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Remembering Stephen Sondheim, a musical theater giant

Stephen Sondheim forced the American musical to grow up, taking audiences to places they'd never been before:

And he showed me things
Many beautiful things
That I hadn't thought to explore
They were off my path
So, I never had dared
I had been so careful
I never had cared
And he made me feel excited
Well, excited and scared

["I Know Things Now," from "Into the Woods"]

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Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim.  CBS News

To become like Little Red Riding Hood in "Into the Woods," confronted with something new, sometimes scary, always exciting.

He was just 26 when he wrote the lyrics for "West Side Story," a then-shockingly dark look at gang life in New York City.

The very next year he wrote the lyrics for "Gypsy," about the mother of all stage mothers – an anti-hero for the ages.

You'll be swell!
You'll be great!
Gonna have the whole world on the plate!
Starting here, starting now,
Honey, everything's coming up roses!

["Everything's Coming Up Roses," from "Gypsy"]

He could have made a very fine living sticking to words. But he wanted to write the words and music. And so began a string of creative, if only rarely commercial, triumphs, with subject matter well outside the confines of boy-meets-girl.
 
"Follies," featuring aging showgirls, set in a decaying theater, was about faded dreams.

Black sable one day
Next day it goes into hock
But I'm here
Top billing Monday
Tuesday, you're touring in stock
But I'm here

["I'm Still Here," from "Follies"]
 
The Pulitzer Prize-winning "Sunday in the Park With George," about the painter Georges Seurat, obsessively working, "watching the rest of the world from a window."

I had thought she understood
They have never understood
And no reason that they should

["Finishing the Hat," from "Sunday in the Park With George"]

Sondheim himself was raised primarily by a mother he described as a social climber and whom he resented. But as a boy, he met the great lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, of Rodgers & Hammerstein. The relationship would set him on his course, as he told "Sunday Morning" in 1995:

"I attached myself to Oscar in the sense that I wanted to be what he was. I have often said that if he had been an archeologist, I would have been an archeologist."

Instead, Sondheim became a kind of anthropologist – a master observer of human behavior, a man who never had children, and yet wrote the classic, "Children Will Listen," from "Into the Woods":

Careful the wish you make,
Wishes are children
Careful the path you take,
Wishes come true.
Not free.
Careful the spell you cast,
Not just on children
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see,
And turn against you.
Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell.

To write his 1970 breakthrough hit "Company," a musical about marriage, Sondheim – a gay man who until that point was unattached – invited his friend Mary Rodgers over one evening to tell him about married life. He took out a yellow legal pad, and after two hours he said he had most of the score, including a personal favorite of mine, "Sorry/Grateful":

You're always sorry
You're always grateful
You're always wondering what might have been
Then she walks in
 
And still you're sorry
And still you're grateful
And still you wonder
And still you doubt
And she goes out
 
Everything's different
Nothing's changed
Only maybe slightly rearranged
 
You're sorry-grateful
Regretful-happy
Why look for answers
Where none occur?
You always are
What you always were
Which has nothing to do with
All to do with her

No doubt about it, no one did ambivalence better than Sondheim. Just one reason some of the greatest actors of the last few generations are only grateful to have sung his words and music. 

See also: 

Story produced by Kay Lim and Kim Young. Editor: Lauren Barnello. 

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