Superlatives were not lacking about him: Stephen Sondheim, the greatest musical comedian of the last third of the XXe century, who died on November 26 at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, at the age of 91, was soon regarded as the “Broadway Genius”. The cover of New York Magazine of April 4, 1994 was even to ask, in the form of a wink, the question “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” “.
Because the one that the New York Times qualifies, with reason, in the title of his obituary, from “Titan of the Musical”, was unanimously revered, especially in countries of Anglo-Saxon language and culture. When his birthdays were celebrated at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, New York – where his house was next to that of actress Katherine Hepburn, who pestered him when she heard him play the piano – the biggest stars of the stage, song and opera, television and cinema thronged to perform his most famous “hits”.
Meryl Streep (who is little known to have started her acting career in 1974 with a play Sondheim had written the music for), Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald in a hilarious version of The Ladies who Lunch, sung in teleconference, a glass of alcohol in hand, during confinement, for the ninetieth birthday of the musician and lyricist …
President Barak Obama, in presenting him in 2015 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country, had the right words: “As a composer, lyricist and as a genre on his own, Sondheim poses challenges to his audience. Her greatest hits aren’t tunes you can hum, they’re commentaries on paths we didn’t take and wishes that didn’t come true. ”
The cards in hand to win on Broadway
Trained by Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist of legendary musicals such Show Boat (1927), The king and me (1951) and The melody of happiness (1959) – who becomes his surrogate father – the young man, born into a wealthy family, quickly learns what to do and what not to do. He also followed extensive studies with an avant-garde composer, Milton Babbitt, propagator in the United States of the technique of serial writing and of electronic music.
So that Sondheim has a lot of cards in hand to impose himself on Broadway, where he will certainly reinvent the genre, but also, during the 1970s, mark it with the last fires of literary and musical demands in this area. At first a simple lyricist (for West Side Story, in 1957, Gypsy, in 1959, Do I Hear a Waltz ?, in 1965), he finally established himself as a lyricist and musician as the wave began to introduce pop music to Broadway.
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