The period of Mr. Sondheim’s greatest work began when Harold Prince became his director. They were old friends, having been introduced by Mrs. Rodgers in the late 1940s or early 1950s, and Mr. Prince had been the producer of “West Side Story”. He had also proven himself as a director, with musical successes such as “She Loves Me” (1963) and “Cabaret” (1966).
Mr. Prince directed five Sondheim musicals of the 1970s – “Company”, “Follies”, “A Little Night Music”, “Pacific Overtures” and “Sweeney Todd” – and although not all of them had a commercial success, they were all innovative, the product of two extremely talented artists whose authoritative individual visions were, for the most part, complementary. While Mr. Prince naturally saw a show’s big picture, look and pace, Mr. Sondheim, who had inherited Rodgers and Hammerstein’s belief that songs are essential parts of the play, pushed the idea further – not just integrating words and music but imbuing songs with the preoccupations of a playwright; that is, to provide the singers with the necessary material to deepen their representations of characters and, during rehearsals, to concentrate on their performance and their diction.
The partnership fell apart on “Merrily We Roll Along,” a show that was hampered in part by the youthfulness of its cast members, who had to play not only young characters but also the disillusioned adults they became. , and by Mr. Prince’s acknowledged failure to find an appropriate look for the show as a whole.
“I never knew how to do it because I work so much from ‘What’s this going to be like?’ Mr. Prince told Ms. Secrest for her biography of Sondheim. “It becomes the driving force of the show. I never could understand it.
“Merrily” has had several lives since then, Off Broadway, in regional theater and abroad, as producers and directors have tried to solve her problems and present what is generally recognized as a lively and poignant score. .
A young collaborator
Regardless, the two separated from the creative business for more than two decades, no longer working together until they crafted a heavily revised version of a musical about a pair of brothers. American entrepreneurs at the start of the 20th century which in other incarnations, before and after, has been variously titled “Gold”, “Wise Guys” and “Road Show”. Under Mr. Prince it was called “Bounce” and it was produced in 2003 at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and the Kennedy Center in Washington.
During Mr. Prince’s absence from his creative life, Mr. Sondheim teamed up with a young collaborator, James Lapine, and together they created the most cerebral works of Mr. Sondheim’s career. These included “Into the Woods,” which reinvented familiar fairy tales for children into darker fables for adults; “Passion”, an almost lyrical meditation on the nature of love; and “Sunday in the Park with George”, a work whose first act ingeniously creates the artistic process of the painter Georges Seurat when he creates his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” and whose second act goes forward a century to illustrate how a contemporary artist makes art in a more consumer conscious era.