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Arts & Culture

How Sondheim Wrote the Book on Modern Musical Theater

With 5 Favorite Songs, UMD Theatre Scholar Details Genius of Late Composer, Lyricist

By Sala Levin ’10

Stephen Sondheim

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, seen here in 1987, died on Friday at the age of 91, leaving an incomparable legacy, says Korey Rothman Ph.D. '05, who is director of CIVICUS at UMD, has taught theatre classes, and is a Sondheim "super fan." "I can't imagine anyone writing (for the stage) today who has not been profoundly impacted by Sondheim's work," she said.

Photo by Oliver Morris/Getty Images

From the butchering barber of “Sweeney Todd” to the adulterous Baker’s Wife of “Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim conjured up ambiguous, complicated characters for his decidedly adult musicals. Sondheim, widely considered the greatest Broadway composer and lyricist of the 20th century, died on Friday, leaving a legacy of characters who grappled with commitment, the creative process, regret, obsession and, perhaps above all, the human need to connect.

“His shows are about connection in a complex and difficult world,” said Korey Rothman Ph.D. ’05, who studied musical theater and is now director of UMD’s CIVICUS program. (Rothman has also taught introduction to theater and history of musical theater courses at UMD.) “I think that’s something we can relate to—the fear of the complexity of the world and how we’re saved by our connections.”

A protégé of famed lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, the heavily awarded Sondheim “elevated the quality of lyric- and music-writing, and also the possibilities of (musicals),” said Rothman. Broadway shows “didn’t have to (have) happy endings and be about the irrepressible spirit of America—we could explore things in more complicated and sophisticated ways.”

Sondheim’s intricate wordplay and puzzle-like linking of lyrics and music influenced composers like Jonathan Larson, who wrote “Rent,” and Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” renown, both of whom consulted with Sondheim on their work. “I can’t imagine anyone writing today who has not been profoundly impacted by Sondheim’s work,” said Rothman.

Below, Rothman shares five exceptional songs from Sondheim’s oeuvre.

Finishing the Hat
In “Sunday in the Park with George,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1984 musical, Sondheim creates a fictionalized version of French pointillist painter Georges Seurat navigating his all-consuming impulse to create, even as it dooms his personal relationships. In “Finishing the Hat,” George (played in the original Broadway production by Mandy Patinkin) bursts with pride at his work while acknowledging that his obsession distances him from the world around him. Rothman said, “There isn't a more succinct statement about what it means to create” than the famous final lines: “Look, I made a hat / Where there never was a hat.”

Someone in a Tree
Cited by Sondheim as his favorite among his own songs, “Someone in a Tree” comes from 1976’s “Pacific Overtures,” which tells the story of the westernization of Japan. In the song, an older man recalls his experience as a young boy witnessing an important historical moment from his perch in a tree. “It reminds me that history is not about big, sweeping happenings, but it’s an infinite series of our own actions that make a moment,” said Rothman. (Rothman, who is planning a Sondheim memorial tattoo, is torn between the ending lines of “Finishing the Hat” and the lyric, “It’s the fragment, not the day” from this song.)

With So Little to Be Sure Of
Emphasizing the necessity of human relationships, “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” from 1964’s “Anyone Can Whistle,” is a reminder that sharing experiences with other people is the best way to endure the “crazy business” of living, as the song goes: “Thanks for everything we did / Everything that’s past / Everything that’s over too fast / None of it was wasted / All of it will last.” Rothman noted that the song played at her wedding.

Anyone Can Whistle
In the same musical’s title song, a cerebral nurse named Fay hopes that a mysterious stranger can help her feel more deeply. “What’s hard is simple / What’s natural comes hard / Maybe you could show me / How to let go, lower my guard, learn to be free,” sings Fay. “This was my angsty teenager song,” said Rothman. “It made me think that in Sondheim’s lyrics, I could find a way to express myself.”

No One Is Alone
In 1986’s “Into the Woods,” Sondheim unraveled the traditional tropes of fairy tale witches, princesses and giants. In “No One Is Alone,” the characters learn that their actions have consequences on others, and that they are all part of the interconnected web of humanity. “I like the idea that we’re all connected in our intentions and in our loss and in our grief, but because of that we have this profound responsibility to our community and to each other,” Rothman said. In the finale, the lyrics of the song are altered in a way many have noted since Sondheim’s passing: “Sometimes people leave you / Halfway through the wood / Do not let it grieve you / No one leaves for good.”

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