Stephen Sondheim, the last Broadway legend

DISAPPEARANCE – American musical comedy legend and West Side Story lyricist Stephen Sondheim passed away Friday morning at the age of 91.

“To God in Broadway”. One could say of Stephen Sondheim in the world of musical comedy in the United States, the same thing as of Jean d’Ormesson in France for a few decades: “Let him sneeze, and everyone in the publishing industry catches a cold.”

Stephen Sondheim possessed a rare genius: he was both a man of theater and music. His definition of a good musical? “Perhaps a quality and popular show. Many musicals today are primarily entertainment that does not need dramatic tension or strong characters. I see myself more as a playwright who writes plays to music. For me, the theatrical notion is very important ”, he replied. Not a word too much in his texts. But not a crooked note either in the scores of someone who admitted to being fascinated by Ravel or Satie. He created a unique and unparalleled blend of swing and contemporary music. With a very precise art of merging notes and words to embody the deep personality of one of his heroes and translate this or that situation.

In France, it was not until the arrival of Jean-Luc Choplin at the head of the Châtelet in 2004 to see his pieces. Without his name being known, he was already heard there. The texts of West Side Story, it’s him. Send in the clowns, sung by Sinatra or Barbra Streisand, it’s him again. The same goes for the songs of Sweeney todd, including the famous Johanna, taken up like the others in Tim Burton’s version. Or I always get my man sung by Madonna. And Stavisky with Alain Resnais, it is also him.

He owes a lot to Oscar Hammerstein II

Sondheim owes a lot to Oscar Hammerstein II. The 10-year-old suffers when his father leaves for another woman. His mother transfers this failure to her only son and mistreats him. She moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Stephen fortunately befriends James Hammerstein, who is none other than the son of Oscar Hammerstein II, the prominent librettist in the musical world. When he meets him, Hammerstein who notably signed Showboat with Jerome Kern, begins a long collaboration with Richard Rogers. Together they will sign, Oklohoma! , Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, Sound of music. Stephen falls in love with this world whose heads, music, and spirit make Hammerstein living room sparkle with glamor and bourbon. And Oscar finds the child – who was put on the piano at the age of four – endearing and unique.

At fifteen, Stephen submits a work of his own to his mentor and asks him to assess it bluntly. “It’s the worst thing I have ever seen ”, asserts Hammerstein who goes into details. “That afternoon I learned more about songwriting and musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime.”, Sondheim remembers. To prolong the exercise, Hammerstein asks him to compose four musicals: on a play that he admires, on a play that he loves but considers imperfect, on a non-dramatized novel. A free subject closes the exercise.

Sondheim joined Williamston College in Massachussets. Robert Barrow his teacher allows him to have a revelation: “I had always thought that an angel would come down on your shoulder and whisper ‘da-da-dum’ in your ear. I never realized that art was something elaborate ” Sondheim understands that the mathematics that go into the principle of composition may be at least as important as inspiration. He studied music at Princeton. His teacher Milton Babbitt, the American twelve-tone player, had him dissect Rodgers and Gershwin as well as Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.

At 20, in 1950, Sondheim graduated. Throughout his studies, Hammerstein introduced him to productions with the role of assistant or tutor, notably on The King and I and South Pacific. But Sondheim wonders about cinema. “The pieces signed Rogers and Hammerstein were operetta mixed with the American spectacle”, says Jean Luc Choplin, who at the head of Châtelet then of Marigny programmed musical excellence. “Sondheim leaves this mold, with projects marked by music of an extreme sophistication on cinematographic subjects”. In fact, the composer moved to Holywood, setting up a makeshift camp in his father’s dining room. He hopes to write for the studios. Failing to break through, he watches films. Not musicals. He prefers the dramas of the 40s and 50s to them. His creations will exploit this vein. Sondheim will be as capable of writing a musical about an unrepentant bachelor (Company) as about a bloody barber who slaughters his clients who are sold in the form of pies (Sweeney Todd), a stroll in nature with Seurat Sunday in the Park with George, a Passion, or crazy fairy tales ( Into the woods).

In 57, he was still looking for himself when the playwright Arthur Laurents asked him to work on a new version of “Romeo and Juliet”. Bernstein would like a lyricist. Jerome Robbins will regulate the dances. Sondheim ticks a bit because he would like to write music. Hammerstein convinced him to accept. West side story From the very first, it is one of the great successes of the musical. Sondheim, however, is still struggling to see his star shine. He signs his first musical, inspired – you have to expect everything with Sondheim – by the Latin author Plaute: A Funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

It is Company in 1970, with reminiscences of Satie’s Gymnopédies, which earned him a consecration with two Tony Awards for lyrics and music. Hal Prince signs the staging like that of most of the shows of this decade. The story takes place in the mind of a bachelor who fails to bond with any woman. Sondheim’s originality now has its place on Broadway. It is even celebrated and awaited. The following year he signs Follies, homage to the Ziegfields, then in 1973 A Little Night music, love story inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film. The music looks in the direction of Listz and Rachmaninoff. In 74, he worked again with Bernstein for Candid. In 76, he signed Pacific Overtures on the modernization of Japan at the end of the 19th century: Sondheim is inspired by Kabuki – men play the roles of women and students dressed in black come to change the costumes on sight – haikus and Japanese music with shamizen . Once again, as with each of the previous titles, distinctions are raining down. In 1979, opens Sweeney Todd: the Demon barber of Fleet street. The mood on stage is the dark and eerie England of the Victorian era that Dickens would celebrate. The music borders on twelve-tone.

In 1984, Sondheim partnered with James Lapine to set up Sunday in the Park with George. A work that takes place entirely – but at a hundred intervals – in the canvas of George Seurat, A Sunday afternoon on the island of Grande Jatte. In 87, he wrote Into the woods where Rapunzel and Cinderella meet in a hilarious scenario Jack, his beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood.

His last work for the stage will be Passion, adapted from Passione d’amore by Ettore Scola. The musical register looks this time towards the opera. In total, Sondheim has a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar, 18 Drama Desk Award, 8 Grammy Awards, 8 Tony Awards, 5 Laurence Oliver Awards.

“He completely changed the history of musical comedy by inventing musical theater, Du théâtre dit en musique. a modern theater which puts time in abyss, which questions linearity. Characters who made the wrong decisions. So I wanted to program it in Paris ”, explains Jean-Luc Choplin, who presents his works for the first time in France from 2008. “He would arrive a week before the premiere, attend rehearsals and distribute commentaries to actors and musicians.” Sondheim was delighted to see his works taken up again with big funds, which no longer belong to Broadway, and a Philharmonic orchestra, rather than a simple band of about fifteen musicians. He had a lapidary judgment on Broadway: “There isn’t much going on there. Lots of commercial shows but nothing really innovative. Originality should rather be sought in small shows off Broadway. I have to say that I have a bit of nostalgia for the golden age of Broadway. We had a lot of fun, there was a great creative energy and less money problems to put on a show. ”

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Stephen Sondheim, the last Broadway legend