The making of music theatre masters

Ahead of State Opera’s upcoming celebration of the great composers of musical theatre, artistic director Stuart Maunder looks at the huge influence of Sondheim – especially on Lin Manuel-Miranda, the multi-award-winning creator of pop culture phenomenon Hamilton.

Oct 27, 2022, updated Oct 27, 2022
State Opera's 2021 production of 'Sweeney Todd'... Lin Manuel-Miranda likens his protagonist Alexander Hamilton to the anti-hero in Sondheim's theatrical horror tale.

State Opera's 2021 production of 'Sweeney Todd'... Lin Manuel-Miranda likens his protagonist Alexander Hamilton to the anti-hero in Sondheim's theatrical horror tale.

So says Lin Manuel-Miranda, revolutionary composer of Broadway sensation Hamilton and Disney films Moana and Encanto. And as one of the few who got to work with Stephen Sondheim, he should know.

There is no denying the capacity of Sondheim to reach an audience and influence fellow composers, new and old. As we approach one year since his death, his work is still relevant today, with productions continually being put on stage and film or told from a new perspective.

Manuel-Miranda continues (in a piece written for the BBC Music Magazine website Classical Music*): “The biggest thing I take from Sondheim’s writing is the element of surprise and variety. When I was working on Hamilton, Steve really encouraged me to develop that piece, and I’d occasionally be brave enough to send him demos. Every time, he’d write back, saying ‘variety, variety, variety’.

“The tricky thing about writing… for the stage is when… we stop paying attention to the lyrics. It’s important to always surprise the audience – I really took that feedback to heart.”

That advice seems to have paid off. Manuel-Miranda is now a Tony, Olivier, Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winner acclaimed worldwide for his breakthrough work, much like his mentor Sondheim.

Typical of both Sondheim and Manuel-Miranda’s writing is how the audience can experience the music and lyrics sitting in perfect harmony with each other, drawing them in to the character’s journey and witnessing them weave their way through the maze of words which outwardly express their inner emotions and conflicts.

Referring to their works, Manuel-Miranda likens his protagonist Alexander Hamilton to one of Sondheim’s own anti-heroes, Sweeney Todd. Both pieces are based on a strong central character around whom the story revolves; the eye of the hurricane, they are the life force of the piece who leave no room for negotiation. Everyone on stage is tasked with telling their story, and they are relentless in achieving their goals.

Manuel-Miranda describes Sondheim’s score for Sweeney Todd as a “masterpiece”. The unexpected in the darkest depths of the story, “the zig when you think it’s going to zag”, and one can immediately find a common approach in both composers’ works. In the Sweeney Todd song “Pretty Women”, an unassuming ballad sung by Todd as he is about to slit Turpin’s throat, there is a contradictory sweet melody to the horror and suspense happening on stage. This sinisterism is echoed in Hamilton’s “You’ll be Back”, where a bopping, Beatles-esque mad King George murderously threatens those seeking independence from the British Empire.

Perhaps one could even liken the “Cabinet Battle” raps in Hamilton to the great patter songs of the Golden Age. The writing is clever, witty, intricate. The wordsmanship could easily trip the singer up over their own tongue at any moment, captivating the audience watching with awe. The musical reprises evoke seemingly harmless passages from earlier in the show, sending the viewer on a journey with the character back to a time when they were blissfully unaware of the turmoil or heartache that awaited them.

Lin Manuel-Miranda after receiving a standing ovation at the end of the Hamilton premiere in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo: Carlos Giusti / AP

As a new and upcoming composer, Sondheim learnt what it takes from the greats, Rodgers & Hammerstein (Carousel, Oklahoma!) and Leonard Bernstein (Candide, Wonderful Town). When he directly mentored Sondheim, Oscar Hammerstein II insisted he learn the mechanics of lyric writing as a basis of composing. This insistence resulted in the creation of West Side Story (written in collaboration with Bernstein) and Gypsy, two of his first musical successes.

Manuel-Miranda even recalls Sondheim’s account of a conversation between himself and Hammerstein where the latter said, “you’re trying to write like me, but you’re not me. You’ll be (so much further) ahead of everyone else if you can write like you rather than like me”. Manuel-Miranda evidently took Hammerstein’s words to heart as he utilised modern-day hip-hop as a story-telling mechanism in his work. One could say Hammerstein influenced Manuel-Miranda through Sondheim and made an indirect contribution to the final product of Hamilton.

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And the legacy continues to live on. In 2021, Manuel-Miranda made his directorial film debut with tick, tick… Boom! about Jonathan Larson, composer of smash-hit musical Rent. Larson, who sadly died the day Rent debuted off-Broadway, was not only hugely influenced by Sondheim and his works but received direct mentorship from him, as Manuel-Miranda did when he wrote Hamilton.

Manuel-Miranda bought the story of Larson and Sondheim to the Gen-Z Netflix audience, introducing (or perhaps re-introducing, to those already in the know) the talent and legacy of Sondheim to a new generation of potential music theatre lovers.

Andrew Garfield stars as Rent creator Jonathan Larson in tick, tick… Boom!. Photo: Netflix

Sondheim has been called a master composer, a master lyricist, and a master show-creator, all very different disciplines which he encapsulated in his many works. These are adjectives which have undoubtedly been attributed to Manuel-Miranda, ensuring that his legacy and influence, along with that of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Bernstein, continues to live on.

There is an endless plethora of others in the music theatre world who have been influenced by Sondheim. Perhaps among the most notable is Cameron Mackintosh, the highly prolific West End producer and some-time collaborator of Andrew Lloyd-Webber (Phantom of the Opera, Cats). The two were great friends and colleagues and, upon Sondheim’s death last year, Mackintosh renamed the Queen’s Theatre on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue after him. Earlier this year he also held a Sondheim gala, Old Friends, a one-night celebration of the composer’s works featuring West End and Broadway stars including Judi Dench, Bernadette Peters, and Michael Ball.

Even Madonna has had the privilege of singing Sondheim-composed works. Warren Beatty requested the composer contribute a handful of songs to their 1990 film Dick Tracy, one of which was a duet with Mandy Patinkin, who some may know better as the original George Seurat from Sunday in the Park with George.

Although modern-day successes such as Hamilton and Phantom of the Opera may dominate the billboards and advertising brochures, the classics refuse to be forgotten. Sondheim, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Bernstein’s works continue to be revisited, reinvented and retold for modern audiences.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella is currently playing in Sydney, Oklahoma! has just announced a West End transfer, Steven Spielberg directed a new film version of West Side Story in 2021, and Sondheim’s Into the Woods is currently experiencing a healthy re-opening on Broadway. These productions of arguably some of the best the music theatre has to offer prove that the Golden Age classics are still relevant today and continue to capture the hearts of audiences worldwide, even continuing to bring in the big prizes, as Company did when it won the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival in 2022.

State Opera South Australia is also bringing a collection of these Golden Age works to the stage in Bright Lights and Big Dreams, a celebration of not only Sondheim’s greatest works but also those of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Bernstein. Among the congestion of today’s commercial offerings, the importance and legacy of the original masters of the genre and their influence are highlighted and celebrated in this gala.

So, there’s no denying Manuel-Miranda’s statement that Sondheim has, still to this day, massive influence on the music theatre world. He was the original moderniser of music theatre, taking the classic genre developed by Rodgers & Hammerstein and Bernstein and turning it inside out and upside down.

He mastered an enduring artform and he successfully passed the baton on to the likes of Manuel-Miranda, a legacy now living through a composer whom many consider to be the music theatre master of today.

State Opera is presenting Bright Lights and Big Dreams – directed by Stuart Maunder – at Her Majesty’s Theatre on November 11 and 12. The show will be performed by a cast including Ben Mingay and Antoinette Halloran, with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and will include music from classics such as Sweeney Todd, Carousel, Candide and West Side Story.

*Freya Parr, Classical Music, January 14, 2022: Lin-Manuel Miranda: ‘Anyone who tells you that Sondheim isn’t an influence on their music or their work is lying’.”

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