All those shows are remarkably eclectic, telling stories depicting Brothers Grimm fairy tales, cannibalism in Victorian London, the westernization of 19th-century Japan and a Hollywood songwriter’s fractured friendships. Yet they only scratch the surface of Sondheim’s contributions to the musical theater canon, which include the scores to “Follies,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sunday in the Park With George” and the lyrics to “Gypsy” and “West Side Story.”
In his lifetime, Sondheim snagged eight Tonys, eight Grammys, an Oscar, a Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But what, exactly, made him so great? We asked six people intimately familiar with his work. Here’s what they said.
(Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
John Weidman: ‘There’s a depth of emotion’
Although Sondheim played a part in shaping every musical he wrote, he left the responsibility of writing the book — the spoken dialogue and narrative framework — to a handful of trusted collaborators. Among them: Weidman, who worked with Sondheim on “Pacific Overtures,” “Assassins” and “Road Show.”
I grew up in New York and never had any ambitions to work in the theater, but I was a rabid theatergoer. I particularly remember sitting in an orchestra seat at the Winter Garden Theatre for [Sondheim’s 1971 show] “Follies” and just thinking, “This is one of the most extraordinary theater experiences I’ve ever had in my life.” Every time I revisit that show, I’m struck again by the breathtaking quality of the material. In 1998, my wife, Lila, and I went out with [Sondheim’s collaborator, writer-director] James Lapine and his wife, Sarah, to see a production of “Follies” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Lapine turned to me on the way out and said, “If you’ve written that, why would you bother to go back and write anything else?”
I knew what he meant. I was a huge fan of Steve’s, and the intense experience of “Pacific Overtures” was stepping across the line from fan to colleague. The thing that impressed me most about Steve, the more I worked with him, was how entirely open he was to whatever the possibility of the creative moment suggested. He’s famous for reclining sort of theatrically on his couch in all these creative sessions, but his body language reflected the fact that he really was open to any kind of a new idea. That made for an exhilarating and enormously satisfying creative process.
When you look at his work, I feel like there’s a depth of emotion, which is often the second thing that people talk about since they almost always start with the cleverness. If you take a song like “Buddy’s Blues” from “Follies,” the cleverness is extraordinary, but the emotion inside the song, the pain inside the song, is remarkable. Steve had the ability to be unbelievably clever but also to take the deepest dives into the emotions of his characters.
Thomas Kail: ‘Can you make a musical about this?’
An Alexandria native, this Tony-winning director of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” helmed the current “Sweeney Todd” revival on Broadway. It may be the director’s first crack at Sondheim, but Kail is quick to point out that the composer has long influenced his work.
The thing that always struck me most about Sondheim was something quite simple: “Oh, I didn’t know you could make a musical out of this.” Lin-Manuel consistently talked about Sondheim’s impact when we were making “In the Heights” and a lot of people were saying, “Can you make a musical about this?” Of course, so many of the conversations we were having were the same ones that [“Rent” creator] Jonathan Larson was having when he was being encouraged by Sondheim, 10 years before us. Can you make a musical about this? Sondheim’s answer was, “Yes, I think you can.”
What I’m most struck by in this particular experience of “Sweeney” is the elevated timelessness. It just feels like it’s something that has always existed. Obviously, it’s based on source material that goes back many, many years, but it’s just one of those pieces of theater where you think, “Well, it must have always been thus.” Then you go back and you read about the making of it and you realize, of course, that it’s like everything else. There was no “hat” and then Sondheim made one — and it just happened to be “Sweeney Todd.”
When it comes to staging Sondheim, every song is like a little play. There are dozens of these little plays to explore, and the care and the thought that go into every moment of a Sondheim show, musically or lyrically, is apparent when you study it. For actors, I think it’s the same as interpreting Shakespeare. That’s why the work exists in so many forms in so many places, and always will.
Montego Glover: ‘Lyrics, lyrics, lyrics’
Decades before the Tony-nominated actress starred as the Witch in “Into the Woods” on Broadway — a role she’s reprising on tour at the Kennedy Center — Glover played Little Red Riding Hood in a student production at Florida State. In a show of such intricacy as “Woods,” she says, there’s always new magic to discover.
As an actor, I find the depth and complexity of Sondheim’s work exhilarating, and really challenging — and I mean that in the best possible way. I grow with his works. That is not to say that doesn’t happen with other composers, but I find his music to be both muscular and ephemeral, and I love the yin and yang of that. They seem like opposites, and they are, but together they make something that’s really interesting that you can keep working on.
With Sondheim, it’s lyrics, lyrics, lyrics — they’re going to be present, they’re going to be plentiful. No matter which one of his works you’re doing, they’re going to catch you truly off guard. I find that every time I step into his lyrics, they keep opening up little doors everywhere. It’s like he’s always winking at us. “Watch this: You think I’m going to go with Lane A, but actually it’s Lane B, and that’s more interesting.” He had a real talent, a real gift for finding the things that were not as obvious to play with. And he has a way of assigning values of music to lyrics that are exactly right. If you try to sing it another way, it’s not quite the right intention. I love the math of that.
Jon Kalbfleisch: ‘His shows are like a puzzle’
Few people have a deeper understanding of Sondheim’s scores than Kalbfleisch, who has served as Signature Theatre’s resident music director since its 1989 inception. Over that time, Kalbfleisch has overseen the orchestra in 30-plus Sondheim productions at the regional theater, which has produced more of the composer’s musicals than any other company.
We had done several of Sondheim’s shows at Signature when he came to see “Passion” in 1996. When I played the exit music at the end of the show, I turned around and the only person left in the theater was Stephen Sondheim, applauding with his hands over his head. I thought, “Well, that’s good.” Getting the opportunity to then work with him a couple of times, the thing that sticks with me is his absolute dedication to his craft — the art of creating exactly the right lyric at exactly the right time for that specific character in a specific scene in a specific show, without regard to whether anybody would like it.
I’ve also always felt that all of his shows are like a puzzle. What are the pieces? How does stuff lock together? How does it fit? The challenge of navigating those intricacies in the music and the lyrics is at the same time maddening and satisfying. For me, the music director, you sit down with the piano and go through the score and play it and then suddenly go, “Oh, this is the same theme as that.” “Oh, this is an inversion of this.” You analyze and find all of these little things that he’s done that nobody notices, but they’re there. His mind just worked in wonderful and mysterious ways.
Chani Wereley: ‘Rooted in humanity’
The 2018 Catholic University graduate admits that she was embarrassingly unfamiliar with Sondheim until she went to college, became a musical theater major and did a deep dive into his songbook. Now, as the only actor appearing in all three of Signature’s Sondheim shows this season, the performer finds herself enrolled in a crash course in Sondheim.
All of Sondheim’s stories are just rooted in humanity. “Into the Woods” is a story about love and loss. “Sweeney Todd” is about humanity, love, loss. “Merrily We Roll Along” — love and loss. Boom, boom, boom. It could be so formulaic, but it’s that really beautiful symphonic combination of lyrics and music that come together to tweak you up here [gestures toward her head] and also tweak you right here [gestures toward her heart]. I think as long as his shows are being produced, people will see them.
For me, being a non-White person, something I find very interesting about Sondheim is that I could sit in the dressing room for “Into the Woods” and be like, “Imagine if a Black person played this role. Imagine if an Asian person played this role.” I can look at the score and say, “That does speak to me and my lived identity and my lived experience.” Musical theater is heavily centered on Whiteness — it’s what it’s built on. But I think his work is very in line with the living, breathing, ever-changing culture and life that we have in theater. That is something very special about him.
Ethan Heard: ‘He raised the bar’
Raised in D.C., the director of “Pacific Overtures” is overseeing his first Sondheim musical at Signature. But he has been attending the theater’s Sondheim shows since he was 13, when he saw “Sunday in the Park With George” — a musical Heard would go on to direct for his master’s thesis at Yale’s David Geffen School of Drama.
I feel like Sondheim’s pieces are things I’ll want to return to again and again. I had the opportunity to do “A Little Night Music” once in college and once at the Berkshire Theater Festival, and I can’t wait to do it again. There are so many layers to uncover, and his lyrics are so smart, so detailed, so character driven. And his mind meld with his book writers and librettists is just extraordinary. I think in modern, lazier musical theater writing, the songs can feel very separate. They’re often pop songs, and they’re not really woven in an organic way into the show. Whereas Sondheim’s songs just come right out of the moment in the story.
Also, the lyrics are never repetitive for a lack of ingenuity. If he’s being simple, he’s being really intelligently and purposefully simple. I think of the song “Losing My Mind” from “Follies.” On the surface, it’s like, “Oh, it’s a torch song. It seems simple.” But it’s so deep. On the other hand, he can do these patter songs that are just so virtuosic in terms of the internal rhyme and the ideas and the wordplay. He raised the bar when it comes to what musical theater songwriting could be and could do.
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House. 2700 F St. NW.
- Dates: Through March 19.
- Prices: $45-$189.
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington.
- Dates: March 7-April 9.
- Prices: $40-$98.