Sondheim and Hammerstein
With the death of Stephen Sondheim last month, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sondheim and a lyricist who was in some ways his polar opposite, Oscar Hammerstein.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics were always pushing, questioning, exploring a troubled world. He created shows about an unhappy single man (Company), political killers (Assassins), and a barber who sliced throats and made meat pies (Sweeney Todd). The characters he brought to life were passionate, clever, and sometimes overwhelmingly sad.
Oscar Hammerstein’s shows, by contrast, were full of optimism and love, from Oklahoma! to The King and I to The Sound of Music. There was sadness, but it was wistful and ultimately upbeat. You came out of his shows smiling, convinced there was hope and justice in the world.
Critics these days are down on Hammerstein and up on Sondheim, because Sondheim’s vision suits our time. I would argue that both were great, just in different ways.