In this episode, we feature a conversation with Stephen Sondheim. Considered “one of the greatest songwriters in the history of musical theater,” Sondheim died at the age of 91 on November 26, 2021.
Sondhiem’s storied career includes mentorship by another icon of musical theater from a previous generation, Oscar Hammerstein. The first show for which Sondhiem would write the music and lyrics was Saturday Night in 1954 and from there he would go on to collaborate on some of the most influential musicals ever made including West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, and Into The Woods. Sondheim won every conceivable award, including the Pulitzer Prize, eight Grammys and eight Tonys, as well as an Academy Award. His work has stood the test of time, with current revivals of his shows on and off Broadway, and a movie version of West Side Story, directed by Stephen Spielberg.
In this episode we feature Sondhiem in a conversation with Frank Rich who was the drama critic of the New York Times from 1980 to 1993, and then an Op-Ed columnist from 1994 to 2011. It was during his time as drama critic that Rich became friends with Sondhiem. What makes this conversation so incredible is the intimacy and rapport these two writers have with each other. Rich asks Sondheim about the evolution of his career, touching on the stories behind his best-known works and their adaptations.
Their appearance for Portland Arts & Lectures in 2008 was one of only a very few appearances the two ever made together.
“If you’re doing a musical that tells a story through song, then you’ve got to find a way of translating one medium into another.”
Stephen Sondheim was a composer and lyricist who collaborated on more than a dozen landmark shows (from which have come many standard songs) and who was the single most influential force in bringing the Broadway musical into the modern age. Beginning in his twenties, Sondheim contributed the lyrics to two classic collaborations with the playwright Arthur Laurents and the director-choreographer Jerome Robbins: West Side Story (1957; music by Leonard Bernstein) and Gypsy (1959; music by Jule Styne). The first Broadway show he produced as both composer and lyricist, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), had an even longer run than its predecessors. As Sondheim’s lyrics have entered the American language—from “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” to “The Ladies Who Lunch”—so too has his music liberated Broadway from traditional songwriting conventions. It is impossible to find a new musical of artistic ambition today that hasn’t been influenced by his breakthroughs in remaking the rules that once governed the traditional Broadway musical. Many of his musicals have been made into movies, including the Tim Burton-directed adaptation of Sweeney Todd. Sondheim won every conceivable award, including the Pulitzer Prize, two Grammys, an Oscar, and eight Tonys. He also won a special award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater, The Kennedy Center Honors, the MacDowell Medal, the President’s Medal for the Arts, and the Praemium Imperiale (referred to as the “Nobel Prize of the Arts”). Sondheim passed away on November 26, 2021.
Frank Rich started as a Times Op-Ed columnist in January 1994. From 1999 to 2003, he was also a senior writer for The New York Times Magazine, a dual title that was a first for The Times. Rich joined New York magazine in June 2011 as writer-at-large, writing monthly on politics and culture and editing a special monthly section anchored by his essay. Among other honors, Mr. Rich received the George Polk Award for commentary in 2005. He has also written The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America (2006), and his drama reviews were collected in Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993. Since 2008, Rich has also been a creative consultant at HBO and is an executive producer of Veep and Six by Sondheim, the Peabody Award-winning documentary about Stephen Sondheim.
“There has to be an emotional action in a song. I’ve always had very specific ideas as to what should happen in the number, either physically, or emotionally, or in terms of the other characters.”
“Many songs are just static. I try to write non-static songs.”