The Genius of Sondheim

This week, the Assembly Rooms hosts DULOG’s always highly anticipated Michaelmas musical, and this year, they have chosen Company by Stephen Sondheim.

The second one dips their toe into the world of musical theatre, the name Sondheim becomes inescapable, his repertoire immediately recognisable and fundamental to the genre. Alongside Company, he is responsible for the music behind Sweeney Todd, Follies and Into the Woods, as well as the lyrics of Gypsy and West Side Story, to name a few. To claim to have never stumbled across one of these would, frankly, be extremely impressive.

Highly acclaimed theatre practitioners across the West End and Broadway cite their experience either with Sondheim or with one of his productions as a seminal moment in their career. Jason Robert Brown, composer of The Last Five Years, has even stated that, “aspiring to work at that level is the most delightfully impossible task I could have ever set for myself. I hope I never get all the way there”.

Performer Michael Cerveris, who played the title role in Sweeney Todd, likewise praises his genius: “I never met Mozart or Shakespeare, but I’ve worked with Stephen Sondheim. That’s good enough for me.” It seems, then, commonplace to associate Sondheim with some of the greatest and most enduring artists of all time. But why? What about these works gives them the power to endure?

What has proved effective in Sondheim’s case, certainly, is his musicals’ susceptibility to endless permutations and interpretations, ensuring that they remain relevant and engaging to audiences and emerging creatives alike. The most recent gender-swapped West End production of Company is a clear example of this, where the original Bobby became Rosalie Craig’s female Bobbie. So successful was this directorial choice and so acclaimed the production, that it is now transferring to Broadway with Tony-award winner Katrina Lenk as the protagonist.

Tied to this, and central to ensuring his musicals’ longevity, is the timelessness of Sondheim’s core subject matter: the human condition. Company’s consideration of the fear, suffering and anxiety that comes with both love and loneliness, culminating in Bobby’s passionate conclusion that it is better to feel, and face the possibility of pain, than to feel nothing at all (‘Being Alive’), is one that will continue to connect with audiences for generations to come; really, for all time.

This is why the respect and admiration Sondheim garners in the industry is so strong, and why countless school, university and professional theatre companies will continue to produce his work. Whether in the physical walls of Delfont Mackintosh’s recently renamed Sondheim Theatre, or simply in the tunes that will no doubt be stuck in all of our heads after DULOG’s production this week, Sondheim’s legacy is guaranteed to live on.

By Elvira Parr