Performing Arts

The Man Who Saved the Musical: Stephen Sondheim

TIMENovember 28, 2021

Stephen Sondheim died Nov. 26, age 91, taking with him the last link we had to the songwriters of American musical theater’s golden era. A protégé of Oscar Hammerstein II, collaborator as lyricist with Leonard Bernstein (“West Side Story”), Jule Styne (“Gypsy”), and Richard Rodgers (“Do I Hear a Waltz?”), Sondheim went on to write both music and lyrics for a series of musicals that, as almost every tribute to him has said, “revolutionized” the form. I disagree.

Sondheim did not revolutionize the musical so much as adapt it to contemporary tastes. That is not to minimalize his accomplishment, but rather to refocus it. In his great scores of the 1970s—“Company” (1970), “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973), “Pacific Overtures” (1976), and “Sweeney Todd” (1979”)—Sondheim changed the traditional, expected sound of musical theater songs in a way that made it impossible to write songs in the mold of Rodgers and Hammerstein without sounding hopelessly out of date.

The watershed moment in this transformation was the 1985 Tony Awards, when Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” competed with Jerry Herman’s “La Cage aux Folles” for Best Score. Herman won, but everyone knew that it was a mercy prize. Herman’s songs were old school, while Sondheim’s clearly presaged the future. The difference? The relative importance of words and music in their songs.

Words Rule

A personal flashback: It’s 1970, and I am an Arizona teenager who shares with his girlfriend an ardent love for musicals. One day she jets off to New York with her parents and gets to see this new show that just opened, “Company,” with songs by Stephen Sondheim. (“You know, the guy who wrote the lyrics for ‘West Side Story,’ but he’s writing music now, too.”) As a consolation, she brings back an LP of the cast recording, which I eagerly spin. She asks me what I think. “Sondheim writes music shaped to the rhythm of the words. His words dominate the music.”

In 50-plus years, I’ve seen no reason to alter that initial observation. I would say it differently now: “Sondheim’s songs are lyric-driven.” And I admit there are major exceptions, “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music” being the most major. (Note that this was Sondheim’s only bona fide hit.)

Consider any medium-to-up tempo Sondheim song and listen for the balance of words and music; the musical rhythm will frequently mimic the spoken rhythm. The title songs to “Company,” “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981) and “Into the Woods” (1987) are among many examples of sung rhythms copying the most common spoken rhythms of the same words.

Songwriters of the older school rarely let that happen. If I look at a dawning landscape, I might say, “Oh what a BEAU-ti-ful morning.” But Richard Rodgers heard it as “Oh what a beautiful MORN-ing,” with “morn” accented both as the highest note and the longest held note. This way, the music is an equal partner with the words, bringing its own character to the whole.

Some Sondheim lyrics are busy with words to such an extent that the music can only serve as a kind of conveyer belt to move the lyric along. Examples include the opening number to “A Little Night Music” (“Now, as the sweet imbecilities tumble so lavishly onto her lap”) and this from “Pacific Overtures”: “If the tea the shogun drank will serve to keep the shogun tranquil….”

Changing Tastes

This is not to say that Sondheim was musically insensitive. To the contrary. I once heard an interview in which he emphasized the importance of the notes on the first two syllables of “forever” in the rousingly beautiful Act One finale of “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984). They’re the only syllables sung on notes outside the key, underlining the meaning of “forever” as outside mere finitude. And when Sondheim did musical pastiche, the results could be ravishing. “Losing My Mind” from “Follies” is the most stunning Gershwin ballad not composed by Gershwin.

I believe it was Sondheim’s conscious decision to move in the direction of lyric-driven songs because public taste was radically changing. In 1962, he had made his Broadway debut as composer with the tunefully traditional score for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” But by 1970, the rock revolution had turned song values on their heads. Rhythm was dominant, traditional melodies were being shown the door, and words suddenly had more significance than in the days of Irving Berlin and friends. A sharp-eyed observer might even have seen rap on the not-too-distant horizon.

To survive, musical theater would have to adapt, and Stephen Sondheim, Hammerstein protégé and crossword-puzzle geek, was just the man for the job.

Mission accomplished.

Former music critic for the Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star, Kenneth LaFave recently earned a doctorate in philosophy, art, and critical thought from the European Graduate School. He's the author of three books, including “Experiencing Film Music” (2017, Rowman & Littlefield).