The master turns 90

The master turns 90


norman lebrecht

March 21, 2020

It’s Stephen Sondheim’s birthday this Sunday.

He has been called many things – the last master of the Broadway musical, the Sigmud Freud of New York gender relations, the Albert Einstein of notes and syllables. None of these capture the nature of his particular art and craft – obsessive precision, allied to immense knowledge and a flow of dark humour and counter-intuitive inspiration.

I treasure the (three) hours I have spent at different times in his company.

Did someone say Company?


  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    He probably will be forgotten, for unlike Gershwin & Bernstein did he ever write a memorable tune? We still listen to the great tunes of Puccini, but who cares about Menotti?

    • Cubs Fan says:

      I think you’re wrong: Send in the Clowns has long been adopted into the Great American Song Book since it was written almost 50 years ago. Sweeney Todd is now part of the standard repertoire for opera companies large and small.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        It is a masterful song, indeed. But I think Sondheim’s real forte is as a lyricist. Absolutely. And this isn’t easy to achieve.

        I’m not at all fond of his musicals because of their generally rushed, heavily dialogue-laden, often clipped and overly-fussy verbal aesthetic. Personal choice.

        • Bruce says:

          There was recently a Sondheim special on American TV featuring the NY Philharmonic, hosted by Bernadette Peters, where they played excerpts from several of his musicals, with no singing. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed to see how much less interesting the music was without the words. I didn’t know most of the shows (Passion, Assassins) so I couldn’t supply the lyrics in my head.

    • RW2013 says:

      Mr. Kandan.
      Nowhere do you deserve my customary thumbs down for your unqualified comments more than here.

    • Phillip Ayling says:

      As someone who writes both ‘Music and Lyrics’ for his own songs, that already puts Stephen Sondheim in an elevated position, in my opinion.

      Saying he is no Bernstein or Gershwin, overlooks that some of Bernstein’s most famous tunes are memorable in part because of Sondheim’s lyrics and much of George Gershwin’s fame is attached to clever lyrics from brother Ira.

      Boring in on the claim that Sondheim never wrote a memorable tune, I would just say SEND IN THE CLOWNS. It was the featured track on the Frank Sinatra album, OL’ BLUE EYES IS BACK which was an RIAA Certified Gold Record in 1973.

      Judy Collins later recorded the song and it won Song of the Year at the 1976 Grammys. A Barbra Streisand version charted in 1986

      The song has been commercially recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Mathis, James Galway, Cleo Laine, Henry Mancini, Count Basie, Van Morrison, The Canadian Brass, Bing Crosby, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and almost a thousand others.

      This past year… approaching a half a century after the song was written…it was used as the End Credits music for the Academy Award winning film JOKER, which has grossed over a billion dollars.

      I happen to love Sondheim’s music because of what it means to me. Nonetheless, if the claim is one of no ‘memorable tune’ I should think Sondheim’s performance and publishing royalties for just that one song say otherwise.

    • Larry D says:

      I don’t want to descend to petty ad hominem meanness, but… but.. well, sir, you are a #&$*# idiot!

      • RW2013 says:

        Larry D, I think Sue is a lady (or pretending to be).

        • Larry D says:

          I was actually replying to Mustafa. These threads get confusing, I know. (Though my comment might apply to others, I would then try to moderate my exasperation with a veneer of civilization. But to leave such an snide, gratuitous and uninformed opinion on a man’s 90th birthday, of all times, sent me over the edge. Why not wait until his obituary at least and bring out all your smug stupidity then, like any decent moron? (Whoops, I did it again!))

    • Whatever says:

      Menotti, whether or not one likes his music, was a refined classical composer who understood music in a very different way from Sondheim. They are in two different musical categories and should not be compared as it is unfair, in my opinion. I personally knew Menotti but was not particularly taken with him as a person but as a musician, much of his work should be first understood and then rated as he really has very little in common with Sondheim and far more in common with Puccini. By the way, I enjoy Sondheim!

    • Bruce says:

      There’s also the “Johanna Quartet” from Sweeney Todd:

      (the part I mean starts about 1:02, “And are you beautiful and pale, with yellow hair, like her” but all of it is wonderful)

      I have found the tune, with or without the words, going through my head often.

  • Larry L. Lash / Vienna says:

    Thanks so much for these clips! I had my first live Sondheim experience at a matinee on 04 July 1973 when I went to the TKTS booth and got a half-price seat (about $3.00 in those days) and saw the original cast of “A Little Night Music.” In the coming months I saw it seven more times. And I never missed a Sondheim premiere after that, up through “Passion.”

    The nice surprise here is “Barcelona” with Peters and Chamberlain. I never knew this existed.

    I was also pleasantly surprised by Terfel as Todd. While he misses the constant underlying bite of Len Cariou (the first and best Todd of my lifetime), he does do some gorgeous things in one of my favourite passages from the work.

    And no matter what happens, the world will never be the same without Elaine Stritch. How I wish I could have seen her Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

  • We privatize your value says:

    And Margarita, how old is she now?

  • Bruce says:

    An (I think) underappreciated classic, from “Follies” (In Buddy’s Eye’s)

  • Adam Stern says:

    Stephen Sondheim has been my favorite living composer for many years, and I’m delighted that he’s about to begin a tenth decade.

    As to the charge of his not having written any memorable tunes, I would respectfully counter with such songs as “Anyone Can Whistle”, “Losing My Mind”, “Good Thing Going”… beautiful moments all among many others in his staggeringly brilliant output. (I’m reminded of one of the initial reviews of Brahms’ Second Symphony that Leonard Bernstein cited in a Young People’s Concert — something to the effect of, “It would be nice if the composer afforded us a little melody once in a while…”)

    The only thing for which I would take Mr. Sondheim to task stems from the memory of an interview given by pianist John Browning many years ago, in which he mentioned that he’d been after Sondheim to write him a piano concerto. That’s the last I heard of it… If it exists, don’t sit on it any longer; if not, please get to work on it immediately!

    Many happy returns, Mr. Sondheim.

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    Happy Birthday. Mr S is highly self-critical – look at the number of times he’s said how he dislikes his lyrics to “I feel pretty” from WSS

  • violin accordion says:

    Stephen Sondheim s Ensemble writing such as a weekend in the country, kiss me and so many others are as complex powerful and multilayered as Mozart’s. They are sad, witty and joyous at the same time, And the lyrics are acerbic, incisive and so easy to hear.all the voices within