Final score and final word from Sondheim: chameleon composer, blacksmith of blacksmiths

Chicago’s Sondheim in the Park celebration at Millennium Park in July 2006, including two concerts with the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus. Sondheim attends performances by Chicago actors and musicians in the Lurie Garden / Photo: Darren Stephens, courtesy of Grant Park Music Festival

Like so many others, I’ve had Stephen Sondheim on my mind since his passing at the end of November.

Much of what has been said about Sondheim seems to just scratch the surface or even miss the boat.

Shakespeare analogies don’t work because Sondheim never wrote his own books.

What sets Sondheim apart as a Broadway lyricist is that Sondheim’s lyrics can be read on their own as great poetry. (Try that with Cole Porter, although it works with Bob Dylan.)

Sondheim is truly the blacksmith of blacksmiths. This meant that for a gifted composer like Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim could raise a level of genius to an unprecedented new level. “West Side Story” with music by Bernstein and lyrics by Sondheim is widely considered the greatest musical of all time. (In addition to Steven Spielberg’s current film adaptation, “West Side Story” will also premiere at the Marriott Lincolnshire this month.) Sondheim also did the same for Jule Styne with “Gypsy,” often referred to as the “King Lear” musicals.

When Sondheim was both composer and lyricist, his own works remained word-centric. They are brilliantly staged, although musically there is no singular Sondheim style. He’s a chameleon as a composer. (Hence why this aspect of his creativity has never been more appreciated or valued.) Sondheim was a student of academician and dodecaphonist-drum roll-composer Milton Babbitt, of “Who Cares If You Listen?” notoriety. There are vast implications to this. Can you name a Sondheim blockbuster or even a success of its time? “Send In the Clowns” directed by Judy Collins is one exception and rather meaningless outside of its character context in a show – “A Little Night Music” – not known to a wide audience.

And while everyone likes to say he changed the course of musical theatre, where are the Sondheim imitators? They do not exist. They couldn’t either. Hence the deep and palpable sense of loss at his passing.

I was in Sondheim many times but we never did an interview as such. Sondheim’s interviews were rarely revealing, mostly banter and small talk. We had mutual friends and I came to feel that I knew a lot about Sondheim from them.

Sondheim seemed everyone’s best friend, very approachable, very talkative. More often frivolous than serious. He always would have preferred to be invisible, but when people found out who he was and moved beyond fan talk, he signed up. He loved people but there was a basic insecurity around him. Sondheim had trouble looking you in the eye. He smirked and his eyes rolled like pinballs. And he liked being a fly on the wall.

I was giving an entire Sondheim seminar to media colleagues before Patti LuPone sang her very first “Gypsy” at Ravinia in 2006 when he quietly walked up behind me, planted himself and listened. I stood there, deliberately out of sight, and didn’t move until I was done. Others were amazed he wasn’t annoyed because while I was praising his unprecedented lyrics, I was criticizing that Sondheim’s music was not equal to the brilliant music of Styne or Bernstein, i.e. say that she was not on the same level as those words. Of course, Sondheim knew and understood that, in my opinion, hence why he wasn’t annoyed.

Oscar Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim, 15, 1945

James Hammerstein was Sondheim’s best friend growing up. “Steve became part of the family,” Hammerstein told me in 1993. James’ father, Oscar Hammerstein II, became Sondheim’s mentor and the father he never had. “If Oscar had been an electrician, I would have wanted to be an electrician”, said Sondheim. Luckily for us, Oscar was one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time.

The week before Sondheim’s passing, Lin-Manuel Miranda of “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” emailed Sondheim about the role his mentorship played on the late Jonathan Larson of “Rent” and “Tick, Tick… ​​Boom!” as well as himself and countless others. “Your ears must be burning for the generations of writers you have mentored,” Miranda wrote. “Thanks for the nice boost to my mind, Lin,” Sondheim replied via email. “It’s an aspect of my life that I’m proud of. I feel like I’ve repaid (partly, at least) what I owe Oscar.

If there was ever any doubt as to Sondheim’s own opinion on the importance of his own words in relation to his own music, what was Sondheim’s last word on the subject?

Consider this: Sondheim published all of his lyrics in two volumes: “Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes” and “Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with commentaries, amplifications, dogmas, harangues, digressions, anecdotes and miscellaneous.

And the music ? “I’d been telling him for years that he needed to write symphonic suites for his shows,” Paul Gemignani, conductor and longtime Sondheim collaborator told me in 2015. never sat down to do it.

And yet, when Gemignani conducted an all-Sondheim evening with the Grant Park Orchestra, the singers were also engaged because, as Gemignani put it, “otherwise you cut half the art form.” I believe that if Steve wrote music on his own, he would write much more complicated music than he writes for shows. And this music is quite complicated.

“West Side Story” at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, (847)634-0200,, February 2-March 27.

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