March 22nd is a significant date for any musical theatre fan and for musical theatre as a whole – the birth date of two of the most influential and prolific musical composers from the latter part of the 20th Century: Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, born eighteen years and an ocean apart from one another. These two composers and their respective oeuvre have had a considerable impact on the kind of musicals that have been and are being created, for better or for worse (depending upon other people’s opinions), as well as introduced me to the world of musical theatre. I’ve also had a quasi-close encounter with both composers too (well I’ve been in the same room with both – at two separate occasions – at one point in my life, if that counts).
More of that later…
While many have their own, sometimes strikingly opposed opinions about these two composers, my outlook on their body of work is more amicable (at least that’s my impression from the various online message boards, articles I’ve read over the years). As stated in my introductory blog post (I think), one can concurrently like Sondheim and Lloyd Webber and their respective musicals, and one is not necessary “better” than the other (though in the last few years, I’ve had… issues with one of Lloyd Webber’s works, but I don’t have to like everything he’s written…). Some have considered Sondheim’s musicals to be art, and Lloyd Webber’s to be mere entertainment, but I hold the opinion that both composers’ works are works of art and entertainment – and neither is “better” than the other.
I was aware of Lloyd Webber’s musicals first, as my school had done a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and knew of Cats and Phantom of the Opera, which at the time of my discovery of Lloyd Webber’s works, had recently opened to rave reviews. My introduction to the works of Sondheim came via PBS and their airing of the celebration at Carnegie Hall, to the point when I decided to sing “Send in the Clowns” as my solo song during the 8th grade spring concert when I was a part of the chorus after hearing Glenn Close sing the song on that telecast. Years later, I had read that many recording artists found that song to be difficult to sing – I was not aware of any of that when I made the decision to perform that song (I have a video recording of that spring concert and my interpretation of that song, but alas it exists on VHS and I have yet to have the capability to transfer said recording to DVD).
Another source of exploration of the musicals of Sondheim and Lloyd Webber were the cast recordings I had obtained via my public library and later purchased for my own (growing) collection – it was later on I researched both composers and learned more about their background and more about the shows themselves. As to actually seeing the shows live on stage, I have seen more Lloyd Webber productions than Sondheim, mostly due to the fact that at the time I started to go see shows on Broadway, there were more Lloyd Webber productions running on Broadway than Sondheim – the scales (as it were) have tipped in the other direction as more Sondheim musicals were being revived and less Lloyd Webber works were being produced (though I do make it a point to see Phantom at least once a year).
The first (professional) Lloyd Webber musical I saw was a revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the first Sondheim musical I saw was a revival of Into The Woods, both of which were fantastic. Since then, I have seen a number of shows from both composers, and have (as alluded to earlier) have actually been in the same general area with both gentlemen. My first quasi-encounter with Lloyd Webber was at the Phantom Gala when the show became the longest running show on Broadway (coincidentally on my birthday) – he was in the audience (I had spotted him and his family seated in the orchestra section) as were many Phantom alumni actors, and had given a short speech after the curtain call, so that kinda, sorta qualifies as an encounter. As Lloyd Webber primarily resides and works in the UK, it seems he rarely comes stateside for any momentous events (of course, he’s had health issues of late, which prevents his travelling outside the UK, which is understandable – though given his recent works have not quite made it to Broadway, that might also be a contributing factor). My brief encounters with Sondheim have been less formal and more substantial as I’ve attended (and have blogged about) the CD signings at Barnes and Noble for the fairly recent revival and staging of Follies and Merrily We Roll Along, respectively, where he graciously signed CDs and chatted with those who waited in line at the CD signing events.
In conclusion (maybe) my thoughts on both composers are of equal affection and admiration, both have had a lasting impression on the art of theatre and the arena of entertainment, and both have created a catalog of rich, diverse and highly melodic tunes, and have crafted musicals that have entertained and educated, and thrilled generations of theatergoers.
I wish both Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber a most happy birthday, and would like to thank them both for the magnificent work they have created over the years.