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The Schmooze

On Stephen Sondheim’s birthday, 856 words to make you fall in love with one of the greatest artists of all time

Today is the birthday of Stephen Sondheim, perhaps the musical theater’s greatest composer and lyricist who has ever lived.

Sondheim is responsible for the lyrics of the Broadway musicals “Gypsy” and “West Side Story,” and the music and lyrics of “Sweeney Todd,” “Into The Woods,” “Sunday In The Park With George,” “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum,” and “Company,” among many others. He is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, as well as an Oscar, eight Grammy’s, eight Tony Awards, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Musical theater, and perhaps even popular music, would be unrecognizable today without Stephen Sondheim’s contributions.

But you don’t care about that! Because…

You hate musicals.

Or, you don’t know who Stephen Sondheim is.

Or, you do know who he is, but you hate him because his music isn’t catchy and it rhymes too much/it rhymes too little.

You poor, poor Forward reader! I understand. Some well-meaning person took you to one too many amateur productions of the musical “Annie,” and that takes years to recover from.** But you deserve to to know Stephen Sondheim, because he is a genius whose art has the power to reconfigure the architecture of your soul.** Plus — he’s Jewish!

So here’s a handy how-to guide for getting into Stephen Sondheim:

First, realize you may already like Stephen Sondheim

A lot of people don’t know that Sondheim, who was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II (of Rodgers & Hammerstein,) wrote the lyrics to “West Side Story” when he was 25 years old. As Anita sings in the musical, “smoke on your pipe and put that in!” The musical was a collaboration with Forward favorite Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the brilliant music. So you can thank Sondheim for unpretentious classics “I Feel Pretty” and “Tonight,” and “Maria.” If ya like “West Side,” ya like Steve.

But if you don’t, you may like how his work sounds when it’s not presented as showtunes.

Much of Sondheim’s music has crossed over to the great American songbook — “Send In The Clowns,” for example, from “A Little Night Music,” has been covered by just about everyone. Here are Frank Sinatra and Dame Judi Dench doing drastically different, wonderfully vulnerable interpretations of the same Sondheim song.

Then, see a great Sondheim production, not a good one

An artistic masterpiece should be expertly framed, not slumped against a wall. You’ll appreciate Sondheim more if you hear his work through Bernadette Peters and Raul Esparza, two of the greatest Sondheim interpreters.

Here is Raul Esparza singing “Being Alive” from “Company”:

And here is Bernadette Peters singing “Losing My Mind” from “Follies”:

Next, find the Sondheim that’s right for you

If at first you don’t like Steve, try, try again.

Sondheim has written comedies and dramas, slasher horrors and romances, musicals about people stuck in department stores, and musicals about people moving backwards in time. You just have to find the one for you.

Maybe you’d like Sondheim better if he was sung by Meryl Streep? Here she is, singing “Stay With Me” from the 2014 “Into The Woods” blockbuster movie, produced by Disney. Or maybe you need a backstage look at a song that plunges its singer into crisis:

Now, start treating Sondheim like Van Gogh, not like Christina Aguilera

If you aren’t entertained by musicals and you see Sondheim musicals as entertainment, you may miss out on their genius. Treat Sondheim as the art it is — even if you don’t like it, you may learn from it. “Sweeney Todd” has one of the richest and most complex scores in Broadway history — try listening to it the way you would look at a great painting.

If all else fails, remember: we wouldn’t have “Hamilton” if not for Sondheim

It’s hard to overemphasize Sondheim’s influence on American musical theater…He is musical theater’s greatest lyricist, full stop. The days of competition with other musical theater songwriters are done: We now talk about his work the way we talk about Shakespeare or Dickens or Picasso — a master of his form, both invisible within his work and everywhere at once.

That was written by “Hamilton” creator and star Lin Manuel Miranda, who interviewed Sondheim in the pages of T Magazine. Miranda credits Sondheim with guiding him through the process of writing “Hamilton,” as well as creating the musical theater foundation on which the hip-hop musical was able to build.

So, on Stephen Sondheim’s birthday, remember:

You don’t have to memorize the Witch’s rap from “Into The Woods.” You don’t have to see “Merrily We Roll Along” (the Sondheim musical that runs backwards in time instead of forwards) 17 times in a row. You don’t have to write fan-fiction about Sondheim’s partnership with his muse Bernadette Peters (though all of those things sound fun to me.)

You just have to give yourself the gift of a little bit of art.

Jenny Singer is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny





    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

    6:30 pm ET · 

    A Sukkah, IMKHA, created by artist Tobi Kahn, for the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan is an installation consisting of 13 interrelated sculpted painted wooden panels, constituting a single work of art. Join for a panel discussion with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Chief Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, Talya Zax, Innovation Editor of the Forward, and Tobi Kahn, Artist. Moderated by Mattie Kahn.

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