5 Reasons Dancers Can Celebrate Stephen Sondheim's 90th Birthday
Updated: Jun 20
Last night, legions of Broadway legends came out to celebrate composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim's 90th birthday. Broadway.com, via its YouTube channel, brought viewers, 'Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration ' hosted by Broadway and television actor, Raúl Esparza.
Though it started late and had a few technical glitches, the program ultimately turned into a beautiful night of amazing music. The evening also featured so many of Broadway's best, like Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Beanie Feldstein, Ben Platt, Kelli O'Hara, Aaron Tveit, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Katrina Lenk, Laura Benanti, Jake Gyllenhaal, Annaleigh Ashford, Donna Murphy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, and many, many more.
The presentation, which Broadway's Mary-Mitchell Campbell musically directed, benefited ASTEP (Artists Striving To End Poverty — a program designed by Campbell to help underserved communities through art.
While, Sondheim — the Tony, Grammy, and Academy Award-winning composer and lyricist of musicals like ‘Into The Woods’, ‘Assassins’, ‘Sweeney Todd’, and ‘A Little Night Music’ — may be one of the most well-known and respected musical theatre writers of all time, most dancers don’t realize that many of his contributions and connections, in part, form the foundation of dance in theatre in the later part of the 20th century.
So, in honor of Mr. Sondheim’s 90th — here are five reasons dancers can also celebrate the iconic writer.
1. 'West Side Story'
It was his first big job on Broadway. All the way back in 1957, Sondheim was hired to write the lyrics for a new musical based on Shakespeare's 'Romeo And Juliet'. The product that came to be — 'West Side Story' — stands as Sondheim’s most well-known lyrical contribution to theatrical dance and one of the most recognizable and celebrated pieces in the musical theatre echelon. And, although Sondheim has often said that he's "embarrassed" by many of the lyrics in the show, he, together with composer Leonard Bernstein and book writer Arthur Laurents, set in motion the way for one of the most revived and celebrated dance musicals of all time. Sondheim's lyrics accompany some of the most revered dance pieces in Broadway history, like "America", "Cool", and "Dance At The Gym".
Jerome Robbins, with whom Sondheim would later work again on ‘Gypsy’, created the iconic choreography that has graced, (with only the current revival as an exception), every Broadway stage production of ‘West Side’ since its inception.
Robbins also notably co-directed and choreographed the original 1961 film version of ‘West Side Story’, but for the 2020 re-make of the movie, Tony-winning New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck built the choreography, while Steven Speilberg, (who made an appearance in last night's program) directed. The new film is slated to premiere in December of this year.
“Dance At The Gym” from the 2009 revival of ‘West Side Story’ on Broadway.
While it's not your typical dance musical, 'Company' marked the beginning of a new generation in Broadway history; when Stephen Sondheim began working with the famed director and producer Harold Prince. Surely Prince's career existed well before he began working with Sondheim — but in the 1970's scheme of success, 'Company' was the seemingly perfect crossroad where the famed composer/lyricist and the “Prince of Broadway” began setting the stage for their coming firewall of musical success.
Along with 'Company' and his partnership with Hal Prince, Sondheim also developed an early working relationship with choreographer Michael Bennett. Bennett's time with the unstoppable duo of Prince and Sondheim, quite fruitfully, helped bring up his stock as a dance maker in the early ’70s.
Bennett, who would go on to famously help create, direct and co-choreograph the wildly successful 'A Chorus Line', had found his first big success with 'Promises, Promises' in 1968 and found his next big opportunity with the Sondheim-written and Prince-directed, 'Company'. Bennett was nominated for a 1971 Tony for his choreography of the musical sending his career into overdrive. The dance number "Tick Tock" from 'Company' (which has been often cut from subsequent productions), was danced incredibly by Donna McKechnie. McKechnie had worked with Bennett on 'Promises, Promises' and would famously go on to win a Tony for her work as Cassie in 'A Chorus Line'.
Bennett then went on to win two Tony Awards the following year in 1972 for directing and choreographing Sondheim's ‘Follies’.
“Tick Tock” from ‘Company’. Danced by Donna McKechnie in a reunion concert in 1993. Choreography by Michael Bennett.
And, speaking of 'Follies'...
Though the musical might be one that fewer folks are aware of in the Sondheim catalog, it's certainly been a standout for dancers and choreographers for decades.
Though Michael Bennett would move on from his work with Prince and Sondheim after 'Follies', the director/choreographer earned two Tonys for his work on the musical, creating beautiful dances to songs like "Waiting For The Girls Upstairs", "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues", and "Live, Laugh, Love".
'Follies' marked the second show in the Prince/Sondheim two-decade Broadway dynasty. Along with 'Company' and 'Follies', the two worked together throughout the 70s and 80s on a plethora of musical theatre gems like ‘A Little Night Music’, ‘Sweeny Todd’, ‘Merrily, We Roll Along’ — and then, after a long 22-year break, ‘Bounce' in 2003.
Ron Raines performing “Live, Laugh, Love” from the Warren Carlyle choreographed 2011 Kennedy Center production of ‘Follies’.
While ‘West Side Story’ remains Sondheim’s most movement-driven musical, ‘Gyspy’ has also proven, over the years, to be a large canvas on which choreographers have had broad space to paint.
The original production of ‘Gypsy’, also directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, premiered on Broadway in 1959 — just two years after 'West Side Story'. Again, with 'Gypsy', Sondheim provided only the lyrics to the piece, this time though, to the already well-established Jule Styne’s compositions. The musical, itself, became an instant hit, running for 702 performances, and has been revived on Broadway four times.
Songs like "All I Need Is The Girl", "You Gotta Have A Gimmick", and "Let Me Entertain You" have been Sondheim-created dance staples for generations.
Paul Wallace and Natalie Wood performing “All I Need Is The Girl” from the 1962 film version of ‘Gypsy'.
5. His Sheer Volume Of Work
The mere fact that Stephen Sondheim has consistently been creating new musicals since the mid-1950s speaks volumes about the significance of his contributions to the art form, but what makes it all exponentially even more remarkable is the universality of his work. Because of that ubiquitousness and the sense of timeless understanding that exists in many of his pieces, most have received numerous Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional, and concert revivals over the years. And, those revivals have created plenty of opportunities for choreographers and dancers alike.
More than just luminaries like Robbins and Bennett, Sondheim's works have given choreographers like Michael Litchfield, Rob Marshall, Patricia Birch, Kathleen Marshall, John Caraffa, Amon Miyamoto, Warren Carlyle, Parker Esse, Liam Steel, Lorin Latarro, Anne Teresa De Keersmaker, and more and chance to create story-driven movement. What is even more still, are the thousands upon thousands of dancers who have all been given the incredible fortuity to bring their own inspired movement and interpretation to the legend's work as well.
So, raise a toast — and a leg — to Mr. Sondheim for his 90th birthday, and celebrate the man whose contribution to theatre dance over the last seven decades is much bigger than you might think.
Watch the full performance of 'Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration' from Broadway.com below:
Michael Mahany serves as NYC Dance News & Culture’s founder and Editor-At-Large. Additionally, he is a professional actor, singer, dancer who appears nightly in the 10th Anniversary production of 'Rock Of Ages' in New York City. He's also a co-host of the 'Pod De Deux' dance podcast. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter, or visit www.michaelmahany.com for more. Story tips? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A version of this article appeared on DanceNetwork.tv in March of 2020.