If you go up to a random person on the street in New York and ask them to name the most influential composer and lyricist in Broadway history, the probability is high that they will walk away and ignore you, because that’s just what us New Yorkers do. But if they do answer, I can almost guarantee that they will answer with the name of one Stephen Sondheim. Now, if you go up to a random person on the street in New York that is willing to talk to you (most likely not a real New Yorker) and ask them what the most well known show currently on Broadway is, they will probably answer Wicked. Wicked’s composer and lyricist is also very renowned, and is named Stephen Schwartz. So, if I were you, I’d be asking myself, “Is it a coincidence that two of the most influential people in Broadway history have the same first name?” Well. I. Think. Not.
Stephen Sondheim, who has collected a total of eight Tony Awards, more than any other composer, has pretty much contributed to musical theatre for his entire life. From writing the lyrics to West Side Story, one of the greatest musicals of all time, at only 26 years old from 1956-1957 (at this point in time the men who wrote Book of Mormon weren’t even alive yet, and Barbra Streisand herself was in freshman year of high school) to lyricizing and composing at least 22 other musicals (meaning that he has composed, on average, one musical every three years of his adult life). He is a true musical genius, has worked with the best of the best, and even now when he is 85 years old, he still writes and composes for shows. How’s that for commitment? Now, Stephen Schwartz may be younger than Sondheim, but the differences stop at about that. He has also contributed to musical theatre for his entire life, having started working professionally at the age of 21. Aside from lyricizing and composing Wicked, which took 3 Tony awards and was nominated for 9 in 2004, he also is the man behind well known shows such as Godspell, Pippin and The Baker’s Wife, among many others. Additionally, he has his own website, which I found while doing research for this, and we all know you’ve really made it once you have your own website. All jokes aside, these two men define the ideal composer.
My favorite Stephen Sondheim quote (which I’ve had memorized since I was ten) is, “Art in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.” I love this quote because it is so true. Without order being made out of this chaos that is art, art would just be confusing and overwhelming, and I know that, at least for me, art is the one thing that I am never confused about. However, while looking at some of his other quotes, I realized that one of them really stood out to me. The quote reads, “I love the theater as much as I love music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh, making them cry- just making them feel- is paramount to me.” All people involved in musical theatre should be able to understand what Sondheim is talking about when he says this. That magical feeling of knowing that you’re touching someone on a personal level is something every performer strives to have. A similar quote from Stephen Schwartz says, “I wouldn’t do a project if it weren’t a story I wanted to tell. That’s rewarding in itself, as a writer, if you’re working on a story that you enjoy telling.” In order for a composer or a performer to really touch the audience, they must connect to the show themselves, and be able to feel the impact of the story that they are telling.
Okay, so maybe it is a coincidence that Stephen Sondheim