Sondheim, Stephen Joshua

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SONDHEIM, Stephen Joshua

(b. 22 March 1930 in New York City), composer and lyricist who met with both success and failure during the 1960s and found himself in 1970 the new voice of the American musical theater.

The only child of Herbert Sondheim, a dress manufacturer, and Etta Janet "Foxy" (Fox) Sondheim, a dress designer, Sondheim began life in Manhattan but moved with his mother to Pennsylvania at the age of ten when his parents separated. After a couple of years in military school, he attended the George School, a preparatory academy in Pennsylvania, and graduated from Williams College with a major in music in 1950. He went on to study privately with composer Milton Babbitt.

Sondheim's relationship with his mother was conflicted, but he found a spiritual home in his teenage years with the family of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who served as a substitute parent. "I wrote for the theater in order to be like Oscar," Sondheim later said. "I have no doubt that if he'd been a geologist, I would have been a geologist." His mentor taught Sondheim about the construction of musical comedy and continued to advise him until Hammerstein's death in 1960.

Sondheim's first job was as writer for the television series Topper in 1953. His first professional score was for the un-produced play Saturday Night in 1954. When its producer died, so did the project, but this work led Sondheim to a stunning Broadway debut in 1957, penning lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's music for West Side Story. Sondheim also served as lyricist for Gypsy (1959), with music by Jule Styne. Both are considered first-rate, classic, Broadway musicals; both included non-traditional subject matter that attracted Sondheim; and both helped him shape himself as an artist. West Side Story's Romeo-and-Juliet tale and Gypsy's saga of motherhood run amok were less comforting, less light, than what many theatergoers were used to.

Sondheim was able to present himself as composer as well as lyricist in his next Broadway project, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962. Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart adapted material by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus into a humorous romp involving a slave who wants to be free. Audiences and critics responded to the bawdy yet benign spectacle, which fitted nicely into popular tastes of the early 1960s.

The composer later noted that his score for Forum represented the beginning of his move away from the tradition of the integrated musical comedy pioneered and sustained by his beloved Hammerstein in such productions as Show Boat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943). In an integrated musical, a number stems naturally from the action of the play and furthers the plot. In contrast, Sondheim saw the songs in Forum as respites from the frantic pace of the play.

As the decade progressed, Sondheim began to exhibit an intellectuality and a social consciousness that much of Broadway's musical fare lacked. His next show, Anyone Can Whistle (1964), closed after nine performances. Nevertheless, this work, with a book by Arthur Laurents, forged new ground for the musical theater, embracing controversial subject matter. Set in a town with a corrupt mayor and a prominent mental institution, it played with the boundaries between sanity and insanity. Like those in Forum, its songs departed in function from established tradition. "They commented on the action instead of advancing it," Sondheim later explained.

His next play taught Sondheim what he did not want to do. Before his death, Hammerstein had urged his protégé to work with the lyricist's partner, Richard Rodgers. When Rodgers was asked to compose for a musical adaptation of Laurents's play The Time of the Cuckoo (1952), Sondheim agreed to serve as lyricist for the project, titled Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965). Sondheim later commented that the play should probably never have been adapted. Beyond that difficulty and his reluctance to return to mere lyric writing, he experienced great constraints working with Rodgers. He would never again settle for less than full participation in a musical project.

After Waltz, Sondheim worked on a variety of projects that did not develop fully. In 1966 he and playwright James Goldman adapted a John Collier short story for the television anthology ABC Stage 67. A fantasy about a group of people who hide out from the world in a department store but live in fear of "dark men" who punish emotionalism and nonconformity, "Evening Primrose" did not quite manage to make the transition to the small screen successfully. It nevertheless signified a stepping stone in Sondheim's career and another case in which he embraced what many would consider depressing subject matter.

The remainder of the decade was one of trial and error for Sondheim, including a stint in which the veteran games player composed crossword puzzles for New York magazine. He returned to Broadway in 1970 with a production that put him on the map as far as critics and scholars were concerned. Company built on Sondheim's past work at conveying mood with his music. The first of the "concept musicals" he pioneered with producer Harold Prince, it is a play based on theme rather than plot, exploring the ins and outs of marriage in New York as seen through several couples who befriend a bachelor. It speaks and sings of love, accommodation, fear of commitment, and the excitement and alienation of living in the city.

In the years after 1970, Broadway became decreasingly fertile ground for musical theater. In the 1950s and 1960s it had lost its connection with American popular music as the recording market fragmented and rock music became dominant. Escalating costs in the 1970s made it riskier to fund new works, and producers relied increasingly on re-hashes and revivals of old material.

In this new climate, Sondheim proved the primary—sometimes the only—serious American theater composer. "The biggest challenge for me is the opportunity to constantly try new things," he told New York in 1974. "It's the writer's job … to bring [the audience] things they would never have expected to see." His knowledge of the traditions of musical theater, combined with his desire to explore new techniques and themes, took him from an homage to the great musical revues of the past in Follies (1971) to an exploration of Japanese response to western culture in Pacific Overtures (1976), and from a rewriting of fairy tales in Into the Woods (1987) to an exploration of the impulse to kill presidents in Assassins (1991). He never lost the passion he displayed in the 1960s for exploring new techniques, forms, and subject matter.

There are several books about Sondheim, including Joanne Gordon, Art Isn't Easy: The Achievement of Stephen Sondheim (1990); Martin Gottfried, Sondheim (1993); and Meryle Secrest, Stephen Sondheim: A Life (1998). Craig Zadan, Sondheim and Co. (1986), collects quotations from colleagues to round out the picture of Sondheim's work. There is also a journal devoted to the composer, The Sondheim Review.

Tinky "Dakota" Weisblat