So Stephen Sondheim turned 80 this week. Who is Stephen Sondheim, you may ask? Only a lyrical genius. Even if you don't know the name, you are sure to have heard of at least one or two of the stage musicals he was either the mastermind behind or at least the lyricist for:
West Side Story
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Anyone Can Whistle
A Little Night Music
Sunday in the Park with George
Into the Woods
Now these aren't all of the shows he has been involved in, just the most well known. Now I love musicals of every shape and size, but the genius of Sondheim is the depth and the oddity and that he chooses themes that you wouldn't normally think of for a stage musical. He is the Tim Burton of the theatre world, in my opinion, which makes it all the more fitting that it was Burton himself who directed Sweeney Todd for the big screen. Not that all of his shows are as over the top as crazy as Burton movies can be, he is just so unique and he has a way of finding the good and bad in a situation and in an individual, showing that the world is not just black and white.
Sweeney Todd- Sondheim wanted to see if it was possible to truly shock an audience with horror in a live production. The character of Todd is completely violent and insane, and though he has his reasons it is no excuse for the horrors he commits... and yet, you feel for him. Later there were other plays of murder and mayhem, (Phantom of the Opera, Little Shop of Horrors...) but Todd was the first.
Into the Woods- the first half of the show combines well known fairy tales, with the endings we know (Jack & the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood...) Then in the second half it shows what happens after happily-ever-after and its not all a 'fairy tale.' Many tales, particularly stage musicals, end with the into-the-sunset moment but Sondheim wanted to explore what happens beyond that. Not in a, theres-no-such-thing-as-happily-ever-after kind of way, just in a 'happily ever after' might not be what you expect. Life isn't all a dream and people make mistakes but you do your best to find a way to be happy even when things don't go as planned.
Assassins- This is a show that is literally about assassins. More specifically, about the people who either attempted or were successful in assassinating presidents of the United States over the years. Now who would sit down and think that this would make a good idea for a stage musical? Only Sondheim. It is told by a narrator who moves us across the different stories. The most beautiful song in the show is a duet called 'Unworthy of Your Love' sung by two characters, not to each other, but for their respective love interests. One is John Hinckley who was obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster and attempted to kill Ronald Reagan to gain her attention, and in his twisted mind, her affection. The second is Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme who was one of Charles Mason's women and attempted to kill Gerald Ford. They are completely off their rockers, yet Sondheim finds a way to show that, at least from their perspective, their actions were for love.
Okay, so I just described the darkest of the Sondheim shows to show his bravery and creativity, but not all of the shows are so elaborate or so morbid, though even the ones that are slightly more traditional romantic musical stories (Anyone Can Whistle, A Little Night Music...) have a certain bittersweet quality to them. Also, many of his shows are very funny. For all of the broken fairy tale stories of Into the Woods, there is just as much humor. Just listen to the duet of the two Prince Charming's called 'Agony.' Sondheim just has a way of breaking through the sentimental fluff that the musical can often fall victim too, and explores the deeper layers of the human soul. It's amazing what he has been able to portray from the confines of a stage. He leaves you not only humming the tunes, but also contemplating humanity.
If they ever made a musical of LOST, Sondheim would be the man for the job ;)
So here's to you on your 80th year, Mr. Sondheim. What a life. What a melody.