Collaborations with Hal Prince (1970–1981)
After the completion of Do I Hear a Waltz, Sondheim devoted himself to both composing and writing lyrics for a series of varied and adventurous musicals. Sondheim collaborated with producer/director Harold Prince on six musicals between 1970 and 1981, beginning with the innovative “concept musical” Company in 1970. Company (1970) centered on a set of characters and themes rather than a straightforward plot. With a book by George Furth, the show opened on April 26, 1970 at the Alvin Theatre, where it ran for 705 performances after seven previews. It would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Music, and Best Lyrics, among others.
Follies (1971), with a book by James Goldman, follows a night where. It opened on April 4, 1971 at the Winter Garden Theatre and it closed after 522 performances and 12 previews. The story concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre, scheduled for demolition, of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies,” a musical revue (based on the Ziegfeld Follies), that played in that theatre between the World Wars. It focuses on two couples, Buddy and Sally Durant Plummer and Benjamin and Phyllis Rogers Stone, who are attending the reunion.
After Follies was A Little Night Music (1973), a more traditionally plotted show based on the film Smiles of a Summer Night by Ingmar Bergman, was one of his greatest successes. Time magazine called it “Sondheim’s most brilliant accomplishment to date.” Notably, the score was mostly composed in waltz time (either ¾ time, or multiples thereof.) Further success was accorded to A Little Night Music when “Send in the Clowns” became a hit single for Judy Collins. Although it was Sondheim’s only Top 40 hit, his songs are frequently performed and recorded by cabaret artists and theatre singers in their solo careers. A Little Night Music opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre on February 25, 1973, and closed on August 3, 1974 after 601 performances and 12 previews. It moved to the Majestic Theatre on September 17, 1973 where it completed its run.
By Bernstein premiered at the off-Broadway Westside Theatre on November 23, 1975 and closed on December 7, 1975. It ran for 40 previews and 17 performances. The lyrics and music were by Leonard Bernstein, with additional lyrics from other lyricists, including Sondheim. It was conceived and written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and Norman L. Berman. The production was directed by Michael Bawtree with a cast of Jack Bittner, Margery Cohen, Jim Corti, Ed Dixon, Patricia Elliott, Kurt Peterson, and Janie Sell. The two known songs that had Sondheim contributions are “In There” from the adaption of The Exception and the Rule (which would later be named The Race to Urga) and a cut song from West Side Story “Kids Ain’t (Like Everybody Else)”.
Pacific Overtures (1976) was the most non-traditional of the Sondheim—Prince collaborations, an intellectual exploration of the westernization of Japan.
Sweeney Todd (1979), Sondheim’s most operatic score and libretto (which, along with A Little Night Music, has been seen in opera houses), once again explores an unlikely topic, this time murderous revenge and cannibalism. The book, by Hugh Wheeler, is based on Christopher Bond’s 1973 stage version of the Victorian original.
Merrily We Roll Along (1981), with a book by George Furth, is one of Sondheim’s more “traditional” scores and was thought to hold potential to generate some hit songs (Frank Sinatra and Carly Simon each recorded a different song from the show). Sondheim’s music director, Paul Gemignani, said, “Part of Steve’s ability is this extraordinary versatility.” Merrily, however, was a 16-performance flop. “Merrily did not succeed, but its score endures thanks to subsequent productions and recordings. According to Martin Gottfried, “Sondheim had set out to write traditional songs … But [despite] that there is nothing ordinary about the music.” Sondheim and Furth have extensively revised the show since its initial opening. Sondheim later stated, “Did I feel betrayed? I’m not sure I would put it like that. What did surprise me was the feeling around the Broadway community – if you can call it that, though I guess I will for lack of a better word – that they wanted Hal and me to fail.”
It took me years before I really understood this song. I think it’s one of the most haunting and beautiful songs ever written.