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Sondheim farewell; Grammy parade

Stephen Sondheim, who changed the face of Broadway, has died at 91; Esperanza Spalding and five other Oregon-linked artists score Grammy nominations.

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An American giant has fallen. Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist who rewrote the book on the Broadway musical, died on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. He was 91 years old and had not been known to be ill, according to The New York Times’ obituary, which also did not yet have a cause of death.

Erin Tamblyn in Broadway Rose Theatre Company’s 2019 production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” Photo: Liz Wade

Sondheim was a bridge between the classic American musical theater of the likes of Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hammerstein and the generations including such composers as Jonathan Larson, Jason Robert Brown, and Lin-Manuel Miranda that flourished in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Sondheim in a 1976 publicity shot. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

He was a childhood friend of the son of Oscar Hammerstein II, who took him under his wing and taught him the trade; by the time Sondheim went out on his own he had a rich understanding of how Broadway worked, and ideas about how to put his own stamp on it.

He came to prominence in 1957 as lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s compositions in West Side Story, and two years later as lyricist for Jule Stein’s Gypsy. After that, he was lyricist and composer for a string of prestigious musicals as varied as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and the underrated Assassins. His writing was clever, precise, sophisticated, and more intellectual than Broadway had been accustomed to; for my money his greatest musical was Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which fused his considerable musical and lyrical skills with the furious passion of a penny-dreadful tale.

Sondheim’s first big success, West Side Story, is circling back, with a lavish new movie version coming out in December, directed by Steven Spielberg with a fresh script by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner.

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Portland’s Esperanza Spalding, performing in 2009, before winning her first Grammy Award. Photo: Andrea Mancini/Wikimedia Commons

NOMINATIONS FOR THIS YEAR’S GRAMMY AWARDS were announced this week, and Thursday’s ArtsWatch Weekly noted a couple with Oregon connections. Senior Editor Brett Campbell adds some others, including a nod for the terrific jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding:

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  • Spalding, who grew up in Portland and now lives in New York, won her first of four Grammys in 2011 as Best New Artist. This year she’s nominated in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category for Songwrights Apothecary Lab.
  • The indie rock band Japanese Breakfast – led by Michelle Zauner, who grew up in Eugene – scored two nominations: for Best New Artist, and for the album Jubilee, in the Best Alternative Music Album category.
  • Percussionist and composer Andy Akiho, who lives part-time in Portland, is nominated in the Best Contemporary Classical Composition category for music performed by the group Sandbox Percussion, which also was nominated in the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance category for its recording of Akiho: Seven Pillars.
  • New York-based pianist Simone Dinnerstein is nominated in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category for her recording of Richard Danielpour’s An American Mosaic, a work she premiered at the Oregon Bach Festival.

They join the two nominees we noted on Thursday:

  • Cappella Records, the label of the outstanding Portland-based choir Cappella Romana, is a nominee in the Best Choral Performance category for its 2020 release Sheehan: Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, conducted by composer Benedict Sheehan, and featuring Michael Hawes, Timothy Parsons, Jason Thoms, and The Saint Tikhon Choir.
  • And Corey Brunish, the Broadway-musical producer and investor (and multiple Tony winner) who splits his time between Portland and New York, scored a nomination in the Best Musical Theater Album category as a co-producer of Stephen Schwartz’s Snapshots, the world-premiere cast recording of a “musical scrapbook” of songs by the composer and lyricist of such Broadway hits as WickedPippinGodspell, and Rags.

Winners will be announced during a televised ceremony on Jan. 31, 2022.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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  1. Great roundup Bob! Sondheim has an interesting relationship with Seattle. His licensing agent threatened to act againt the Alice B. Theatre when in the early 1990s they did a version of “Company” with some characters switched into lesbian and gay couples. (Alice B cut the run short.) And more happily, ACT Theatre was one of the first theaters to do a production of his “Merrily We Roll Along,” after its disaastrous Broadway run. The production, directed by Jeff Steitzer and featuring the wonderful UW grad and future Broadway star Linda Emond, was in 1988 and helped launch a rediscovery/reassessment of the Sondheim-Furth musical.

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