Celebrating the talent of Stephen Sondheim

The titan of American musicals was a rebel and creative rule-breaker whose lyrics brought intense joy

News of the passing of a revered figure from the theatre world always prompts great sadness. But when I heard the news of Stephen Sondheim’s sudden death in late November, my head was also filled with the legendary composer and lyricist’s unforgettable songs.

First up was Being Alive from Company, Sondheim’s daring musical about relationships. Bruno Wang Productions was very proud to support a UK revival in 2018, directed by Marianne Elliott.

“Somebody to crowd you with love/Somebody to force you to care,” sings Robert, a 35-year-old bachelor who decides to risk his heart to love. These exquisite lyrics capture the agony of longing. “Somebody need me too much,” the show-stopping song continues. It is surely one of the most heart-wrenching lines ever to have been set to music.

Next I was humming Everything’s Coming Up Roses, that eternally optimistic mantra from the musical Gypsy. Sondheim wrote the lyrics for the show back in the 1950s, when he was only 25. Today we all use the phrase to capture the moment at which life suddenly takes a turn for the better.

‘I’ve been lucky’

For Sondheim, life kept on doing just that. “I’ve been lucky,” he said, days before dying following a Thanksgiving dinner with friends, aged 91. In truth, his success was down to his passion and hard work.

He passed with every intention of continuing to do what he loved – composing and writing. “What else would I do with my time?” he asked, days before his death on November 26, 2021.

A rebel with a cause

The titan of American musicals took risks, too, which is another reason I admire him. He was a rebel and creative rule-breaker. Company, which opened on Broadway in 1970, was the first musical without an obvious, linear plot.

The world of the Broadway musical has always been pretty conservative, according to his official biographer, the theatre critic David Benedict. Sondheim broke the mould. His musicals have brought us joy, but they also ask difficult questions.

Take West Side Story, for which the young Sondheim wrote the lyrics and which opened on Broadway in 1957. Never before had a musical ended up with dead bodies on the stage. Sondheim wrote heart-stopping lines for this romantic tragedy based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But he did not shy from the harsh truth about street gangs and violence.

Always reaching for the stars

I was amazed to discover that Sondheim was not happy with the lyrics he wrote for West Side Story. He said they were “embarrassing”. They were too flowery, too poetic, “too self-conscious”. He wanted his words to capture the truth. He wanted to tell real stories for real people. And he wanted to reach for the stars. He got there, with hard work.

“When I write words, I’m very careful,” the song-writing icon once said. Every lyric in every song “has enormous weight”.

The human heart

Sondheim knew a thing or two about the human heart. Who can forget the pain expressed in Losing My Mind from Follies? Bruno Wang Productions supported the lauded 2017 National Theatre revival of this musical about two showgirls, Sally and Phyllis, reminiscing about their past life on Broadway.

Sally’s husband is too self-absorbed to pay her the attention she craves. Every waking moment is devoted to her pining for him.

“The morning ends, I think about you, I talk to friends and think about you. And do they know it’s like I’m losing my mind?”

We’ve all known the pain of the human heart. Thank you, Stephen Sondheim, for making our own hearts soar.

You have brought us joy.

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