November 28, 2021 - 12:30pm

It’s 5am on Saturday morning, the first snow of winter is on the ground, and I’ve woken to the news that Stephen Sondheim is dead. (Forgive the drama – it seemed appropriate.)

Sondheim was the Broadway musical’s poet of loneliness, alienation, and failure. His shows often had unlikely starting points – the demolition of a theatre, an Ingmar Bergman film, a pointillist painter – and they were rarely hits in their original productions. He was Broadway’s difficult child, insistent that he would do his own thing, his own way.

His first show as both composer and lyricist was 1962’s knockabout Roman comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  It’s mainstream, subtext-free Broadway, but the sound of it is just a little bit unusual. There’s dissonance and angularity in the music, more than you’d expect in such a sunny and straight-up funny show. A restless spirit inhabits this Broadway laugh-machine.

A couple of years later, that spirit escaped its restraints and the result was the frustratingly chaotic experimentalism of 1964’s Anyone Can Whistle. A satire starring Angela Lansbury as a corrupt mayor, it closed after nine performances. But then, in 1970, Sondheim partnered with director Harold Prince and the result was a body of work unequalled in late twentieth century musical theatre: Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along. None of them were out-and-out hits, though some – like A Little Night Music – did respectably.

Kenneth Tynan, writing in 1952, identified what made the American musical tick:

The powerful sunlight, the blithe pushfulness of shows like “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Oklahoma!” had an effect which no mandarin and no dogmatic pen can ever annihilate. The lesson they had to teach the English stage is easily stated: they taught abandon.
- Kenneth Tynan

Abandon is a quality that rarely pops up in Sondheim. The arms-flung-wide exhilaration of Nellie Forbush as she sings South Pacific’s I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy is a world away from the lives of Sondheim’s characters. Instead, there is the crystalline sadness of Sally’s  In Buddy’s Eyes from Follies, Bobby’s desperation in Company’s Being Alive , and Dot’s vulnerable tenderness in Sunday in the Park’s Move On.

The musical has been in the throes of an artistic identity crisis since rock-and-roll severed the direct link between musical theatre and ordinary popular music in the 1950s. Until rock, much of popular music originated in the theatre and the sounds of musical theatre were the sounds of everyday music.

While the rock musical was one response to the pop music revolution, most post-1950s Broadway shows turned to pastiche and nostalgia. While he could pastiche as well as anybody, Sondheim’s approach was to take the musical into more complex, intricate areas. Mainstream audiences didn’t warm to this initially, but in later life (partly  through revivals and reinterpretations of his shows) he found his tribe.

He was the singular, beautiful exception; a one-off consolation for the overwhelming disappointment of late-twentieth century musicals. Even though he hadn’t done a new show for years, he was still there. With his death at 91, musical theatre has lost a giant.

Jonny Best is a musician, researcher and arts producer