Stephen Sondheim ranks among America’s finest dramatists both inside and outside of the Musical genre. Throughout the fifty-five years of his professional career, Sondheim has steered the American Musical further away from its traditional forms and subject matter into stories, structures and emotional territories which capture what it means to be American and how the nation has been redefined from the far side of the Second World War to the present.
|A portrait of composer Stephen Sondheim. (Joseph Ciardiello / For…). Courtesy of LATimes.|
His earliest works as a lyricist on West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959) established themes he would continue exploring across his career, not least of which is the fluid space between outsider and insider in terms of American identity. In his subsequent work as composer-lyricist he would be attracted to unusual projects of astonishing range: from Roman comedy to Broadway dramas to European art house cinema, from American imperialist history, to Victorian Melodrama, to fairy tales and French pointillist painting. The scope of Sondheim’s interests can sometimes obscure an abiding set of concerns, the core of which revolve around the myths and realities of American opportunity.
That ongoing pursuit of happiness bridled by modern ambivalence forms a common thread in Sondheim’s theatre, linking a Roman slave’s wild bids for freedom in the musical farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), a confirmed bachelor’s vacillations about committed relationships in Company (1970), one-time vaudevillians facing age and oblivion in Follies (1971), romantic entanglements amid a group of aristocratic vacationers in A Little Night Music (1973), a wronged barber’s savage revenge involving mass murder and meat pies in Sweeney Todd (1979), close companions on a journey from friendship to fracture in Merrily We Roll Along (1981), the struggle to balance life and art among generations of visionary artists in Sunday in the Park with George (1984), right through to the disaffected protagonists of Assassins.
Part of Sondheim’s centrality to the contemporary theatre lies in this ongoing examination of what was peripheral in the traditional musical: complex emotions such as doubt, anxiety, uncertainty and defeat. Facing and giving voice to those contradictions forms the heart of a Sondheim show. But his genius is in his own refusal to give up our basic American beliefs in the process. In his demand to be truthful, Sondheim interrogates our most cherished values, but it’s significant that, as in Assassins, even his darkest characters carry a kernel of tradition along with them. As a steady refrain, his collective assassins insist on their rights—to be seen, heard, effective—and to make their deepest fantasies real.
Dreamer to Chronicler: Sondheim at the Start and in His Stride. Getty Image
While the tone and expression is decisively different, in this Sondheim reinforces one of the foundational messages of musicals, captured in the last word of the last show of Sondheim’s mentor Oscar Hammerstein in The Sound of Music (1959). Closing the reprise of “Climb Every Mountain”, the curtain falls on the injunction “dream.” That promise and its consequences travel through time to arrive center stage in Assassins.