Sondheim, Stephen (Joshua)

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Sondheim, Stephen (Joshua)

Sondheim, Stephen (Joshua), brilliant American composer and lyricist; b. N.Y., March 22, 1930. Of an affluent family, he received his academic education in private schools; composed a school musical at the age of 15. He then studied music at Williams Coll., where he wrote the book, lyrics, and music for a couple of college shows; graduated magna cum laude in 1950. In quest of higher musical learning, he went to Princeton Univ., where he took lessons in modernistic complexities with Babbitt and acquired sophisticated techniques of composition. He made his mark on Broadway when he wrote the lyrics for Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957). His first success as a lyricist-composer came with the Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), which received a Tony award. His next musical, Anyone Can Whistle (1964), proved unsuccessful, but Company (1970), for which he wrote both lyrics and music, established him as a major composer and lyricist on Broadway. There followed Follies (1971), for which he wrote 22 pastiche songs; it was named best musical by the N.Y. Drama Critics Circle. His next production, A Little Night Music, with the nostalgic score harking back to the turn of the century, received a Tony, and its leading song, “Send in the Clowns,” was awarded a Grammy in 1976. This score established Sondheim’s characteristic manner of treating musicals; it is almost operatic in conception, and boldly introduces dissonant counterpoint à la moderne. In 1976 he produced Pacific Overtures, based on the story of the Western penetration into Japan in the 19th century, and composed in a stylized Japanese manner, modeled after the Kabuki theater; he also wrote the score to the musical Sunday in the Park with George, inspired by the painting by Georges Seurat entitled “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1982; N.Y, May 1, 1984), which received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1985. In 1987 his musical Into the Woods, based on 5 of the Grimm fairytales, scored a popular success on Broadway. It was followed by the musical Assassins in 1990. In 1992 he was selected to receive the National Medal of Arts, but he rejected the medal by stating that to accept it would be an act of hypocrisy in light of the controversy over censorship and funding of the NEA. After the inauguration of Bill Clinton as president in 1993, Sondheim accepted the National Medal of Arts and was honored at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. His musical Passion was premiered in N.Y. on April 28, 1994.


C. Zadan, S. & Co.(N.Y, 1974; second ed., rev., 1994); M. Adams, The Lyrics of S. S.: Form and Function (diss., Northwestern Univ., 1980); D. Cartmell, S. S. and the Concept Musical (diss., Univ. of Calif., Santa Barbara, 1983); S. Wilson, Motivic, Rhythmic, and Harmonic Procedures of Unification in S. S.’s “Company” and “A Little Night Music” (diss., Ball State Univ., 1983); J. Gordon, Art Isn’t Easy: The Achievement of S. S.(Carbondale, Ill., 1990; rev. ed., 1992); M. Gottfried, S. (N.Y., 1993); J. Gordon, ed., S. S.: A Casebook (N.Y., 1997); M. Secrest, S. S.: A Life (N.Y, 1998).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire