It has become a cliché that Sondheim was a powerhouse of change for the contemporary musical in the last half of the twentieth century. He remade it anew, brought fresh possibilities, gave it a new prominence – and, not least, he gave it a wider credibility as an art form. There were many earlier people who brought innovation and change in lyrics, structure and form – none more so than the Rogers and Hammerstein in the 1940s and their cinematic translations in the 1950s and 60s. And Sondheim’s earliest work, as a lyric writer for Bernstein’s West Side Story and Jule Stein’s Gypsy and others, celebrated this. But starting in 1970 with Company he started to write both score and lyrics to create a new species of musical. He became the paradigm buster. He broke the rules of the older musical and gave it new possibilities, structures, content. This usually meant his musicals were not initially great successes – people had to get used to them.
Sondheim reworked what it was possible for the musical to do. He experimented and innovated with its content and form. The musical became an evolving art. It now could never be the same again. He developed the ‘unhappy ending’, the concept musical, the musical as complex and ambivalent conversation, the end of the linear plot. Think of Company, Follies, Into the Woods, Passion – but in all his musicals, he gave us experimental new forms of storytelling.
But it is more than that. Sondheim took the musical form very seriously: content dictated form. Just what a story could be, what a lyric should be, how it should all be integrated with music and how the whole was driven by time, place, character, plot. He asked why people should sing rather than speak – and if there was no good reason, it should not be a musical. Songs were essential to the story telling. And lyrics had to link with the music – for most composers they had been written separately. He also knew that words mattered and in lyrics rhyming was a key. He had a great interest in language, and the right word should be in the right place. A word could signify a whole scene. He wrote literate musicals in ways that had never been expected of musicals before (and usually still aren’t). In his later years he wrote the two magnificent volumes Putting it Together (2006) and Look, I Made a Hat(2011). They have become a pinnacle of his work, revealing the intricacies of the intellectual project behind his work – what mattered to Sondheim. All his works are reconsidered, their lyrics critically scrutinised, sins and omissions and golden rules presented. They show how deeply reflective he was about his work; and it is a wonderful gift to all who follow. He now becomes our teacher in his after life. Indeed, since Sondheim, the musical has become a thoughtful project – with a vast panoply of books, journals, encyclopaedias, courses. Sondheim has made the musical an important contribution to humanity; one that is worth thinking seriously about.