What Gen Z Knows About Stephen Sondheim

How the late composer’s preoccupation with outsiders has endeared him to a new generation

A black and white portrait of Stephen Sondheim
Sondheim, along with his script-writing collaborators, relentlessly challenged the institutions that had given stability to musical theater’s form. (Juana Arias / The Washington Post / Getty)

“I love Company!” was not a sentence I expected to hear this semester. Well, not a sentence I expected to hear from an undergraduate during a seminar on the American musical. In the class I was teaching at Portland State University, I’d anticipated #Hamilfans, enthusiasts for Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, kids who loved Dear Evan Hansen—appreciation for anything that had debuted to acclaim during my students’ lifetimes. Vintage Stephen Sondheim stans, however, I had not predicted.

Not that people don’t love Company, Sondheim’s 1970 stinger that turned marriage, the traditional ending of musical comedy, into an open question. There was a gender-swapped revival of the play on Broadway this year, a documentary spoof of the famous original cast’s recording session, and a trend of covering its numbers in recent films. Company resonates far beyond the narrow slice of Manhattan that appears in the show, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that a 20-year-old Oregonian, especially one who’d elected a class on musicals, would be a fan.

It wasn’t just Company, though. Sondheim’s name seemed a miracle elixir to students for whom Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Stephen Schwartz, and Alan Menken held little currency. “I saw in the opening credits that the music was written by Stephen Sondheim, so I was excited,” a classmate wrote in a post to our discussion board about Sweeney Todd, which another student ranked as one of her “all-time favorite musicals.” The class relished debating the legendary composer’s lyrics to West Side Story and Gypsy, and they beamed when I mentioned Into the Woods. While A Little Night Music and Pacific Overtures were favorites of senior citizens auditing the course, Sunday in the Park With George was familiar to younger students who’d seen the recent film Tick, Tick … Boom, in which the playwright Jonathan Larson imagines a weekend diner brunch as an homage to “Sunday,” Sondheim’s hymn to artistic composition.

What I found when we began discussing these shows was an attention to a facet of Sondheim’s work I hadn’t seen in the many tributes that came after his death last year at 91. My students could appreciate his skill as a musical dramatist, his innovations as a craftsman, his inventive wit and longing harmonic lines. But what really drew them in—or, perhaps, what they drew out—was his preoccupation with people excluded from the dominant society, his critical eye toward those in positions of power, and his exploration of musical forms that give voice to outsider perspectives.

Sondheim, along with his scriptwriting collaborators, relentlessly challenged the institutions that had given stability to musical theater’s form: the satisfaction of marriage (undermined in Company), the radiance of stardom (tarnished in Follies), the benefits of American imperialism (inverted in Pacific Overtures), the fairness of the social order (cannibalized in Sweeney Todd), the idealism of youth (reversed in Merrily We Roll Along), the achievement of making art (needled in Sunday in the Park With George), the reassurance of fairy tales with happy endings (uprooted in Into the Woods), the founding myths of American self-making (curdled in Assassins). And he did so with music that’s always searching, always swerving in and out of harmony, resisting unison, aching and yearning, nearly incapable of reaching closure. For a genre whose modern version was founded (in Oklahoma) on the equivalence between marriage and nation building (“Startin’ as a farmer with a brand-new wife— / Soon be livin’ in a brand-new state!” the title song cheers), the musical in Sondheim’s imagination opens up a space that can include, in its dissonances, everyone the American promise leaves out.

For college students today, many of whom have to work throughout their education while still amassing huge debt and recovering from the pandemic’s effects on mental and physical health, that space is essential. Take Sweeney Todd, which my students voted their top show at the semester’s end. They quickly picked up on Sondheim’s mastery of leitmotifs and unsettling reprises, his disturbing blend of comedy and horror, his wickedly clever rhymes as Mrs. Lovett tempts the murderous barber into making his clients’ corpses supply her meat pies. (“Tailor?” “Paler.” “Butler?” “Subtler.”) What those who wrote about the musical cherished, however, was hearing the romantic waltz form in that cannibalistic duet, “A Little Priest,” chopped away from a marriage plot into a declaration of class retribution, where, at last, “those above will serve those down below.”

Students acknowledged Sweeney’s insanity, reflected in the rapidly shifting score—“the songs felt like you were going mad just by listening to them,” one wrote—while also seeing his violence as the understandable, if not excusable, effect of severe trauma: being banished to Australia by a judge who then assaulted his wife and kidnapped his daughter. No wonder Sweeney serenades his gleaming razors (“These are my friends!”) instead of his would-be new partner, Mrs. Lovett. (“I’m your friend, too, Mr. Todd,” she somewhat plaintively proposes.) “Mrs. Lovett is kind of ‘Senpai, notice me,’” one student remarked. Not knowing the anime meme for an aspirational crush, I thought she was quipping “Send pie, notice me,” which seemed equally apt.

Camp horror was my students’ preferred genre. When it was time for them to nominate their choices for the final open slots left on the syllabus, the most votes went to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. They readily explained their preference: Horror was a mode to celebrate outsiders, to build community with the people mainstream society shunned. Students could also choose to write their own musical for their final project, and several created narratives of queer inclusion: gay Arab Muslim boys who find acceptance in New York’s ballroom culture; small-town trans teens who harmonize with other queer folk in their rural region. What those characters sought, my students said, was “found family,” relationships of solidarity beyond the limits of the world into which they happened to be born. That’s also what Sondheim offers at the end of Into the Woods: Little Red and Jack have lost their parents; the Baker and Cinderella have lost their partners. Together, though, they make a family of choice. As Cinderella sings to comfort Little Red, “No one is alone.”

To be sure, my students didn’t all share tastes or identities. Another contingent nominated Mamma Mia (though they also made a case for it as a feminist show that rejected marriage plots, kind of). One skilled composer in the class lamented the trend toward rock musicals and pined for the days of George Gershwin. What was noticeable, however, and what I think Gen Z doesn’t get enough credit for, was a combination of deep concern for social justice with equally deep curiosity and openness. When a student noted that Gypsy, the title of Sondheim’s second hit, is an ethnic slur for Roma people, and is appropriated by a white striptease artist in the show, that wasn’t the end of the discussion. The students weren’t interested in canceling Gypsy, whatever that might mean in a classroom. Instead, the others picked up the point, asking how exoticism and eroticism were often paired in musical-theater history, how race and sexuality operated in the musical’s narrative of social mobility, how Mama Rose and Gypsy Rose Lee embodied different models of gender performance. Is Gypsy thrilling, problematic, exploitative, sex-positive, a celebration of individualism, a critique of manifest destiny, a love letter to show business, and an excoriation of the pursuit of stardom? Why not? Complexity is Sondheim’s hallmark, and my students embraced it.

Quiescence in the face of complexity, however, they don’t. Comparing performances of Sweeney Todd’s “A Little Priest” in a 2014 concert staging featuring Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel with the 2007 Tim Burton film starring Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, one student argued in his essay that “the campy nature of the orchestral performance, in addition to the over-the-top delivery of Mrs. Lovett, suggests an opportunistic worldview, in which reparations for justice and social mobility are a series of happy accidents. Conversely, the brooding and sinister tone of Burton’s film adaptation implies a fatalistic worldview that asserts that radical change in the face of social and economic injustice is inevitable.”

I thought about my students’ other favorite song of the semester: “Cell Block Tango,” from Chicago (with music by the still-active John Kander, born three years before Sondheim). The “six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail” each sing their reasons for offing their abusive partners. “He had it coming” is the number’s refrain. When these students look into the history of the American musical, they see not only a record of entertaining artifice, but a diagnosis of the social ills they’re trying, so creatively, to resolve.