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After his death at 91, an exploration of Sondheim’s Berkshire roots

Stephen Sondheim.
Bernard Gotfryd
Public Domain
Stephen Sondheim in 1972.

Legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim – who died last month at 91 – is being remembered warmly in Berkshire County, where he had deep connections.

In the annals of American theater, Sondheim is a giant. He wrote the lyrics to smash hits “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” while still in his 20s, and went on to create a body of work that tirelessly explored the darker corners of the human psyche and the structure of the musical itself. This makes it difficult for avowed Sondheim fans to pick the best introduction to his formidable oeuvre. Music from many of his shows has been featured in Roundtable broadcasts from WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio, The Linda.

“So, if someone had never experienced the Sondheim musical, I think the obvious example that most people would point to would be start with ‘Company,’" said Anthony Sheppard. "I'm not saying it's my personal favorite. I would say ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ I find incredibly moving. But I think as sort of the entry point would be ‘Company.’ I think a lot of people, it's probably, they've experienced ‘Into The Woods,’ or for me, it was ‘Sweeney Todd.’ I remember I somewhere around 1982 growing up, there was a television broadcast of ‘Sweeney Todd.’ And I just thought, what in the world is this? Amazing musically, but also so gory, and its plot- And I couldn't believe I was watching this on TV.”

Sheppard teaches music at Williams College – Sondheim’s alma mater.

“He graduated in 1950," Sheppard told WAMC. "And he was a music major- In fact, our most honored music major in the department's history. I actually teach across the hall here in a room that has plaque and a photograph of Robert Barrow, who was a professor of music and had been with chair the department for many years. And that's the professor who Sondheim studied with.”

The young Sondheim was a fixture of the Williams theater scene, active in both student and faculty led productions.

“He was an actor, performed in multiple shows, plays, and he is often credited as being, along with another student, responsible for the first musical that was performed on this campus. And he followed it up with a second musical, 'All That Glitters.' So he was very active in the theater department, especially with Cap and Bells, which is a student led theater group. But his major was in music, and he wrote his honors thesis as a composition in the music department, a piano sonata, and I guess finally, as he left Williams, he was honored with one of his first awards, and that was the Hutchinson Fellowship, which gave him funding to really pursue artistic study on his own for two years after graduating. And he used that funding, I'm pretty sure, to study with Milton Babbitt in New York City, study composition with him, after graduating from here.”

When Sheppard taught an overview on the history of American theater, Sondheim ended up in a category all of his own.

“With each musical, he was consciously being innovative," said the professor. "And the team of people he would work with, he sought out and enjoyed working with people who wanted to do something new, something different. And he spoke about this a lot during his career, how he just, each time, he wanted to do something that was not like the last show.”

In a region renowned for its theatrical offerings, Sondheim attended numerous Berkshire productions of his works.

“He saw three of our productions, it was so fantastic,” said Julianne Boyd, Artistic Director of Barrington Stage Company, based in downtown Pittsfield. “We were absolutely thrilled. He came and saw ‘Follies,’ and ‘Follies’ has been the show that people feel hasn't exactly worked, they don't know why. And when he saw it, he was just like, he was the first one to stand up. First one to stand up for the standing ovation, jumped to his feet. And afterwards, he said, I just wish the book writer were here to see this, it works, it really works. We were so touched, to say the least. And then he came to see ‘Sweeney Todd’ with Harriet Harris and Jeff McCarthy, and just a few years ago in 2017, he saw ‘Company’ with Aaron Tveit. So it's really been very wonderful that he appreciates and honors our work by attending the productions. I think it is just a memory that you'll never lose. And some of the actors who were in those productions have been emailing me over the weekend, and just saying, to think that he saw our work. It has been very exciting and rewarding.”

Berkshire theatergoers won’t have to wait long for BSC to pay tribute to the master.

“We were already planning to do a Sondheim musical in 2022," Boyd told WAMC. "So in my world and the world of our actors, we have an opportunity to celebrate his life right on our stage again in 2022. So that's very touching to me. Of course, I was hoping him would come see the production. And of course, that won't happen, but he'll be seeing it somewhere. Somewhere, Josh, he’ll be seeing it.”

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