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Smooth Bananas: The life and work of Stephen Sondheim

Last weekend, the world of musical theatre lost a giant: Stephen Sondheim, one of the most influential composers and songwriters of the 20th century. Sondheim was responsible for some of the most beloved musicals of the 1900s, including “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “A Little Night Music,” “Company,” “La Cage Aux Follies,” and “Into the Woods.” His musicals have been adapted into movies and performed in both staged versions and concert versions. Sadly, Sondheim died at the age of 91 of natural causes.

The truly remarkable part of Sondheim’s career is that he was a champion of new musicals and musicals in new styles. This is especially evident in some of his more complex works like “Sweeney Todd” or “Into the Woods.” His musicals often employ non-tonal harmonies or meters uncommon to popular music styles. It would be accurate to describe his music as a bridge between the opera/classical music world and the world of musical theatre. This connection was a clear artifact of his upbringing and education.

Sondheim grew up in Manhattan after his parents divorced. Many accounts describe him as an emotionally isolated child due to a psychologically abusive mother. However, this emotional reservation was destroyed when Sondheim saw his first musical at the age of 9. The real start to his musical theatre journey was when he became friends with the son of noted musical theatre composer Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein became the only father figure in Sondheim’s life and fostered his early interest in the art form.

Hammerstein began to teach the young Sondheim how to construct musicals and soon he was pumping out songs and shows like no one’s business. None of these musicals have been produced professionally but they were crucial to Sondheim’s development. The death of his mentor Hammerstein affected him just as much as the death of a parent would. He would take his coursework with Hammerstein and further apply it to study with composers who were far more accustomed to the classical world than musical theatre. These included composers such as Robert Barrow, and Milton Babbitt, and made numerous connections with people in the New York theatre scene that would be his greatest allies as he moved forward in his career.

Sondheim’s earliest success stories can be traced to his work writing lyrics for other shows. He wrote the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” a musical that has been adapted numerous times and is beloved all over the world.

Sondheim’s solo successes as a composer and a lyricist would go on to include performances that received extensive runs and would skyrocket the careers of some of the most influential names in musical theatre. Some of the great musical artists whom he worked with included Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Victor Garber, and Bernadette who originated the one of the major roles in his incredibly successful musical “Sunday in the Park with George.”

Sondheim will be remembered as one of the greatest composers to ever live. Of that, I am sure. He deserves all the recognition. He was a kind and gentle man, and he will be missed by the world of music and all who love the art of song.

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