The Musical Theatre of Sondheim
Just days before Stephen Sondheim died in November 2021, he attended a revival of Assassins at Classic Stage Company, as well as a radical rethinking of Company that had transferred from London to New York. A few days later, a public performance of the song “Sunday” was organized in Duffy Square by Lin-Manuel Miranda. A new production of Into the Woods is currently on Broadway, and another of Sweeney Todd is planned for February 2023. Though it’s been nearly 15 years since Sondheim’s final new musical, he is very much part of our theatrical present—through his own works, which continue to be produced internationally, and through his influence on several generations of composers, lyricists, and more. Still today, among theatre critics and a large sector of the public, Sondheim is generally considered the most significant composer and lyricist in the contemporary theatre; he is, in fact, accorded the kind of serious consideration generally reserved for “legitimate” playwrights. In this seminar, we will examine in detail Stephen Sondheim’s writing over six decades. We’ll begin with Sondheim’s earliest work as a lyricist, collaborating with composers Jule Styne (Gypsy), Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story), and later, Richard Rodgers (Do I Hear a Waltz?). Beginning in 1970, Sondheim – now both composer and lyricist – in partnership with director Harold Prince produced a series of musicals (including Company, Follies and Sweeney Todd,) still thought to be among the most innovative and substantial in the history of the genre. We will also focus on Sondheim's musicals after his 1981 break with Prince. These later works, created with writers and directors including James Lapine (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Passion), Jerry Zaks (Assassins), and John Doyle (Road Show) are often smaller in scale, intensely personal, and incorporate elements of performance art and popular culture. Finally, we will consider revival productions of Sondheim’s work, which often are reconceived from their original form, often with Sondheim’s involvement and occasional rewriting. This course is open to all students interested in theatre and musical theatre. The ability to read music is not required.