Reflections on Stephen Sondheim’s New York

Stephen Sondheim, who died at the age of 91, leaves behind him a complex vision of a city that is living, breathing, and restlessly begging to be reinvented.

by Kyle Turner

Sondheim in his studio
Courtesy of Getty Images

For one, jutting vertical lines across a color-morphing panorama is enough. For the other, it’s the sound of a busy signal on a telephone line, intoning like a relentless heart that does it. These are the simple, striking signifiers of a city whose chaotic contradictions and dizzying anthropological complexities would become fertile ground for composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, an artist whose work towers the way many skyscrapers dream to.

In works like West Side Story—a Romeo and Juliet remix, where he collaborated with composer Leonard Bernstein, book writer Arthur Laurents, and director and choreographer Jerome Robbins—and Company—a concept musical about a bachelor confronting his personal and existential loneliness on his birthday, with book writer George Furth and director Hal Prince—Sondheim’s music and lyrics bounce off the hot concrete (“Automobile in America/Chromium steel in America”), or twirl in the summer’s breeze (“Say it soft, and it’s almost like praying”), or cram themselves claustrophobically, thrillingly elbowing for room (“Can find each other in the crowded streets and the guarded parks”). Rather than hackneyed cynicism or banal affectation, Sondheim, who died on November 26 at the age of 91, leaves behind him a vision of New York that is both of the time in which he created it and also, like the city itself, breathing, living, and restlessly begging to be reinvented.

The blemished and wounded pavement becomes a theatrical proscenium and gang war arena in West Side Story, which originally premiered on Broadway in 1957 and was adapted to film by Robbins and Robert Wise in 1961. As the Jets’ wingspan allows them to luxuriate in their urban territory and the Sharks dart in and around alleyways to find space in a new home, Sondheim’s lyrics function as much as weapon and shield as flailing legs and glistening switchblades. The Jets are self assured as they size themselves up (“Got a rocket, in your pocket”), and the Sharks entertain no fools about the systemic barriers they face (“One look at us and they charge twice”). But the simplicity of lyrics like “And suddenly I’ve found / How wonderful a sound / Can be!” feels expansive and world-shattering, as they echo against the brick facades and tumble out into the basketball court.

Company was written nearly a decade and a half later, premiering in 1970, with a seemingly deliberate shift in social milieu: from working class people to the same bourgeois set that would be seated in the audience that evening. The show’s vision of New York gave its (upper) middle class characters the illusion of being sequestered, a delusion of being in the city and not of it, with few exceptions, despite the paradoxical ways the production’s protagonist, Bobby, and his friends conceptualized their identities in relation to the city. It’s in the making plans (“Bobby, there’s a concert on Tuesday / Hank and Mary get into town tomorrow”), the exhaustive dating rituals (“It's harder than a matador coercin' a bull / To try to get you off of your rump”), and the web-like bricolage of friends with varying degrees of intimacy (“Open the doors / And see all the crazy married people”) that make New York for them.

Both Oliver Smith’s scenic designs for West Side Story and Boris Aronson’s for Company atomized New York to its purest elements: plastic, steel, ruthless lines, austere backdrops. Leering over the characters, New York was Sondheim’s untamed gargoyle.

But, as two musicals that have resided loftily in the canon for nearly half a century, they’re not necessarily so different from one another, despite their disparate class contexts. Rather than isolated from one another, connected only by their artist, their legacy has proven that they, almost as if by design, change as the city changes, both in their ability to remain in amber as artifacts of their time as well as in their ability to be reinterpreted and revived. 2020 was to see two West Side Story iterations: one, a contemporary approach by Belgian theater director Ivo van Hove and choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, with the added bells and whistles of the Euro provocateur’s trademark live video work and button-pushing consideration of the text’s racial politics, a production which shut down during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic and did not return to Broadway; and another, a period take by filmmaker Steven Spielberg and adapted by Angels in America scribe Tony Kushner, the first musical for the Raiders of the Lost Ark director, which is to be released December 10. A new production of Company directed by Marianne Elliott, which was to open the day of the shutdown, touted a gender swap of its lead character while updating the setting and some of the text and lyrics to reflect a more modern context. The show is currently back in previews and premieres December 9 on Broadway.

Van Hove’s West Side Story revamped the show to prod at a surveillance state, with its live video feed monitoring the clandestine lovers’s every movement, their only private moment safe from the eyes of others being “Somewhere.” And Elliott’s Company expands on Sondheim’s argument that the show deals with “the increasing difficulty of making one-to-one relationships in an increasingly dehumanized society” by casting it as a memory play, with staged Instagram photos in each vignette as the only remnant of happiness and intimacy that Bobbie can grasp onto, while she swipes through dates.

As these shows change and don’t change, the external factors that shaped the New York in which they take place intrude the text: though some of its racial dynamics are tainted by the myopia of its white creatives, West Side Story’s perspective on the carceral state and systemic inequality being flattened to personal vendetta by people in power nonetheless remains chilling. (Notably, West Side Story’s history is necessarily tarnished by its lineage of gentrification; the film was shot in the same lot as the former housing complexes that were demolished to build Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side.) And Company’s shrewd anthropology of people whose relationships to relationships is fragmented by the way the city they inhabit is emblematic of an accelerated late capitalist fever dream that has seemed to function as blueprint rather than solely antiquated reaction to the sexual revolution.

A born New Yorker, the artist’s passing was felt through the city, the same one he helped bring alive in some of his shows. People gathered in Central Park and Times Square to perform “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George two days after Sondheim’s death. Other work of his would be shaded by or take place in the city, like Follies and Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim’s New York is etched with the scars of broken hearts and dashed dreams, severed connections and anesthetized marriages, its blistering sun and lacerating winter winds pervading his character’s inner lives. His fondness for the city’s cruelty, and that unkindness to unearth the complexities of the human condition, allowed New York as a dramaturgical setting to eschew cliché, to thrash on stage as beast before Sondheim’s poetry turned it to beauty again. He thrived in that contradiction, even writing about the bizarre thrill and joy one experiences living in crushing conditions. In “What More Do I Need?” from Saturday Night (1955), Sondheim’s first professional musical, he wrote,

A wall of rain as it turns to sleet

The lack of sun on a one-way street

I love the grime all the time

And what more do I need?


My window pane may not give much light

But I see you, so the view is bright

If I can love you, I'll pay the dirt no heed!

With your love, what more do I need?

Though the Leviathan-like buildings can isolate or gnarl themselves into trenches, Sondheim also let the romantic, electric heart of the city beat until it burst. It’s filled with wonder and amazement that a city of strangers could be this way while the hum of human yearning floods the grid, louder than the traffic. Draped over the fire escape, West Side Story’s Maria and Tony sing, “Tonight, tonight / The world is full of light / With suns and moons all over the place.” For a moment, New York stops for them in a hush, alive in a lonely, insomniac jungle. Company’s Bobby, too, gets a moment, bellowing beyond the confines of a living room or apartment or bar, “Somebody crowd me with love, somebody force me to care.” A seismic shock ripples on each curb. Sondheim’s New York shows are diamond-like in their beauty, sharp and impossibly immortal, an embodiment of the city’s unending longing, ceaseless searching, and desperate desire to want somebody, not just some body.