Sondheim, Stephen (Joshua) 1930-
SONDHEIM, Stephen (Joshua) 1930-
PERSONAL: Born March 22, 1930, in New York, NY; son of Herbert (a dress manufacturer) and Janet (a fashion designer and interior decorator; maiden name, Fox; present name, Leshin) Sondheim. Education: Williams College, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1950; graduate study in music composition and theory with Milton Babbitt; studied privately with Oscar Hammerstein II.
ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY. Agent—Sarah Douglas, Douglas & Kopelman Artists, 393 West 49th St., Suite No.5G, New York NY 10019.
CAREER: Composer and lyricist, 1956—. St. Catherine's College, Oxford, visiting professor of drama and musical theater and fellow, 1990. Appeared in television specials, including June Moon, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS-TV), 1974, and Putting It Together—The Making of the Broadway Album, Home Box Office, 1986. Appeared in episodes of television series Great Performances, including "Broadway Sings: The Music of Jule Styne," PBS-TV, 1987, and "Bernstein at 70," PBS-TV, 1989.
MEMBER: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, Authors League of America, Writers Guild of America, Dramatists Guild (president, 1973-81).
AWARDS, HONORS: Hutchinson Prize, Williams College, 1950; Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award nominations, 1958 (with Leonard Bernstein), for West Side Story, 1960 (with Jule Styne), for Gypsy, 1965 (with Richard Rodgers), for Do I Hear a Waltz?, 1976, for Pacific Overtures, 1982, for Merrily We Roll Along, and 1984, for Sunday in the Park with George; Tony Awards, 1963, for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1971, for best music and best lyrics in Company, 1972, for best score in Follies, 1979, for best score in A Little Night Music, 1979, for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 1988, for best score in Into the Woods, 1994, for best score in Passion, and 2002, for best revival of a musical for Into the Woods; Evening Standard Drama Awards for best musical, 1959, for Gypsy, 1973, for A Little Night Music, 1987, for Follies, and 1989, for Into the Woods; New York Drama Critics' polls conducted by Variety, 1969-70, named best composer for Company, and 1970-71, named best composer and lyricist for Follies; Drama Desk Awards, 1969-70, for music and lyrics in Company, 1970-71, for music and lyrics in Follies, 1972-73, for music and lyrics in A Little Night Music, 1978-79, for music and lyrics in Sweeney Todd, 1981-82, for lyrics in Merrily We Roll Along, 1983-84, for lyrics in Sunday in the Park with George, and 1987-88, for lyrics and outstanding musical, for Into the Woods; New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards for best new musical, 1970, for Company, 1971, for Follies, 1973, for A Little Night Music, 1976, for Pacific Overtures, 1979, for Sweeney Todd, 1984, for Sunday in the Park with George, and 1988, for Into the Woods; Grammy Awards, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1970, for best musical-cast album Company, 1973, for musical-cast album A Little Night Music, 1975, for song of the year "Send in the Clowns," 1979, for musical-cast album Sweeney Todd, 1984, for musical-cast album Sunday in the Park with George, 1986, for musical-cast album Follies in Concert, and 1988, for musical-cast album Into the Woods; honorary doctorate, Williams College, 1971; Edgar Allan Poe Award (with Anthony Perkins), Mystery Writers of America, 1973, for best motion-picture screenplay, for The Last of Sheila; musical salute given by American Musical and Dramatic Academy and National Hemophilia Foundation at Shubert Theatre, 1973; Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle Awards, 1974-75, for music and lyrics in A Little Night Music, and 1989, for original musical score in Into the Woods; Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award, Dramatists Guild, 1979, for Sweeney Todd; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in theater arts, 1982; Unique Contribution Award, Drama League of New York, 1983, for initiating American Young Playwrights Festival; Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service in dramatic arts, Bank of Delaware, 1984; Pulitzer Prize for drama, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1985, for Sunday in the Park with George; Laurence Olivier Award for musical of the year, Society of West End Theatre (England), 1988, for Follies, and 1991, for Sunday in the Park with George; named Lion of the Performing Arts, New York Public Library, 1989; Academy Award, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1990, for best original song "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" from Dick Tracy; Golden Globe Award nominations, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, 1990, for original songs "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" and "What Can You Lose?" from Dick Tracy; National Medal of Arts Award, National Endowment for the Arts, 1992 (declined), and 1997; Kennedy Center Honor for Lifetime Achievement, 1993; Praemium Imperiale, Japan Art Association, 2000, for work in film and theater.
(Composer of incidental music) The Girls of Summer, produced at Longacre Theatre, New York, NY, 1956.
(Lyricist) West Side Story (also see below; produced in New York, NY, 1957), music by Leonard Bernstein, Random House (New York, NY), 1958, published in Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, Dell (New York, NY), 1965.
(Lyricist) Gypsy (also see below; produced on Broadway, 1959), music by Jule Styne, Random House (New York, NY), 1960.
(Composer of incidental music) Invitation to a March, produced in New York, NY, 1960.
(Composer and lyricist) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (also see below; produced in New York, NY, 1962), Dodd (New York, NY), 1963, reprinted, Applause Theatre (Diamond Bar, CA), 1991.
(Composer and lyricist) Anyone Can Whistle (also see below; produced in New York, NY, 1964), Dodd (New York, NY), 1965.
(Lyricist) Do I Hear a Waltz? (also see below; produced in New York, NY, 1965), music by Richard Rodgers, Random House (New York, NY), 1966.
(Lyricist, with others) Leonard Bernstein's Theatre Songs, produced in New York, NY, 1965.
(Composer and lyricist) Company (also see below; produced in New York, NY, 1970), Random House (New York, NY), 1970, reprinted, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1995.
(Composer and lyricist) Follies (also see below; produced in New York, NY, 1971), Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
(Composer) The Enclave, produced in New York, NY, 1973.
(Composer and lyricist) A Little Night Music (also see below; produced in New York, NY, 1973), Dodd (New York, NY), 1974, reprinted, Applause Theater (New York, NY), 1991.
(Author of additional lyrics, with John LaTouche) Candide (revival; also see below), original lyrics by Richard Wilbur, music by Leonard Bernstein, produced in Brooklyn, NY, 1973-74, produced on Broadway, 1974.
(Lyricist, with others) By Bernstein, produced in New York, NY, 1975.
(Composer and lyricist) Pacific Overtures (also see below; produced in New York, NY, 1976), Dodd (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1991.
(Composer and lyricist) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (also see below; produced in New York, NY, 1979, produced as an opera, 1984), Dodd (New York, NY), 1979, reprinted, Applause Theater (New York, NY), 1991.
(Composer and lyricist, with others) The Madwoman of Central Park West, produced in New York, NY, 1979.
(Composer and lyricist) Merrily We Roll Along (also see below; produced in New York, NY, 1981), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1998.
(Composer and lyricist) Sunday in the Park with George (also see below; produced in workshop, 1983, produced in New York, NY, 1984-85), Dodd (New York, NY), 1986, reprinted, Applause Theater (New York, NY), 1991.
(Composer and lyricist) Into the Woods (also see below; produced in San Diego, CA, c. 1986, produced in New York, NY, 1987-89), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1989.
(Composer and lyricist, with others) Jerome Robbins' Broadway, produced in New York, NY, 1989-90.
(Composer and lyricist) Assassins (produced in New York, NY, 1991), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1991.
(With James Lapine) Passion (portions adapted from 1869 novel Fosca by Igino Tarchetti and 1981 film Passione d'amore, by Ettore Scola), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1994.
(With George Furth) Getting away with Murder: A Comedy Thriller, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1997.
(Composer and lyricist, with others) Four by Sondheim, Wheeler, Lapine, Shevelove and Gelbart, Applause Theatre (New York, NY), 2000.
(Composer and lyricist) Follies, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 2001.
Composer, with Mary Rodgers, of song "The Boy from . . ." for The Mad Show, produced in New York, NY, 1966. Also provided music for Twins, produced in Detroit, MI, c. 1972.
Sondheim's compositions have been included in numerous stage productions, including Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, 1973; Side by Side by Sondheim, (also see below), 1976; Marry Me a Little, 1980; Follies in Concert with New York Philharmonic, 1985; Julie Wilson: From Weill to Sondheim—A Concert, 1987; You're Gonna Love Tomorrow: A Stephen Sondheim Evening, 1987; Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, 1992; and Putting It Together, 1993.
Stavisky (also see below), Cinemation, 1974.
(With Dave Grusin) Reds, Paramount, 1981.
(With others) Dick Tracy, Touchstone-Buena Vista, 1990.
Also author of music and lyrics for "The Madam's Song," in The Seven-Percent Solution, Universal, 1977.
(With others) Topper (television series), National Broadcasting Co. (NBC-TV), 1953.
The Last Word (television series), CBS-TV, 1957-59.
(Composer and lyricist, with Burt Shevelove) The Fabulous '50s (special), Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS-TV), 1960.
(Composer and lyricist) Evening Primrose (special), American Broadcasting Co. (ABC-TV), 1966.
(Composer and lyricist) Annie, the Woman in the Life of a Man (special), CBS-TV, 1970.
(Lyricist) Candide, for "Great Performances," PBS TV, 1986.
(Composer) Time Warner Presents the Earth Day Special, ABC-TV, 1990.
Also author of lyrics to "Somewhere," included in Putting It Together: The Making of the Broadway Album (special), HBO, 1986, and song "The Saga of Lenny," included in "Bernstein at 70," "Great Performances," PBS-TV, 1989.
(With Anthony Perkins) The Last of Sheila, Warner Bros., 1973.
(Author of introduction) Richard Lewine and Alfred Simon, Songs of the American Theatre, Dodd (New York, NY), 1973.
(Author of introduction) Hugh Fordin, Getting to Know Him, Random House (New York, NY), 1977.
The Hansen Treasury of Stephen Sondheim Songs, 1977.
The Stephen Sondheim Songbook, 1979.
All Sondheim, 1980.
Stephen Sondheim's Crossword Puzzles, Harper (New York, NY), 1980.
(Editor) Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, revised edition, Hal Leonard Publishing, 1985.
Contributor to Playwrights, Lyricists, Composers on Theatre, edited by Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., Dodd (New York, NY), 1974. Contributor of crossword puzzles to New York magazine, 1968-69.
ADAPTATIONS: Into the Woods was adapted as a juvenile book by Hudson Talbott, Crown (New York, NY), 1988. Several of Sondheim's stage productions were adapted to film, including West Side Story, United Artists (UA), 1961; Gypsy, Warner Bros., 1962; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, UA, 1966; and A Little Night Music, New World, 1977. Recordings of Sondheim's music include West Side Story, 1957, film soundtrack, 1961; Gypsy, 1959; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1962; Anyone Can Whistle, 1964; Do I Hear a Waltz?, 1965; Company, 1970; Follies, 1971, as Follies in Concert, 1985; A Little Night Music, 1973; Stavisky, 1973; Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, 1973, released as Sondheim Evening: A Musical Tribute, 1990; Pacific Overtures, 1976; Side by Side by Sondheim, 1977; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 1979; Marry Me a Little, 1981; Merrily We Roll Along, 1981; Sunday in the Park with George, 1984; Music of Stephen Sondheim, 1985; Barbra Streisand, Broadway Album, 1985; Into the Woods, 1988; I'm Breathless, 1990; I Wish It So, 1994; and Stephen Sondheim: A Collector's Sondheim (compilation of original cast recordings).
SIDELIGHTS: Stephen Sondheim's contributions to twentieth-century musical theater have been so significant that the Dramatists Guild Literary Quarterly designated its first ten years as the "Sondheim decade." "There can hardly have been an issue since," the editors commented, "when a work by Stephen Sondheim . . . wasn't a major attraction on the Broadway scene, and often more than one." Sondheim has indeed been instrumental in revolutionizing the stage musical. The composer's ability to incorporate a variety of musical styles into his scores caused T. E. Kalem of Time to claim after seeing a Sondheim production that the "entire score is an incredible display of musical virtuosity." Using music, Sondheim creates an attitude for the dramatic situation so that individual songs may push the drama along. Sometimes, unlike most of his predecessors, the composer strays from the traditional rhyming structure. Too, his lyrical cynicism and satire have moved musical comedy from the lighter and simpler shows of Rodgers and Hammerstein to what is termed "conceptual musicals."
Instead of escapism, Sondheim's conceptual musicals present serious concerns and dramatic subtexts. Each of the composer's works depends on one fundamental concept to act as a framework. One of the creators of the new, unromantic musical production, Sondheim has helped to place the musical on a more serious level than that of the traditional Broadway show. When Sondheim composes, it is a cooperative effort. "I go about starting a song first with the collaborators," he once divulged, "sometimes just with the book writer, sometimes with the director. We have long discussions and I take notes, just general notes, and then we decide what the song should be about, and I try to make a title." The composer, according to Sondheim, must stage numbers or draw "blueprints" so that the director or the choreographer may see the uses of a song.
For Sondheim, collaboration usually begins with the book and book writer from whom "you should steal." Since a good production sounds as though one writer is responsible for both the book and the score, the book writer and composer must work together if a play is to have texture. "Any book writer I work with knows what I'm going to do," explained Sondheim, "and I try to help him out wherever I can; that's the only way you make a piece, make a texture." "I keep hearing about people," he continued, "who write books and then give them to composers or composers who write scores and then get a book writer. I don't understand how that works."
Sondheim's first Broadway collaboration has an unusual history. At the age of twenty-five, the composer completed the music and lyrics for Saturday Night, a musical that never saw the Broadway stage owing to the death of its producer Lemuel Ayers. But Saturday Night still served Sondheim well. "It was my portfolio," he once explained, "and as a result of it I got West Side Story." The story of the ugly life on a city street, with only glimpses of beauty and love, West Side Story is considered one of the masterpieces of the American theater. Beginning its first run in New York in 1957, West Side Story ran for 734 performances on Broadway. After an extended tour of the United States, the play began a second Broadway run of 249 performances. In 1961 West Side Story was adapted into a motion picture that captured ten Academy Awards and became one of the greatest screen musicals in terms of commercial success.
Many critics have attributed much of West Side Story's popularity to its musical score. In The Complete Book of the American Musical Theatre, David A. Ewen named the score as "one of the most powerful assets to this grim tragedy." Ewen cited "Maria," "I Feel Pretty," and "Somewhere" as "unforgettable lyrical episodes." Sondheim's comic songs, such as "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke!," have also been applauded for their wittiness and their roles as satirical commentaries.
Sondheim's next production was Gypsy, a musical based on the autobiography of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. Initially, Sondheim was contracted to write both the music and the lyrics for this show, but actress Ethel Merman felt uneasy with a little-known composer. So Jule Styne composed Gypsy's music while Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Although the play is entertaining in the tradition of Broadway musicals, it is on a deeper level the story of universal human needs. One song from Gypsy, "Some People," is considered by several critics to be one of the best ever written.
An old-fashioned burlesque, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, followed Gypsy. Sondheim and playwrights Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart adapted Forum from the comedies of Plautus, a classical Roman playwright. The play is bawdy, rough-and-tumble, and fun. A low comedy of lechers and courtesans done in a combination of ancient Roman and American vaudeville techniques, Forum is paced with ambiguous meanings, risque connotations, and not-so-subtle innuendos. For instance, a slave carrying a piece of statuary is told by a matron: "Carry my bust with pride." Typically Sondheim, the score is saturated with humor. Some critics have cited "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" as particularly amusing while "Lovely" has been suspected, at least by one critic, of being Sondheim's satire of his own song "Tonight." For Forum, unlike most of his previous plays, Sondheim wrote both the lyrics and the music. "With Forum," a Time reviewer noted, "Sondheim finally proved that he, like Noel Coward, could indeed go it alone." Forum received a Tony Award as the season's best musical and in 1966 adapted for film and released by United Artists as a motion picture starring Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Phil Silvers, and Buster Keaton.
During 1970 and 1971 Sondheim produced two works in collaboration with Hal Prince and Michael Bennett that were considered to be "concept musicals." Company (1970) has no plot, but is a montage of observations about the institution of marriage. It depicts five married couples who hold a birthday party for a bachelor friend. As the play progresses, the observer realizes the amount of disharmony present within the marital relationships. Company garnered the New York Drama Critics Award and six Tony Awards, and completed a run of 690 performances.
1970's Follies focuses upon a reunion of two former showgirls from the fictional Weismann Follies who are about to witness the end of an era signified by the demolition of a once-renowned theater building. The play received seven Tony Awards and the Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical.
In 1973, when several critics worried that the Broadway musical had degenerated to an embarrassing state of high camp and rock music, Sondheim's A Little Night Music appeared, restoring faith in musical theater. Critics recognized A Little Night Music to be as spectacular as the great musicals that had gone before it, but also recognized its serious vein. Sondheim composed all the musical's songs in three-quarter time or multiples of that meter; this served as the play's concept and tied it together. Three-quarter time was the foundation to which the composer added a Greek chorus, canons, and fuguetos. Subtexts were injected into almost every song—most notably in "Every Day a Little Death," which allows a countess to express her feelings of loneliness as a philanderer's wife. In addition, Sondheim devoted himself to the "inner monologue song," which is a song, a Time critic explained, "in which characters sing of their deepest thoughts, but almost never to each other."
Though A Little Night Music addresses the standard musical-comedy subject—love—it "is a masquelike affair, tailor-made to fit Sondheim's flair for depicting confused people experiencing ambivalent thoughts and feelings," the Time reviewer assessed. Many of the songs illustrate ambivalence because Sondheim likes neurotic people. He once revealed: "I like troubled people. Not that I don't like squared-away people, but I prefer neurotic people. I like to hear rumblings beneath the surface." The show's cast of confused characters includes the giddy child-bride whose middle-aged husband takes up with his ex-mistress while his adolescent son has a crush on his new stepmother. Of course, the above-mentioned countess laments the sadness of her marriage to a straying husband, and a lusty chambermaid salutes carnal love through the play. Critically, A Little Night Music was a triumph. Many reviewers agreed that the strongest element in the play is Sondheim's score, which was compared to the work of musical greats such as Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart.
In 1976 Sondheim again collaborated with Hal Prince in the production of Pacific Overtures, a show that encompasses 120 years of Japanese history from 1856 to modern times. Pacific Overtures was performed by an entirely Asian, male cast and in order to achieve the correct sound, Sondheim used many Asian instruments in the orchestration. He also utilized elements of Japanese Kabuki theater, Haiku poetry, and Japanese pentatonic musical scales. New York Times reviewer Clive Barnes considered Pacific Overtures to be "very, very different."
Sondheim once again made his presence known on Broadway with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He became interested in the play in 1973, related Mel Gussow of the New York Times, "when he saw a production of the melodrama at the Stratford East Theatre in England. He was captivated by it, although, as he said, 'I found it much more passionate and serious than the audience did.'" Composed as if it were an opera, Sweeney Todd is the story of a murderous barber who sends his victims downstairs to a pie shop where they become the secret ingredients in Mrs. Lovett's meat pies. By Sondheim's own admission, the play "has a creepy atmosphere." The main character, Todd, is out for revenge. Judge Turpin, who desired Todd's wife and daughter, shipped the barber off to Australia as punishment for a crime that he did not commit. Todd escapes and returns seeking vengeance. His attempt to kill the judge fails, causing his revenge to snowball into mass murder. In the end, Todd kills Turpin, but by then the barber, too, is doomed.
Sweeney Todd is about revenge. Harold Prince's production, however, mirrors the industrial age, its influences, and its effects. The play received numerous Drama Desk Awards and Tony Awards in 1979, including best score of a musical. In the opinion of director Harold Prince, the play's music is "the most melodic and romantic score that Steve has ever written. The music is soaring." Nearly eighty percent of the show is music, and musical motifs recur throughout the score to maintain the audience's emotional level. Sondheim even incorporated a musical clue, a theme associated with a character, into the score.
In 1984 Sondheim teamed up with artist-turned-dramatist James Lapine to create the musical Sunday in the Park with George. For Lapine and Sondheim, their first collaboration was a remarkable success, garnering the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Their feat was made even more unusual by the fact that Sunday in the Park with George is centered around an idea Clive Barnes deemed "audaciously ambitious" in the New York Post. "It is to show us the creation of a work of art, the formulation of an artistic style based on scientific principles, and to reveal, in passing, the struggles of an artist for recognition," Barnes explained.
"I write generally experimental, unexpected work," Sondheim told Samuel G. Freedman in the New York Times; he made that truth perhaps nowhere more evident than in Sunday in the Park with George. Conceptual rather than plot-driven, the play structures itself around two vignettes that are performed as two separate acts. The first follows French pointillist Georges Seurat in the evolution of his renowned painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The second is centered upon the artistic struggles of the American great-grandson of the artist, the "George" of the play's title, who pays homage to his ancestor's work through modern laser artistry.
Critical response to Sunday in the Park with George was divided. Many felt that the play confirmed the belief that the creative process is inherently undramatic. David Sterritt, in a review for the Christian Science Monitor, pointed to a conflict between the desire to depict art and the desire to depict an artist as the source for the play's failure. Sunday in the Park with George, he wrote, "hovers between the formal elegance of La Grande Jatte and the living, breathing, potentially fascinating life of Seurat himself—but partakes fully of neither." Other critics took exception to what they saw as the autobiographical note sounded by the play's theme: in the depiction of Seurat's rejection by art critics of his time, many felt, was Sondheim's venting of his frustration at his own critical reception. "It is easy to see why Stephen Sondheim should have been attracted to the idea of creating a musical about Georges Seurat, whose career is a way of discussing some of the dilemmas that confront the contemporary artist," Howard Kissel observed in Women's Wear Daily. Kissel went on to object to what he saw as the "defensive" stance Sondheim reveals in songs like "Lesson #8," and to dismiss the notion that the play is avant garde. Instead, the critic expressed the opinion that Sunday in the Park with George is merely contrived.
Yet many critics were compelled by the play's premise and convinced of its status as a breakthrough for theater. "To say that this show breaks new ground is not enough; it also breaks new sky, new water, new flesh and new spirit," Jack Kroll proclaimed in Newsweek. Kroll not only approved of the material, but he celebrated the pairing of Lapine and Sondheim, declaring that over the course of the musical its creators "take us full circle, implying that there's still hope for vision in a high-tech world and that art and love may be two forms of the same energy . . . , in this show of beauty, wit, nobility and ardor, [that idea] makes this Sondheim's best work since . . . his classic collaborations with Harold Prince."
Not surprisingly, Lapine and Sondheim went on to collaborate on the 1986 musical Into the Woods. Again, their collaboration was richly rewarding. Winner of Tony awards for lyrics and outstanding musical, the play was a greater commercial success than Sunday in the Park with George. Essentially about the loss of innocence, the play explores the "grim" in the Brothers Grimm and in other tellers of children's tales. Turning fairytales like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood on their heads, the two acts of Into the Woods move from the happily to the unhappily ever after. Yet the musical ends on the surprisingly upbeat notes of the song "No One Is Alone," prompting some critics to complain that Sondheim had sold out to public demand for lighter material. Others, however, found the musical wholly appealing. "It is that joyous rarity," wrote Elizabeth L. Bland and William A. Henry III in a Time review, "a work of sophisticated artistic ambition and deep political purpose that affords nonstop pleasure."
In 1990 Sondheim earned his first Academy Award for the song "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)," composed for the movie Dick Tracy and sung by Madonna. From there, Sondheim went on to create a uniquely American show, Assassins, which showcases the assassins and would-be assassins of presidents of the United States. With characters such as John Wilkes Booth and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, the musical quickly earned the reputation of being Sondheim's darkest work to date. Undaunted, theater-goers lined up in droves for its sold-out run in 1991.
Two years later Sondheim received a prestigious lifetime achievement award from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1994 he answered with another award-winning musical, Passion. Based on an obscure Italian movie, the work features a love triangle between Fosca, an ugly, frail woman; Giorgio, a handsome Italian army officer; and Clara, Giorgio's beautiful mistress. After being assigned to a regiment in Parma, Italy, Giorgio meets the tormented Fosca. The two develop a rapport based on their mutual interest in literature, but their friendship quickly takes a new turn when Fosca declares her obsession and love for Giorgio. Repulsed by Fosca, Giorgio is nonetheless unable to rid her from his mind. Fosca pursues Giorgio relentlessly; when Giorgio finally admits that he too is in love with her, the two consummate their love. Fosca dies shortly thereafter, while Giorgio, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is admitted to a hospital.
Audiences and critics alike had mixed reactions to Passion. Nation critic David Kaufman remarked, "A dark tale of an obsessive love that is cut short after it finally finds its perfect object, Passion is archetypal Sondheim in its content." Calling the work "passionless," Kaufman concluded that it "emerges as more of an elegant chamber piece than a full-scale musical." Similarly, Ben Brantley in the New York Times noted that Passion "isn't perfect. . . . There's an inhibited quality here that asks to be exploded and never is." But Robert Brustein of the New Republic declared the musical "Sondheim's deepest, most powerful work. . . . Passion is a triumph of rare and complex sensibility, fully imagined, fully realized." Despite its mixed reception, the show won several Tony awards, including best musical and, for Sondheim, best original music score.
In 2000, upon the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Sondheim granted an interview to New York Times magazine writer Frank Rich. When asked to critique his own work, Sondheim said: "Verbosity is the thing I have to fight most in the lyrics department. . . . 'Less is more' is a lesson learned with a difficulty." He later added: "I'm accused so often of not having melodic gifts, but I like the music I write. Harmony gives music its life, its emotional color, more than rhythm."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 30, 1984, Volume 39, 1986.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 11, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Ewen, David A., The Complete Book of the American Musical Theatre, Holt (New York, NY), 1970.
Guernsey, Otis L., Jr., editor, Playwrights, Lyricists, Composers on Theatre, Dodd (New York, NY), 1974.
Lewine, Richard, and Alfred Simon, Songs of the American Theatre, Dodd (New York, NY), 1973.
Zadan, Craig, Sondheim and Company, Avon (New York, NY), 1976, 2nd edition, Da Capo Press (New York, NY), 1994.
America, December 12, 1987, p. 485.
American Spectator, March, 1988, pp. 28-29.
Atlantic Monthly, December, 1984, p. 121.
Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1979; October 14, 1983; May 3, 1984; April 29, 1985; December 7, 1986; December 14, 1986; November 6, 1987; June 12, 1988.
Chicago Tribune Book World, April 15, 1984.
Christian Science Monitor, May 3, 1984, p. 27.
Commonweal, January 15, 1988.
Daily News, September 27, 1957; April 6, 1964; April 27, 1970; February 26, 1973; March 2, 1979; February 15, 1980; May 3, 1984.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 7, 1987.
Guardian (London, England), March 12, 2003, Mel Gussow, interview with Sondheim.
Harper's, April, 1979, pp. 71-74, 76, 78.
High Fidelity, August, 1979, pp. 80-81.
Insight, August 28, 1989, p. 59.
Journal American, September 27, 1957.
Journal of Popular Culture, winter, 1978, pp. 513-525.
Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1983; May 20, 1984, p. 3; November 26, 1984, pp. 1, 5; November 6, 1987; January 8, 1989, pp. 4-5, 75.
Maclean's, December 24, 1984, p. 41.
Musical Quarterly, April, 1980, pp. 309-314.
Nation, December 12, 1987, pp. 725-727; June 13, 1994, p. 843.
New Leader, December 28, 1987, pp. 18-19.
New Republic, June 18, 1984, pp. 25-26; December 21, 1987, pp. 28-30; April 3, 1989, pp. 28-29; January 1, 1990, pp. 27-28; August 1, 1994, p. 29.
New Statesman, August 7, 1987, pp. 23-24.
Newsweek, April 23, 1973, pp. 54-56, 61, 64; January 26, 1976, p. 59; May 2, 1977; March 12, 1979, pp. 101, 103; March 19, 1979; May 14, 1984, pp. 83-84; November 16, 1987, pp. 106-107; February 4, 1991, p. 72; June 22, 1992, p. 52.
New York, May 2, 1977; March 3, 1979; March 19, 1979; March 3, 1980; November 16, 1987, p. 109; October 2, 1989, p. 82; August 20, 1990, pp. 120, 124; February 4, 1991, p. 38.
New Yorker, August 11, 1975, pp. 74-76; May 2, 1977; March 12, 1979; November 16, 1987, pp. 147-148; February 11, 1991, pp. 68-69.
New York Post, March 19, 1965; January 12, 1976; April 19, 1977; March 2, 1979; February 15, 1980; May 3, 1984.
New York Times, January 12, 1976, p. 39; April 19, 1977; February 1, 1979; February 25, 1979; March 2, 1979, p. C3; June 2, 1979; February 14, 1980; March 14, 1981; November 17, 1981; December 13, 1981, pp. D3, D6; March 6, 1983; July 24, 1983; April 1, 1984; April 4, 1984; May 3, 1984, p. C21; May 13, 1984, pp. 7, 31; October 13, 1984; October 21, 1984; October 26, 1984; May 24, 1985; September 9, 1985; July 23, 1987; October 9, 1987; November 1, 1987; November 6, 1987; November 29, 1987; May 10, 1988; November 27, 1989, pp. C13, C15; January 22, 1990; September 30, 1990; November 7, 1990; February 3, 1991; June 20, 1996, p. B1.
New York Times Magazine, March 12, 2000, Frank Rich, interview with Stephen Sondheim.
Opera News, November, 1985, pp. 18, 20, 22.
People, September 23, 1985, p. 78; July 22, 1996, p. 23.
Saturday Review, May 1, 1971, pp. 16, 65.
Stereo Review, July, 1971, pp. 110-111; July, 1973, pp. 94-95.
Time, April 12, 1971, . 78; May 3, 1971; March 12, 1973; March 19, 1973; February 25, 1980; June 16, 1986, p. 90; November 16, 1987, pp. 96-97; December 7, 1987, pp. 80-82; September 25, 1989, p. 76; February 4, 1991, p. 62.
Times (London, England), May 5, 1984; July 11, 1987; July 23, 1987; August 2, 1989; January 28, 1991, p. 16.
U.S. News and World Report, February 1, 1988, pp. 52-54.
Variety, April 8, 1964, p. 80; November 19, 1975, pp. 64-65; April 20, 1977; February 20, 1980; November 22, 1989; February 4, 1991, p. 95.
Vogue, April, 1984, p. 85.
Washington Post, November 18, 1981; November 6, 1987.
Women's Wear Daily, April 27, 1970; April 5, 1971; February 26, 1973; March 2, 1979; May 3, 1984.
Songwriters Hall of Fame Web site,http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/ (June 2, 2003), "Stephen Sondheim."
Stephen Sondheim Official Web site,http://sondheim.com/ (November 21, 2003).*