American musical writer Stephen Sondheim has died. He was a theater innovator who remained unknown to the general public in the Netherlands, although everyone knows his work: from West Side Story until Sweeney Todd and Send in the Clowns.
Dutch musical actors were eager to sink their teeth into Sondheim’s complex numbers. As the Shakespeare of Broadway, he dared to give an unprecedented psychological depth to his musical theater. No wonder he is more highly regarded in the theater world than his colleague Andrew Lloyd Webber, the great popularizer of the genre outside the US.
As a child, Sondheim had come into contact with the musical world by moving from New York to live near musical composer Oscar Hammerstein, known for The Sound of Music and The Kind and I. Sondheim befriended his son, after which Hammerstein soon became a surrogate father for him.
Inspired by Hammerstein’s work and convinced of his own genius, he asked the composer at the age of 15 to judge a musical he had written as if it were a professional work. “In that case, Hammerstein replied, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read,” Sondheim liked to say. “That wasn’t meant to be heartless, then he went word for word, dialogue for dialogue why it was so worthless.”
“I learned more about writing that afternoon than I have in the rest of my life.”
Sondheim was hired as a lyricist in his twenties West Side Story, the musical that later became a success film. He made a name for himself with songs like America, Maria and I Feel Pretty. Early success gave him the freedom to experiment with the musical as an art form.
Sondheim wanted to approach Broadway shows differently. “A lot of people go to musicals to forget about their worries.”Come on, get happy’. That does not interest me. I don’t need to make them unhappy, but I want to be able to look at real life. I wouldn’t know how else to write it.”
It led to the groundbreaking Company, about an inveterate bachelor’s view of married life. It was an unprecedentedly mundane subject for a musical, with a narrative that consisted of individual scenes instead of a continuous story. Of A Chorus Line and cats if that idea of a concept musical was later applied successfully, the psychological dimension would influence the musicals of Annie MG Schmidt in the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, Sondheim himself sought new challenges, such as depictions of Japanese-American relations in the 19th century, the British serial killer Sweeney Todd and the origin of the painting. La Grande Jatte. An oeuvre that, according to Leonard Bernstein, was the American equivalent of opera. It earned him a mantelpiece at Tony’s and Grammys, as well as a Pulitzer Prize rare for musicals and an Oscar for music from the film. Dick Tracy.
However, Sondheim not only achieved successes, the avant-garde also experienced dramatic failures. His partly autobiographical Merrily We Roll Along, a story told backwards about show business life. Ironically, Sondheim had a Broadway producer warn the protagonist here that musical songs should be humming, hummable. “When did Stravinsky have a hit!?”
It was a reproach Sondheim himself often heard that his songs were too complex, too cerebral, with characters singing mixed up, different time signatures or subtly changing melodies. Sondheim did not let his audience dream away in their seats, his musicals demanded unremitting attention.
Sondheim passed away: unknown in the Netherlands, but everyone knows his work
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