Who Was Stephen Sondheim?
After early practice at songwriting, Stephen Sondheim's knowledge of musical theater was influenced by master lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who served as a mentor. Sondheim's contributions to West Side Story and Gypsy in the 1950s brought him recognition as a rising star of Broadway. Known for the startling complexity of his lyricism and music, his major works for the theater also include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods.
Early Life and Musical Interests
Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, in New York City. His parents, Herbert and Janet (née Fox) Sondheim, worked in New York's garment industry; his father was a dress manufacturer and his mother was a designer. They divorced in 1942 and Sondheim moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, with his mother. He began studying piano and organ at a young age, and he was already practicing songwriting as a student at the George School.
Learning from Oscar Hammerstein
In Pennsylvania, Sondheim became friends with the son of Broadway lyricist and producer Oscar Hammerstein II, who gave the young Sondheim advice and tutelage in musical theater, and served as a surrogate father during a time of tumult.
In his teens, Sondheim had penned a satire about his school, the musical By George!, which he thought his mentor would love and thus asked for feedback. Hammerstein in fact thought the project needed tons of work and offered honest criticism, which his protégé would later see as invaluable. Sondheim also worked as an assistant on 1947's Allegro, one of Hammerstein's theater collaborations with composer Richard Rodgers, the experience having long-lasting implications on the young composer's approach to his work.
Sondheim attended Williams College, where he majored in music. After graduating from the school in 1950, he studied further with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt and moved to New York City.
Theater Beginnings: 'West Side Story' and 'A Funny Thing Happened'
In the early 1950s, Stephen Sondheim moved to Los Angeles, California, and wrote scripts for the television series Topper and The Last Word. Returning to New York, he composed background music for the play The Girls of Summer in 1956. An acquaintance with director Arthur Laurents brought Sondheim into contact with composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins, who were looking for a lyricist for a contemporary musical adaptation of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Writing the song lyrics for West Side Story, which opened in 1957, Sondheim thus became part of one of Broadway's most successful productions of all time.
Sondheim's next theater project was similarly high profile: He teamed up with composer Jule Styne to write the lyrics for Gypsy, which opened in 1959 with Ethel Merman as its star. After musical contributions to 1960's Invitation to a March, Sondheim then wrote both lyrics and music for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a farce starring Zero Mostel based on comedies by ancient playwright Plautus. It opened in 1962, ran for nearly 1,000 performances and won a Tony Award for best musical.
Broadway Hits: 'Company' and 'Sweeney Todd'
Sondheim won several more Tony Awards in the 1970s for his collaborations with producer/director Harold Prince, including the musicals Company (1970), a meditation on contemporary marriage and commitment; Follies (1971), an homage to the Ziegfeld Follies and early Broadway; A Little Night Music (1973), a period comedy-drama that included the hit song "Send in the Clowns"; and Sweeney Todd (1979), a gory melodrama set in Victorian London destined to become a 2007 Tim Burton film.
Sondheim became known for his witty, conversational lyrics, his seamless merging of words with music and the variety of his source materials. Pacific Overtures (1976) was partially inspired by haiku poetry and Japanese Kabuki theater, and 1981's Merrily We Roll Along was adapted from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
More Successes: 'Sunday in the Park' and 'Into the Woods'
In the 1980s, Sondheim collaborated several times with playwright/director James Lapine. Their Sunday in the Park with George, which opened in 1984, was inspired by the iconic painting "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat, and 1987's Into the Woods was a collage of plots from classic fairy tales. (The latter was eventually made into a 2014 film starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden and Anna Kendrick, among an ensemble cast.)
Later Works and Revivals: 'Passion' to 'Follies'
Sondheim continued to combine various musical genres with sharp lyrical writing and unexpected subject matter in the 1990s, though some of his work of that decade received less critical and popular acclaim. Assassins (1990) told the tales of nine presidential assassins in American history; and Passion, a 1994 collaboration with Lapine, was a melodramatic romance based on the Italian film Passione d'Amore.
Sondheim's work has also been the subject of several revues, including Side by Side by Sondheim in 1976, Putting It Together in 1992 and Sondheim on Sondheim in 2010. Broadway has continued to host Sondheim classics as well, including the 2009 revivals of West Side Story and A Little Night Music, with the latter starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. In 2011, Follies was revived, starring Bernadette Peters.
Sondheim claimed eight Tony Awards, a record for a composer, as well as eight Grammy Awards. He shared the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Lapine for Sunday in the Park with George, and won an Academy Award for the song "Sooner or Later," one of five tracks written for the 1990 film Dick Tracy, starring Warren Beatty and Madonna.
Sondheim was honored as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2015. In 2017, he became the first composer-lyricist to win the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award. The annual prize, given to a "critically acclaimed writer whose body of work helps us understand and interpret the human condition," had previously been awarded to novelists Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison.
Sondheim died on November 26, 2021. He was 91.
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