I went from not knowing who Stephen Sondheim was to loving him in the space of a week. Shockingly, nothing about him ever made me question that love. Sondheim was a curmudgeon, it’s true, but he was also a mentor to a lot of people in the history of musical theatre. He was one of the greatest musical voices of the twentieth century, even if his shows were seldom financial successes. Several of them would only go on to become truly beloved in revival. The movies based on them have seldom been as good as the original shows; Sondheim in some ways remains a musical theatre niche celebrity, even with multiple recent movies based on his work.
His childhood has always struck me as depressing. His parents honestly never should’ve married, certainly never should’ve had a child. Were it not for the intervention of Oscar Hammerstein, one suspects Sondheim could’ve gone a very different place in his life. But Hammerstein took the boy under his wing and encouraged his gift. The neglected childhood of that unwanted boy still permeates his work—he said that Hammerstein believed there was a “bright golden haze on the meadow,” but he himself never could.
He loved movies, and it shows. Oh, not just because A Little Night Music is simply Smiles of a Summer Night in waltz time. In 2005, to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday, TCM allowed him to program a day of movies, and contrary to many people’s expectations, there wasn’t a musical in the lot. He preferred romances and thrillers. Many bits of the shows have been cut from their movie adaptations for being too “stagey,” but at the same time, the influence of the movies is clear in his work. You can see it whenever multiple groups of people are doing things at once, for example.
Astonishing to think that his career goes back to the early days of television. I read a book once that suggested that the first Sondheim lyrics to arrive in public consciousness were when he was writing for the Topper TV show, in an episode where a character is creating jingles. Therefore it is equally astonishing that the thing he would’ve needed to finish up his EGOT was an Emmy. I thought for some time that they should make him an executive producer on one of the assorted live musicals that people have done lately, the way they got Andrew Lloyd Weber (with whom he shared a birthday) his.
He was still working. There was even talk about a new show soon. I don’t know what fragments are left from what he was doing, but even if the only songs we will have are the ones that we’ve had all these years, well, it’s a better career than a lot of people have had. We had a Sondheim career going back some three-quarters of a century, and his own protégés will keep his legacy going as he kept Hammerstein’s. The music goes on, even if the man does not.