Sondheim, Stephen (1930—)

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Sondheim, Stephen (1930—)

Stephen Sondheim is one of the most important creative personalities in the American musical theater of the late twentieth century. Like George M. Cohan and Cole Porter before him, Sondheim is one of those rare songsters who creates both words and music. Sondheim and his shows have almost a cult following because of their sophistication of topic, music, and approach. Sondheim is a composer who creates something unique and different for each show, yet each work bears his unmistakable imprint. His most popular number, "Send in the Clowns," has been recorded by numerous singers worldwide.

Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, into an affluent New York family and began his musical studies at very young age. He grew up as a neighbor of Oscar Hammerstein II, who took the young Stephen under his wing. He graduated from Williams College with a music degree and continued his composition studies with Milton Babbitt, a pioneer in computer-generated music. He began his career as a composer of musicals in the 1950s with Saturday Night (1955), a show which was not staged until 1997. He also wrote incidental music for the play Girls of Summer (1956).

Sondheim's first commercial success was as librettist for West Side Story (1957). With music by Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim penned the words to such immortal songs as "Maria," "Tonight," "America," "One Hand, One Heart," "I Feel Pretty," and "Somewhere."

Sondheim's next major project was Gypsy (1959). He was to write both words and music before the star of the show, Ethel Merman, demanded a more experienced composer. Jule Styne wrote the music, and Sondheim once again created the lyrics for his second hit show of the late 1950s. Songs in Gypsy included "Let Me Entertain You," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Wherever We Go," and "Rose's Turn."

The first show to appear on Broadway for which Sondheim penned both words and music was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). Based on the plays of Plautus, the fast-moving musical farce included such songs as "Comedy Tonight," and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid." The plot concerned Pseudolus, a slave who must go through a series of hilarious adventures in order to gain his freedom. Zero Mostel received rave reviews for his performance as Pseudolus in the original production. The show won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Producer (Harold Prince). It was revived on Broadway in 1972 with Phil Silvers and again in 1996 with Nathan Lane. A number of original songs were dropped for the 1966 film version with Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers.

Two works followed in the succeeding years: Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965). Anyone Can Whistle, a musical about corrupt city officials, played only one week on Broadway. Its cast album, made after the show closed, gained cult status. Sondheim returned to his single role as lyricist for Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), a show for which Richard Rodgers wrote the music. The plot centered around the experiences of an American tourist in Venice and, like its immediate predecessor, was a commercial failure.

Sondheim's work during the 1970s began with two concept musicals, Company (1970) and Follies (1971). A dramatic plot in the traditional narrative sense does not exist in either of these works. Rather, each show revolves around a central theme or concept. Company concerned five New York couples and their mutual bachelor friend, while Follies centered around four people in their early fifties who attend a reunion and reflect on earlier times. Company included the numbers "Being Alive," "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," "Another Hundred People," and "Barcelona." The show won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Music and six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Lyrics. Follies, with a fifty-member cast and a twenty-two number score, included "Who's That Woman?" "I'm Still Here," and a myriad of pastiche songs in the styles of earlier Broadway composers. Although Follies won the Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Musical and seven Tony Awards, it closed after 522 performances with a loss of its $800,000 investment. A revival of Follies appeared in 1987.

A Little Night Music (1973) was based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film Sommarnattens Leende (Smiles of a Summer Night). Set in Sweden at the turn of the century, the book by Hugh Wheeler dealt with the complicated romantic world of the aging actress Desiree Arnfeldt, her former lover—the lawyer Fredrik Egerman, his child-bride Anne, and their circle of acquaintances. Glynis Jones and Len Cariou starred in the original Broadway production, while Elizabeth Taylor and Cariou appeared in the 1978 film. A Little Night Music is entirely in 3/4 time (or multiples thereof), the meter of a waltz, a musical symbol of nostalgia. The show contained a number of memorable songs, including "A Weekend in the Country," "Night Waltz," and "Remember." But the show's most unforgettable number was "Send in the Clowns," Desiree's nostalgic soliloquy.

The Frogs (1974) was one of Sondheim's most curious experiments. Created as incidental music for a Yale Repertory Theatre production of Burt Shevelove's English adaptation of the Greek play of the same name, Sondheim's score received its first performance in the Yale University swimming pool. The score avoided traditional musical theater idioms and contained fiendishly difficult choral writing. Without the experience of writing The Frogs, the innovation which Sondheim demonstrated in Pacific Overtures may not have been possible.

Pacific Overtures (1976) is one of the most unique shows in the repertory of the American musical theater. The saga of 120 years of Japanese history, from the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1856 to the late twentieth century, is told in the style of traditional Japanese Kabuki theater. The all-male, all-Asian cast performed numbers such as "Chrysanthemum Tea," "Please Hello," and "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea." Despite its striking originality (or perhaps because of it), Pacific Overtures closed after 193 performances, losing all of its half million dollar budget.

Always wanting to expand the boundaries of the musical theater, Sondheim chose the macabre tale of a murderous barber as the basis for Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979). The title character, swearing revenge on a judge for the demise of his family and murdering everyone who sits in his barber chair, enters into a business partnership with Mrs. Lovett, owner of a pie shop who has difficulties finding meat for her pies. The pair find a practical, but macabre, solution to both of their problems. The score contains a very high percentage of music—so many, in fact, that the work has sometimes been called an opera. Among the most memorable numbers are "Not While I'm Around," "Epiphany," "A Little Priest," "God, That's Good," "Pretty Women," and "Johanna." The show, described as "one giant step forward for vegetarianism," garnered eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Score, and Book. Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou starred in the original Broadway production.

Merrily We Roll Along (1981) was a pastiche score which, like Follies, emulated earlier musical comedies. The show ran for only 16 performances on Broadway. Like Anyone Can Whistle, Merrily We Roll Along lived beyond its Broadway run through the success of its cast album.

Sunday in the Park with George (1984) revealed yet another approach to Sondheim's efforts to expand the musical theater. Based on characters in Georges Seurat's painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the book by James Lapine dealt with issues of creativity and the power of art. Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters starred in the original production. The show ran for over a year and a half and won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Among the numbers in its intriguingly intricate score were "Finishing the Hat" and "Move On."

Sondheim, again in collaboration with Lapine, ventured into the world of fairy tales for his next show, Into the Woods (1987). The stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and Rapunzel were fused around a central tale about a baker and his wife who live under the curse of a witch. In order to break the curse, the baker and his wife must secure an item from each of the other fables. All ends well at the end of the first act. In the second act, the widow of the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk demands revenge, and the characters must join together in order to defeat her. Songs such as "Into the Woods," "Agony," and "Giants in the Sky" appeared in the score, as did the instructive ballads "No One Is Alone" and "Children Will Listen." Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, and Chip Zien starred in the original Broadway production.

With Assassins (1991), Sondheim returned to the darker side of the human experience. All of the major characters are people who tried, either successfully or unsuccessfully, to assassinate American presidents. From the opening chorus, "Everybody's Got the Right to Be Happy," to the final scene at the Texas Book Depository, these "anti-heroes" of American society each present the motives behind their actions.

Passion (1994), based on the French film Passione d'Amore, concerned the love triangle between a military officer, his beautiful young lover, and an invalid who captures his soul. The story is presented in a rhapsodic manner with a seamless blend of music and dialogue. Songs included "Happiness," "I Wish I Could Forget You," and "No One Has Ever Loved Me."

In addition to original shows, several stage compilations of Sondheim songs have appeared in London and New York: Side by Side by Sondheim (1976), A Stephen Sondheim Evening (also known as You're Gonna Love Tomorrow, 1983), and Putting It Together (1992).

Sondheim has also written for the motion pictures. Among his film credits are The Seven Per-Cent Solution (1976), Reds (1981), and Dick Tracy (1990). The song "Sooner or Later" from Dick Tracy, performed by Madonna in the film, earned Sondheim an Oscar for Best Original Song. Sondheim's only television musical, Evening Primrose (1966), was featured on ABC's "Stage 67" series and starred Anthony Perkins.

Stephen Sondheim is one of the most original creators for the musical theater at the end of the twentieth century. Each of his shows is unique. Sondheim has expanded the boundaries of the musical theater not only through his choice of subject matter (in which he often challenges the audience to extremes) but also in his handling of musical form and structure. Songs are intrinsically joined together in his shows, and are likewise bound to particular characters. Through live performances, video releases, and recordings, Sondheim's music enjoys world-wide dissemination. For Sondheim's avid fans, his work represents a level of accomplishment and innovation which is difficult to match.

—William A. Everett

Further Reading:

Banfield, Stephen. Sondheim's Broadway Musicals. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Bristow, Eugene K, and J. Kevin Butler. "Company, About Face!The Show that Revolutionized the American Musical." American Music. Vol. 5, No. 3, 1987, 241-54.

Fraser, Barbara Meares. "The Dream Shattered: America's Seventies Musicals." Journal of American Culture. Vol. 12, No. 3, 1989, 31-37.

Gordon, Joanne. Art Isn't Easy: The Theater of Stephen Sondheim, revised edition. New York, Da Capo, 1992.

Gottfried, Martin. Sondheim. New York, Abrams, 1993.

Herbert, Trevor. "Sondheim's Technique." Contemporary Music Review. Vol. 5, 1989, 199-214.

Martin, George Whitney. "On the Verge of Opera: Stephen Sondheim." Opera Quarterly. Vol. 6, No. 3, 1989, 76-85.

Mollin, Alfred. "Mayhem and Morality in Sweeney Todd. " American Music. Vol 9, No. 4, 1991, 405-17.

Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York, Alfred A.Knopf, 1998.

Zadan, Craig. Sondheim & Company. New York, Da Capo, 1994.