gyllenhaal.)

Three years after the debut of “Sunday”, Sondheim again collaborated with Lapine, this time on the fairytale musical “Into the Woods”. The show starred Peters as a glamorous witch and primarily dealt with the turbulent parent-child relationship, using famous fairy-tale characters such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. It was recently relaunched in the summer of 2012 in Central Park by The Public Theater.

“Assassins” first opened on Broadway in 1991 and was about the men and women who wanted to kill presidents, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. The show received mostly negative reviews in its original incarnation, but many of that criticism was reversed 13 years later when the show was shot on Broadway and won a Tony for Best Musical Cover.

“Passion” was another stern look at obsession, this time a desperate woman, played by Donna Murphy, in love with a handsome soldier. Although it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1994, the show barely managed a six-month broadcast.

A new version of “The Frogs,” with additional songs by Sondheim and a revised book by Nathan Lane (who also starred in the production), performed at Lincoln Center during the summer of 2004. The show, based on the comedy by Aristophanes, had originally been done 20 years earlier in the Yale University swimming pool.

One of his most troubled shows was “Road Show,” which brought Sondheim and Weidman together and spent years working on it. This story of the Mizner brothers, whose enrichment projects at the start of the 20th century finally reached the public theater in 2008 after going through several different titles, directors and actors.

Sondheim rarely wrote for the cinema. He collaborated with actor Anthony Perkins on the screenplay for the 1973 crime novel “The Last of Sheila” and, in addition to his work on “Dick Tracy” (1990), wrote sheet music for films such as “Stavisky” d ‘Alain Resnais (1974) and Les “Rouges” by Warren Beatty (1981).

Over the years there have been numerous Broadway revivals of Sondheim’s shows, particularly “Gypsy”, which has had reincarnations with Angela Lansbury (1974), Tyne Daly (1989) and Peters (2003). But there were also productions of “A Funny Thing”, one with Phil Silvers in 1972 and another with Nathan Lane in 1996; “Into the Woods” with Vanessa Williams in 2002; and even less successful Sondheim shows such as “Assassins” and “Pacific Overtures,” both in 2004. “Sweeney Todd” has been produced in opera houses around the world. A reinvented “West Side Story” opened on Broadway in 2020 and this year an “Assassins” off Broadway opened at the Classic Stage Company and a scrambled “Company” opened on Broadway with sex. of the protagonist changed. A film version of “West Side Story” is due to open this December directed by Steven Spielberg.

Sondheim’s songs were used extensively in reviews, the best known being “Side by Side by Sondheim” (1976) on Broadway and “Putting It Together”, off-Broadway with Julie Andrews in 1992 and on Broadway with Carol Burnett in 1999. The New York Philharmonic created a star-studded “Company” in 2011 with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert. Tunes from his musicals have recently appeared everywhere, from “Marriage Story” to “The Morning Show”. He himself was recently portrayed in theaters by Bradley Whitford in “Tick, Tick… ​​BOOM!” directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. “It’s scary to have this obligation, but Lin was there to draw my blood,” Whitford told The Hollywood Reporter.


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