Sondheim and Hammerstein

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.

The remarkable thing is that Hammerstein was a mentor and father figure to Sondheim. When young Sondheim wrote songs that imitated Hammerstein, Oscar told him kindly but firmly that he must discover and populate his own world.

That’s exactly what Sondheim did, and we are the richer for it. So are the hundreds of young artists whom Sondheim mentored, as Oscar had mentored him.

I could go on about their work, but its quality, as well as its stark contrasts, can be grasped by hearing two samples, both sung masterfully by the great Mandy Patinkin. Listen to the music of these two friends, who were so different and yet so much alike.

“Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

“Younger Than Springtime” from South Pacific
Music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein