Beau Salant ‘18/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Today Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim celebrates his 85th birthday. It seems to be human nature to not appreciate artists in their time, but fortunately this was not the case for Sondheim. The legendary composer-lyricist is quite often number one on lists of people who have revolutionized not only musical theater, but American art in general. But in order to start a revolution, you need to have ideas. Sondheim had many of these. Ideas are inspired by great teachers, and Sondheim had one of those as well.
His name was Oscar Hammerstein II. Yes, the guy that made The Sound of Music, The King and I, South Pacific and all those other classics. Hammerstein became a father figure to Sondheim after Sondheim’s parents divorced when he was ten years old. With a much-loathed, emotionally and psychologically abusive mother at home and his biological father no longer in his life, Sondheim found himself spending more time with his friend, and Hammerstein’s son, James. However, he quickly found that he was spending more time at their house with Oscar, developing a love for musical theater.
On Sondheim’s mother – the two did not have much of a relationship. Sondheim has frequently described her treatment of him, saying she substituted him for his father after his father left, and would often berate him and beat upon him, once even saying that her only regret in life was giving birth to him. When she died in 1992, he did not even go to her funeral.
Sondheim took his first musical to Hammerstein, who told him it was atrocious but offered to help him improve it. For the rest of that day, the two worked on the musical together, and Sondheim would later recount, “In that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime.” From then on, the two would develop a relationship of mutual trust, love and respect. A match made in heaven.
The relationship culminated with an elderly Hammerstein giving Sondheim a portrait of himself – when Sondheim asked for an inscription, Hammerstein wrote “For Stevie, My Friend and Teacher” – a line which still chokes up the composer today. Leaving Hammerstein’s house that night, Sondheim claims that he felt “a sinking feeling” that this was probably going to be the last time he would see his mentor and father figure. Hammerstein died three days later. The death of Oscar Hammerstein II crushed Sondheim, who delivered a heartfelt eulogy at his funeral. He would honor Hammerstein’s legacy by going on to mentor numerous young composers like himself, as Hammerstein did for him, including Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza) and Jonathan Larson (Rent).
Sondheim saw many failures early on in his career, but his luck gradually began to turn. In the late 50’s, he saw his first success as a lyricist with West Side Story and Gypsy, before finally seeing success as a composer as well with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was after this musical that the revolution began. Sondheim began to use his talents unconventionally, and tell unconventional stories in unconventional ways. The first of these musicals was Company, arguably his best work to date, which is a non-linear story about an unlikeable lead character. Something never seen on Broadway before, it challenged the norms and opened the gates for more ambitious musicals.
Sunday in the Park with George is a very intimate piece for Sondheim, as it’s a story about art, romance and creation. Sweeney Todd was a huge accomplishment, making a musical filled with murder and bloodshed into a massive critical and commercial hit. Into the Woods changed everybody’s perspective on fairy tales with adult themes and more, ahem, realistic endings. But what makes Sondheim so truly special is his deep understanding of human nature, and his ability to weave this understanding into his music and lyrics. No composer has ever evoked so much beauty in character and story than he has. This has given numerous actors the ability to give raw, emotional performances that have jumpstarted careers, made people into stars and won Tony Awards.
Sondheim’s music has a special quality to it in that it appeals to every emotion and can lift up fallen spirits. When you finally break up with that horrible boyfriend or girlfriend, remind yourself why with “We Do Not Belong Together” from Sunday in the Park with George. When your heart is broken and nobody understands, let Into the Woods remind you “No One is Alone.” And of course, when life just isn’t giving you what you want, have Company show you the trick to “Being Alive.”
I speak for all musical theater fans when I say that I have been affected by Stephen Sondheim’s work as well as his life story. When somebody who experiences so much pain in his or her early years grows up to become a legendary and successful adult, I am inspired. When somebody who sees so many failures early on keeps fighting until they see success, I am inspired. And most importantly, when somebody uses their gifts in the arts to paint an honest picture of the beauties (and even the ugliness) of humanity, I am most certainly inspired.
Happy 85th birthday, Stephen Sondheim. On behalf of musical theater fans in every universe known the man, I say a big thank you for your work and your contributions to our medium, our shared history, our livelihoods and our lives.