English 3 —Period 5
20 May 2014
Stephen Sondheim and American Music
Since its early roots in vaudeville, Broadway music has infused popular culture. Composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin not only scored the music of hit shows of the early part of the decade, but also provided the soundtrack for American life. As the face of American music changed from jazz to hip hop, Broadway’s role in popular culture began to shift. One composer, however, has continued to make his mark on both the Great White Way and the national consciousness. Stephen Sondheim, who began his career as a composer and lyricist in 1954 (Sondheim 5), is the greatest composer of the 20th century. His influence on his peers and popular culture separate him from his contemporaries and distinguish him as the preeminent American composer of his time.
Sondheim began his career under the tutelage of Oscar Hammerstein III, father of American musical theatre (PBS). Although originally only a lyricist (providing the lyrics for the songs Hammerstein wrote), Sondheim was encouraged to try his hand at musical composition as well (Swain 641). Sondheim’s big break, however, came in 1957 when he teamed up with Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein to provide lyrics for West Side Story. Running nearly 800 performances in its original run, West Side Story was a bona fide hit and immediately thrust Sondheim to the front of the American stage (Sondheim 7). Over the course of the next 50 years, Sondheim would compose music and write lyrics for over 20 shows, including Gypsy, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. In that time, he’s won more Tony awards than any other Broadway composer (Theatre Wing), received a Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park with George, was honored with the Kennedy Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award and even an Oscar for Best Song (NPR). However, it is not Sondheim’s accolades that distinguish him from his peers. Rather, it is the enduring legacy of his work (in the theatre and in popular culture) and the complexity and musicality of his work that mark Sondheim as the greatest American composer of the 20th century.
In order for a composer to be considered important, his or her legacy must extend beyond the musical world. The 20th century saw many important musical figures, but none have had the wide-reaching cultural influence that Stephen Sondheim has. His music and personality have influenced television and movies in a way no other modern Broadway composer’s have.
Sondheim’s music is often featured on television shows and in movies, even when they may seem out of place. So far is his cultural reach that his name is synonymous with musical theatre, even for the uninitiated. For example, several of Sondheim’s songs have been used on Fox’s show Glee. Telling the story of a suburban Ohio high school’s show choir, Glee has made its name taking songs and creating “mash-ups” with musical theatre standards (Entertainment Weekly). One of the most popular in the show’s latest season was the mashup of “I Feel Pretty” (from Sondheim’s West Side Story) and TLC’s “Unpretty.” In fact, Glee utilized at least two other Sondheim songs as well (Entertainment Weekly).
Glee is not the only television program to make use of Sondheim’s work. The hit ABC television show Desperate Housewives has used a Sondheim song title or lyric as the episode title for every episode in its seven seasons (ABC). Several songs have even been included in episodes (NPR). Will Ferrell sang the popular song “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music” when he appeared as a guest on David Letterman. The Fox animated show The Simpsons, long considered arbiters of pop culture relevance (Entertainment Weekly) also “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music when Krusty the Clown’s show gets cancelled (Fox). Krusty, sitting on a stage by himself, sings the song as huge lights spell out his...
Citations: usually include the author’s last name and a page number. However, if there is no page number, just the author’s lat name will do. If you are citing something with no author, give a keyword that will direct the reader to the correct entry on your bibliography.
EX: If I wanted to cite the NPR article I used, I might make the keyword (NPR). If I’m citing the NY Times article by Steven Holden, I’d just put (Holden).
Please join StudyMode to read the full document