The Most Influential Works Of Steven Sondheim: West Side Story And Sweeney Todd
On November 26th, one of the greatest American creators of all time passed away: Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim’s works span almost 70 years, as he began his career in his twenties. But even at 91, the age of his death, Sondheim was still working, lending his voice to a last-minute cameo in Tick Tick Boom on Netflix, the musical biopic about the creator of Rent, Jonathan Larson. Sondheim was Larson’s mentor. But even though he worked directly with Laron, Stephen Sondheim produced some of the most influential works in Broadway and movie history. Here are just the top two:
West Side Story, The Most Influential Romantic Musical in 100 Years
(Image: 20th Century Studios)
Though based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, West Side Story took on a legacy of its own. You’ve seen the famous street gang dance brawl at least five dozen times, often parodied in comedies, including SNL and Scrubs. And once I name this song, it will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day: “I Feel Pretty.” (I’m so sorry). But what really makes this work so influential is how Steven Sondheim broke musical conventions so thoroughly that he created new ones. Things that seem traditional now Sondheim established in that one musical. And, of course, it went on to be a classic movie, still shown in theaters to this day. And it’s getting a new adaptation this Christmas – as Steven Spielberg’s musical directing debut. How’s that for a legacy?
The Most Twisted Musical of All Time Came From Stephen Sondheim, Sweeny Todd
(Image: DreamWorks/Warner Bros Studios)
Having adapted Romeo and Juliet and several other works, Sondheim turned to the bizarre and obscure for inspiration. So, how about a musical about a serial killer and cannibalistic innkeeper? The story itself was a penny dreadful from the 19th century and became a hit play too. So, why not add some music. Sweeney Todd was a dark, dark comedy. But with it, Stephen Sondheim proved you can adapt just about anything to a musical, not only making it one of his most influential works but one of his most important. In fact, without Sweeney Todd, audiences might not have been as receptive towards Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Les Misérables musical. After watching a movie about people eating people pies, the French tragedy seems quaint.
The Most Influential Works of Stephen Sondheim Are Mostly On Broadway
Image: Bernard B. Jacobs Theater
Though we’ve seen several movies based on the works of Stephen Sondheim, his most significant influence is still on the stage. There’s hardly a year, unless there’s something like a global pandemic, when his work isn’t on stage. In fact, one of his most popular musicals of the seventies, Company, is premiering on December 9th, but with the roles gender-switched. And leading the cast is legendary Broadway star Patti LuPone leading the cast. But that’s not all. In another theater about two and a half dozen blocks away, another of his musicals, Assassins, debuted Off-Broadway. Stephen Sondheim lived for nearly a century, but his works will be influential to countless theater kids, musicians, writers, and directors for, probably, centuries to come.
(Featured Image: 20th Century Fox Studios)
Roman Colombo finished his MFA in 2010 and now teaches writing and graphic novel literature at various Philadelphia colleges. His first novel, Trading Saints for Sinners, was published in 2014. He's currently working on his next novel and hoping to find an agent soon.