Modern Musicals and Stephen Sondheim

On November 26, 2021 Stephen Sondheim died. On December 10, the new Spielberg West Side Story will premiere.

I thought we should take a look at what Sondheim has done for American Musical Theatre, and have a moment of appreciation.

Pre-Sondheim

Before Musical Theatre really existed, a popular form of American live entertainment was the variety show, vaudeville, minstrel shows.

In France at the time, were comedic plays that included music, called opérettes. However, the idea really took off with Gilbert and Sullivan, who created comic operas, like The Pirates of Penzance.

Part of the reason these became so popular, is city night life began to improve, and men started bringing their families to see plays. Musical Theatre continued to grow, up until the Golden Age of Musical Theatre, which was the 1940s to the 1960s, led by Rogers and Hammerstein.

Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II were a team who started with Oklahoma!, which “tightly integrat[ed] all the aspects of musical theatre, with a cohesive plot, songs that furthered the action of the story, and featured dream ballets and other dances that advanced the plot and developed the characters, rather than using dance as an excuse to parade scantily clad women across the stage.” They went on to create The King and I, The Sound of Music, and multiple other influential shows.

Stephen Sondheim

Enter Stephen Sondheim, Stage Left.

In the middle of Oscar Hammerstein’s career, his son had a best friend, Stephen Sondheim. From this, Hammerstein mentored Sondheim in musical theatre from the age of ten, and helped him grow, and find his voice.

With this mentorship, Sondheim wrote West Side Story, which, while unsuccessful as a stage play, shortly after became a very popular movie. While the movie was in production, however, Hammerstein passed away from cancer.

Stephen Sondheim went on to create a series of amazing stories, such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Into the Woods, and several more.

Sondheim’s Legacy

Besides creating a wonderful series of shows, Sondheim’s presence will be felt along Broadway for generations to come, as he passed on the pattern of mentorship from Hammerstein.

One such mentorship was of Jonathan Larson, creator of Rent, and Tick, Tick…Boom!.

Sondheim also gave notes to Lin-Manuel Miranda as he was working on Hamilton.

Hamilton is a breakthrough, but it doesn’t exactly introduce a new era. Nothing introduces an era. What it does is empower people to think differently. There’s always got to be an innovator, somebody who experiments first with new forms.

Sondheim

Overall Sondheim won 8 Tony’s, 8 Grammy’s, an Oscar, a Pulitzer, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other various other awards.

On Sunday, November 28, the Broadway community gathered in Times Square to honor the passing of a legend. Included in the performance of “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George, included at least one member of every single running Broadway show, as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sara Bareilles, Josh Groban, and more.

His music is what got me into music, his music is what got me into theater. Everybody who’s here has a touchstone for why Sondheim’s music has brought them to this place, and whatever part of the entertainment industry we’re in, everybody is here because we were first influenced by Sondheim’s music. To mourn his passing is a crushing blow.

Josh Groban

This felt like church. In his remembrance, we did what theater does best. We sang and raised our voices and came together in community.

Sara Bareilles

This one really hurts. But the good news is, I look around at all these other theaters. None of these shows would exist if it weren’t for him.

Laura Benanti, actress in Gypsy

In honor of Stephen Sondheim, let’s go watch a musical.

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