On Losing Stephen Sondheim
Our perennial teacher leaves us with yet another lesson, this time about risk-taking and future generations of artists.
Growing up, we were not a Sondheim household. I know. Blasphemous to some, relatable to others. I didn’t grow up listening to Sweeney Todd on car rides; I missed the PBS screening of Sunday in the Park with George.
My admiration and connection to Stephen Sondheim began in a deep way once I became a writer. No one writes a lyric like Sondheim: words that simultaneously make you swoon and slice you precisely to the core, leaving you shocked at how naked this stranger has made you feel. How dare he know us that well? How dare he expose our innards to the world?
Because he knew us so well, no one wrote a lesson like Sondheim.
The full lyrics of “Move On” from Sunday hang on the wall next to my desk, transcribed in my own hand, pinned by green thumbtacks. They are the words that pushed me to create my podcast — to actually make it after five years of marinating and developing and talking about it and wondering if there was any point when it suddenly seemed too late. They are the words that pushed me to write my “magnum opus.” They are the words that remind me in every moment of doubt that I have something to offer.
Then his words came to me: “Let it come from you / then it will be new.”
What I can write is the eye-witness account of the hole his passing leaves in this community. What I can write is the lesson his legacy teaches us.
We lost our greatest, most prolific, most revered artist. Never again will he personally bless a revival of his work. Perhaps more devastatingly, every living artist knows now that Sondheim will never again see their work in person. He will not praise an actor’s performance. He will not encourage a writer’s pursuit. He will not coax a composer to unlock their song. He will not sit in a theatre (Broadway or otherwise) to signal to the world the vitality, necessity, and joy of theatre as an art and as an experience.
And the reason that is so devastating is that Sondheim was the emblem of success in defiance of odds. His praise told you that you were right when you wondered if you were wrong, to keep going when you thought you should stop. Stephen Sondheim personified hope for us. He led us to truth and our better selves and our better art. Who will lead us now? Who will approve our daring? Who is our hope?
In losing Stephen Sondheim we lost our living proof of what musical theatre can be when those in charge back risk. When they take a chance on an unknown story and an unproven writer.
A brilliant composer and lyricist, Sondheim made his Broadway debut providing lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s melodies and then for Jule Styne’s — both established talents at their times. On his own, Sondheim wrote music and lyrics to 13 musicals that made it to Broadway:
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — 1962
Anyone Can Whistle — 1964
Company — 1970
Follies — 1971
A Little Night Music — 1973
Pacific Overtures — 1976
Sweeney Todd — 1979
Merrily We Roll Along — 1981
Sunday in the Park with George — 1984
Into the Woods — 1987
Passion — 1994
Assassins — 2004 (Off-Broadway 1990)
The Frogs — 2004
None had particularly long runs by today’s standards or even by that day’s. (The hits of the ’70s — from Grease to A Chorus Line to Pippin to Annie — ran between five and 15 years.) The longest-running of these 13 Sondheim musicals was Forum, which lasted two years and three months. Anyone Can Whistle lasted nine performances a.k.a. one week. Company lasted 20 months. Follies 15. A Little Night Music 18. Steady, but not stellar.
“Most of his shows, in their initial runs, failed to earn back the money it cost to put them on,” read his New York Times obituary. Case in point: Follies was capitalized at $700,000, which Forbes touted, at the time, as the most expensive show ever. Even running the 15 months it did, the production lost $650,000.
Yet, Hal Prince kept producing his work, and the Shuberts and Nederlanders kept mounting it on their stages.
Though these titles have since been licensed and revived and adapted to the hilt over the past half-century, no one knew that future when their debuts “underperformed” at the box office. No one knew the next one might do better — they often did worse. But, the powerbrokers continued to invest in Sondheim.
In the days since his death, writers have called Sondheim “relentlessly innovative.” And that is true. But more than innovative, Sondheim was original. There will never be another Stephen Sondheim. This is simply fact — and one that I’m more than content with.
I am not content with the fact that if Stephen Sondheim were born in 1990 and hitting his stride in the 2010s (let alone the risk-averse COVID world of today), we would not have seen all of these works on the world’s most coveted and public stage. He may still have written them (though where he would find the time to finish multiple musicals while in the decade-long process of producing one on Broadway, I have no idea), but would we have found them? I am not content that Sondheim would have been as omnipresent in culture as he is today. I am not content with the fact that there are songwriters out there innovating and laboring and trying new styles and writing different stories while the structure of our business keeps them in the shadows.
What originality are we missing? Whose lessons are we missing out on?
Our industry needs to devise a better way of funding Broadway. We must invest in artists, not just a single piece of their art.
And I get it. It’s hard to take risks on something original and unknown when the capital you need to raise is in the tens of millions of dollars unlike the $700,000 of yesteryear (which is still only $4.7 million in today’s currency). Hal Prince himself said that you could never do what he and Sondheim did in the ’70s, opening five new musicals on Broadway in nine years. Nowadays, you get one musical in that time. But that just tells me we’re doing it wrong.
Studios have become the big players on the Main Stem. I’m not against musical adaptations of movies, from The Lion King to Waitress to Mrs. Doubtfire. It’s not about the source material; it’s what you do with it. But if studios hold the most significant pursestrings, how do we get them to invest beyond productions of their existing properties? Theatrical divisions at studios should expand to finance original theatre from writers the same way they finance movies from directors.
Of course, it’s not that risky work isn’t being made at all, or that no one outside a studio invests in art. Those in the theatre community know that bold theatre flourishes Off-Broadway and new theatre grows in development programs. Theatre companies like Roundabout Theatre Company and Manhattan Theatre Club and New York Theatre Workshop, organizations like New Dramatists, regional houses via the newly announced Artist Caucus and more offer opportunity and money for artists to pursue their work. While vital, there are shortcomings:
1. These programs typically don’t guarantee a production. In a live artform, the audience is the final collaborator. Without a production, every show is only partially baked. And even then… 2. The footprint of a production away from Broadway is currently too small to gain a foothold in the culture the way Sondheim was able to do on Broadway.
If Off-Broadway gained greater cachet amidst the general public, if we captured and widely broadcasted Off-Broadway shows (which we should also do more regularly for Broadway shows), we could manufacture a large platform akin to Broadway.
We know from Sondheim’s record that audiences will flock to a story they don’t know by a writer they’ve never heard of. They did in the ’70s and they will now. Producers must put more faith in audiences. We are smarter and more curious than we get credit.
Still, every solution hinges on a producer’s absolute belief in a talent.
The theme of mentorship shines as we eulogize Sondheim. He counseled composers and lyricists the way Oscar Hammerstein II did for him. But the theatre is not short on artists mentoring artists. Look no further than Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty founding the DGF Fellows Program, Stephen Schwartz’s commitment through ASCAP, Georgia Stitt’s establishment of Maestra. What we lack is mentorship from producer to artist. Someone who will say, “Whatever you want to make, I will make. You are the work I want to back.”
Rather than one show at a time, how do we foster theatre one artist at a time?
The only way we come close to replacing the sun is by sprinkling the sky with zillions of stars.