He lived 91 richly productive years, attended a live theater production eleven days before he died, enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with friends the day before his death. Who can ask, as the Gershwin song goes, for anything more? But we fans are greedy: The death of the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, on November 26, after a long life of creative brilliance, leaves us wanting still more.
So here’s a little more.
A partial list of Sondheim musicals in chronological order, via Teepublic
1. Stephen Sondheim’s first professional work was as a writer—but not of lyrics. In 1953 his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II introduced him to the playwright and screenwriter George Oppenheimer, and he moved to Los Angeles from his native New York to work, for $300 a week, on the new television show “Topper,” based on the popular film series from the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote “about ten episodes on his own,” according to the Sondheim.com site, and another ten with Oppenheimer.
2. Sondheim was an aficionado and collector of puzzles and games, and had a special interest in cryptic (or “British”) crosswords. Beginning in 1968, he contributed 42 cryptic crosswords to New York magazine; they were collected in a 1980 book that’s now out of print. “The nice thing about doing a crossword puzzle,” he said, “is that you know there is a solution.” Here are his solving tips, originally published in 1968.
3. He co-wrote a 1973 neo-noir movie, The Last of Sheila, with actor Anthony Perkins. (Thanks to Orin Hargraves for the link!) The plot is based on a murder-mystery party game Sondheim created for his friends. I haven’t seen the film; have you?
4. He wrote five songs for the 1990 film Dick Tracy, including “Sooner or Later,” which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Madonna sang it in the movie, but I prefer Bernadette Peters’s smoking-hot rendition.
5. In 2010 and 2011 Sondheim published his collected and annotated lyrics in two volumes: Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. (Both titles are borrowed from Sunday in the Park with George, his 1984 musical directed by James Lapine, who recently published his own account of the collaboration, Putting It Together.) Each volume runs to about 450 oversize pages, and I’ve read them all. Sondheim was rigorous about lyric writing, which he said had to follow three principles: “Content Dictates Form,” “Less Is More,” and “God Is in the Details.” And he was a staunch defender of “true” or “perfect” rhyme, as opposed to the “near” or “slant” rhymes popular with some of his (mostly younger) colleagues. From Finishing the Hat:
Using near rhymes is like juggling clumsily: it can be fun to watch and it is juggling, but it’s nowhere near as much pleasure for an audience as seeing all the balls—or in the case of the best lyricists, knives, lit torches and swords—being kept aloft with grace and precision.
This is, after all, the man who rhymed egos with amigos (in Gypsy) and who wrote, for the meat-pie-monger Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd: “No, y’see the problem with poet is /’ow do you know it’s /deceased? Try the priest.” (Read the full lyric; listen to Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou sing “A Little Priest” in the original Broadway cast recording.)
“Stephen Sondheim: In His Own Words,” an audiobook that compiles BBC radio and TV interviews spanning 1973 to 2010.
6. Six by Sondheim, a 2013 documentary for HBO, centers on the backstory of six Sondheim songs: “Something’s Coming” (West Side Story), “Opening Doors” (Merrily We Roll Along), “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music), “I’m Still Here” (Follies), “Being Alive” (Company), and “Sunday” (Sunday in the Park with George). The film was directed by James Lapine and features some gorgeous and occasionally unexpected performances (Jarvis Cocker sings “I’m Still Here,” and Sondheim himself sits in on “Opening Doors”). You can still find the film on HBO Max; if you’re not a subscriber, it’s streaming free on YouTube.
7. I’ve watched the 2016 Netflix documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened at least three times, and will no doubt watch it a few more times, maybe as soon as I finish writing this post. It’s about the rise and fall and triumphant rebirth of Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim’s “surefire hit that wasn’t.” Director Lonny Price, who was in the original cast when he was 22, unearthed rehearsal footage—including some remarkable scenes with Sondheim himself—and tracked down fellow cast members to interview them about their lives before, during, and after the show, which closed, to universally negative reviews, after just 52 previews and 16 performances. You’ll recognize one of those cast members: Jason Alexander.
Here’s the trailer:
8. Mark Harris, the author of three terrific books about American theater and movies, wrote a moving and beautifully detailed obituary for New York magazine. “In his late eighties,” Harris tells us, Sondheim “spent time working on a two-act musical that was to be based on Luis Buñuel’s films The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the connective thread of which was ‘dinner parties.’ He liked a challenge.”
9. And here’s Bruce Weber’s front-page obituary for the New York Times. (Gift link; should bypass the paywall!)
10. If you’re in the U.S., you can watch full Broadway performances of several Sondheim musicals from the comfort of your home, thanks to PBS “Great Performances”: Into the Woods, Company, Passion, and A Little Night Music. Try searching for them on YouTube.
Update, 5:45 p.m., December 1: Listen to a 2008 City Arts and Lectures interview of Sondheim by former New York Times theater critic Frank Rich.