Stephen Sondheim is the most artistically important Broadway composer of the past 50 years, even if he isn't the most commercially successful. To his credit, Sondheim has constantly challenged theater audiences with practically every one of his choices, from scathing lyrics to experimental music to the topics and themes of his musicals, which have included everything from middle class/middle age ennui to political assassinations to imperialism to ecological destruction. Sondheim doesn't stop there. The song structures he employs are often influenced by 20th Century classical music and feature tense, circular melodies instead of immediately catchy pop tunes.
As a young man, Stephen Sondheim started off as a lyricist for composers, penning the words to such revolutionary blockbuster shows as West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein), Gypsy (music by Jules Stein) and Do I Hear a Waltz (music by Richard Rodgers, the old working partner of Sondheim's theatre mentor, Oscar Hammerstein). While Sondheim would have entered the history books for his work on West Side Story alone, he started writing the music as well as words for musicals with the 1962 hit A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. An old fashioned romp, Forum would be the last time that Sondheim would put out a crowd pleaser with broad audience appeal.
His next success, Company (1970), was an impressionistic look at an isolated bachelor looking in on his married friends, all of whom were in various states of domestic distress. After this, Follies and A Little Night Music (which contained his biggest hit, "Send in the Clowns") continued to broaden the Broadway spectrum and win him widespread critical praise. In 1979, Sondheim released Sweeney Todd, one of his darkest works. Unrelentingly bleak, yet bitingly funny, Sweeney Todd is based on the classic tale of cannibalism for fun and profit. Todd's combination of bloody grand guignol, mordant comedy and tragic romance even came with an underlying metaphor about how even justifiable revenge can lead to madness and loss instead of closure and vindication. This perfect mix of horror, heart, tension, doomed love and comedy became Sondheim's biggest solo hit.
Instead of repeating himself, Sondheim followed Todd with the twin triumphs of Sunday in the Park With George (1984) and Into the Woods (1987), both of which balanced unique theatrical experiences and personal insight with experimental structures that still managed to enrapture audiences. These two musicals would be the last of Sondheim first-run shows to be commercially successful, as Broadway turned more and more towards the kind of big, escapist entertainments that could pay back their Hollywood-sized investments. In this modern climate, Sondheim has refused to compromise, releasing pungent works such as Assassins (1991), a musical spotlighting the deluded, often insane souls who have killed (or pathetically, failed to kill) U.S. presidents. The fact that Sondheim marries such dark material to a theme about America's obsession with "being somebody" doesn't sit well with mainstream audiences who expect costumed cats or Abba songs when they go to a Broadway show. In these more modern times, Stephen Sondheim finds it increasingly difficult to get the funding to stage new works, but contradictorily, his old musicals (many of which were originally rejected by audiences) have been revived to ecstatic reviews and solid box office receipts. It seems that while Stephen Sondheim is often ahead of his audience, they always come around eventually.