Established Reputation with Dance Musical
“If you told me to write a love song tonight,” Broad-Iway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim told Samuel G. Freedman in the New York Times Magazine, “I’d have a lot of trouble. But if you tell me to write a love song about a girl with a red dress who goes into a bar and is on her fifth martini and is falling off her chair, that’s a lot easier and it makes me free to say anything I want.” Redefining the concept of American musicals, the composer is known for peopling his productions with complex characters, including murderous barbers, lascivious fairy-tale figures, and presidential assassins. While Sondheim has garnered numerous prestigious honors throughout his career, his works are sometimes considered controversial for their serious subject matter and have often elicited mixed response from reviewers. A writer for Opera News, though, stated that “the richest, most complex voice in American music history… does not serve up happy endings. [Sondheim] makes you think and feel and quite often, admit unpleasant truths. His songs are at once simple and multi-textured, easily grasped and elusive; the deeper you mine, the richer the lode.”
Born March 22, 1930, in New York City, Sondheim grew up in the affluent atmosphere of Central Park West in Manhattan. His father was a dress manufacturer, and his mother was the firm’s fashion designer and an interior decorator. Although Sondheim played piano at four years old, his interest in theater began five years later when his father took him to a production of the Broadway musical Very Warm for May in 1939. “The curtain went up and revealed a piano. A butler took a duster and brushed it up, tinkling the keys,” Sondheim divulged to William A. Henry III in Time. “I thought that was thrilling.” The event was one of the happier moments in Sondheim’s childhood before his parent’s divorce. After his mother won custody of Sondheim, she denied the boy any contact with his father. “She would have members of her family follow me to see if I met him in secret,” Sondheim disclosed later in Time. “She would telephone his apartment to see if I answered, then hang up. I was a substitute for him, and she took out all her anger and craziness on me…. It was not a great relationship.”
Friends With the Hammersteins
A few years after his parents divorced, Sondheim found a close friend in a boy his age named Jamie Hammerstein. Jamie’s father was lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the songs for Very Warm for May as well as for many other Broadway hits, including South Pacific and Oklahoma! Invited to the Hammerstein’s family farm in Doyleston, Pennsylvania, when he was 12 years old,
For the Record…
Bom Stephen Joshua Sondheim, March 22, 1930, in New York, NY; son of Herbert Sondheim (a dress manufacturer) and Janet Sondheim Leshin (a fashion designer and interior decorator; maiden name, Fox). Education: Williams College, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1950; graduate study in music composition and theory with Milton Babbitt for two years; studied privately with Oscar Hammerstein II
Lyricist and composer of American musicals, including West Side Story, 1957, 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, A Little Night Music (includes “Send in the Clowns”), 1973, Pacific Overtures, 1976, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 1979, Merrily We Roll Along, 1981, Sunday in the Park With George, 1984, Into the Woods (includes “No One Is Alone”), 1989, and Assassins, 1991. Lyricist and composer for Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway production Candide, 1973, and for music for television and movies, including Evening Primrose, 1966, Reds, 1981, and Dick Tracy, 1990. Contributed to Barbra Streisand’s LP Broadway Album, 1985.
Awards: Numerous citations, including Grammy awards, Tony awards, and New York Drama Critics awards for best musical; Pulitzer Prize, 1985, for Sunday in the Park With George.
Addresses: Home— 246 East 49th St., New York, NY 10017. Office—c/o Flora Roberts, 65 East 55th St., New York, NY 10022.
Sondheim remained for the summer. He found a family substitute in the Hammersteins when his mother, who had bought a house in Doyleston that autumn, commuted to her job in Manhattan. Jamie Hammerstein told Time that “by Christmas, Stephen was more a Hammerstein than a Sondheim.” Surrogate father to the adolescent Sondheim, Oscar Hammerstein was also his musical mentor in the years that followed. After he wrote a musical entitled By George at boarding school, the 15-year-old Sondheim requested the elder Hammerstein’s opinion. “I was never allowed to be self-indulgent, because I was brought up by a taskmaster from an early age,” Sondheim related to Freedman. “The first influence I had was a highly professional, highly rule-conscious man. He didn’t say obey the rules, he just pointed them out.” Sondheim revealed in Time that Hammerstein told him his novice musical was “the worst thing I have ever read—but I didn’t say it was untalented.”
One of the most successful American lyricists, Hammerstein influenced Sondheim’s musical development over the intervening years until the young man graduated from Williams College. In 1950 Sondheim won the Hutchinson Prize, which enabled him to study structure and theory with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt. During his fellowship with Babbitt, Sondheim told Freedman, he discovered his former and present mentor “represented two different fields. One was theater, the other music. What I was learning from Milton was basic grammar—sophisticated grammar, but grammar. It was a language, whereas what I learned from Oscar was what to do with language.” Sondheim sought a career in show business after finishing his education. Off to a slow start, he went on audition after audition, and one stage show he wrote was called off upon the producer’s death. At one point in his early career, Sondheim found himself in Hollywood writing scripts for the television situation comedy Topper. The turning point in his career came when he was offered the opportunity to write the lyrics for the musical West Side Story in 1957.
Established Reputation with Dance Musical
Considered one of the masterpieces of the American theater, West Side Story established Sondheim as a prominent Broadway lyricist at the age of twenty-seven. He followed the successful show with Gypsy in 1959. Calling Gypsy “the most perfectly achieved dance musical” in the New York Times Magazine, Frank Rich postulated that Sondheim “made his reputation with the dance musical.” While 1962 marked the success of the burlesque comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sondheim was composer and lyricist for plays with varying degrees of acceptance over the next decades. His movement away from the traditional musical format of snappy tunes and happy endings toward a darker design offended critical sensibilities. “While praising Sondheim’s brilliance,” wrote Steven Holden in Atlantic, “theater critics have routinely complained that his work is cold and decadent and called his music tuneless.” Offbeat and experimental productions such as Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Do I Hear a Waltz?(1965), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), the operatic Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), and Merrily We Roll Along (1981) brought Sondheim an intellectual cult following.
Extended Musical Limits
“The world has finally caught up with Stephen Sondheim. After 20 years of wary regard as, variously, the savior of the American musical, a heartless antimelodist or a closet opera composer, Sondheim—who is all the above and much more—is currently on a roll on the New York musical scene,” wrote Allan Rich in Newsweek with the appearance of Sondheim’s 1984 musical Sunday in the Park With George. A lyricist and composer who has been known to find inspiration in unlikely sources, Sondheim based Sunday in the Park With George on pointillist art. Portraying painter George Seurat and the characters from Seurat’s neo-impressionist work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the unusual musical was a commercial success as well as a prize winner. A writer for Time reported: “From his big-time debut in 1957 as the lyricist of West Side Story to his 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park With George …, Sondheim… has steadily pushed toward—or beyond—the limits of what the score, the narrative, the very premise of a musical can be.”
“A new show by Stephen Sondheim is still the most exciting event in the American theater,” wrote Jack Kroll in Newsweek in 1987 with the advent of Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. Sondheim found the impetus for Into the Woods from child psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim’s discussion of fairy tales in The Uses of Enchantment. Reviewers were divided in their opinion of the show, but advance ticket sales netting $2.3 million illustrated that Sondheim had found his audience. One of the songs, “No One Is Alone,” entered the ranks of standard Sondheim ballads. Throughout his career Sondheim has battled unfavorable comparisons with his mentor Hammerstein in many reviews. Into the Woods was an exception. Ash De Lorenzo noted in Vogue that “the score of Into the Woods accomplishes what the score of Oklahoma! and Carousel did: it makes the whole piece come together. A circle has been completed.”
Sondheim followed Into the Woods with the musical Assassins. Reviewing the play in 1991, a writer for Newsweek cited the Sondheim collage of persons, including John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and “Squeaky” Fromme, who murdered, or attempted to murder, U.S. presidents, “the most audacious, far out and grotesque work of his career.” A reviewer for Time reported that “even fans of [Sondheim’s] acerbic wit and nonpareil invention wondered how such a show could be put together. The work… amply, at times brilliantly, demonstrates how. The question that lingers is why.” Robert Sandla in Theatre Crafts offered the challenge of the project as explanation for why Sondheim would produce the play. “Put aside, for a moment, the queasiness you might feel when you learn that presidential assassins are the subject of a brand new musical…. And consider, instead, the purely technical imperatives confronted by the designers of Assassins.”
Dubbed “Broadway’s brightest hope,” Sondheim “may yet become the giant he saw his teacher [Hammerstein] to be—one who leaves our theater profoundly and permanently changed,” New York Times Magazine reviewer Frank Rich prophesied in 1984. The subject of a book by Craig Zadan titled Sondheim & Company, which delves more into the composer’s career accomplishments than his life story, Sondheim is required reading in musical theater history. Not always praised but generally acknowledged for expanding the limits of the American musical, Sondheim alternately irritates and moves his audiences with songs and subject matter. “Of course,” Kroll proposed, “Sondheim would write a musical about amoebas, or aardvarks.”
Topper (television script), NBC, 1953.
Stephen Sondheim’s Crossword Puzzles, Harper, 1980.
Also author of other television scripts and screenplays. Contributor to books on theater and theatrical biographies, including Oscar Hammerstein’s biography Getting to Know Him, Random House, 1977. Contributor of crossword puzzles to New York magazine.
West Side Story, Columbia, 1957.
Gypsy, Columbia, 1959.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Capitol, 1962.
Anyone Can Whistle, Columbia, 1964.
Do I Hear a Waltz?, Columbia, 1965.
Company, Columbia, 1970.
Follies, Capitol, 1971.
A Little Night Music (includes “Send in the Clowns”), Columbia, 1973.
Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, 1973.
Pacific Overtures, RCA, 1976.
Side by Side by Sondheim, RCA, 1977.
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, RCA, 1977.
Merrily We Roll Along, RCA, 1981.
Sunday in the Park With George, RCA, 1984.
Into the Woods, RCA, 1987.
Assasins, RCA, 1988.
Zadan, Craig, Sondheim & Company, 2nd edition, Harper, 1986.
Atlantic, December 1984.
Library Journal, December 1986.
Newsweek, October 29, 1984; November, 16, 1987; February 4, 1991; June 22, 1992.
New York, December, 8, 1986; August 20, 1990. New Yorker, July 2, 1990.
New York Times Magazine, April 1, 1984; October 21, 1984.
Opera News, November 1985.
People, February 17, 1986; March 17, 1986; October 1, 1990.
Psychology Today, January/February 1989.
Stereo Review, October 1982; October 1985.
Theatre Crafts, March 1991.
Time, June 16, 1986; November 16, 1987; December 7, 1987; September 25, 1989; February 4, 1991.
U.S. News& World Report, February 1, 1988.
Vogue, February 1988.
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.
Homem— New York, NY. Agentm— Sarah Douglas, Douglas & Kopelman Artists, Inc., 393 West 49th St., Suite 5G, New York NY 10019.
Composer and lyricist, 1956m—. 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; Putting It Togetherm—The Making of the Broadway Album, Home Box Office, 1986; and Broadway: The American Musical, 2004. 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.
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).
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; 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; 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; 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 (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 (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 (produced in New York, NY,1962), Dodd (New York, NY), 1963, reprinted, Applause Theatre (Diamond Bar, CA), 1991.
(Composer and lyricist) Anyone Can Whistle (produced in New York, NY, 1964), Dodd (New York, NY), 1965.
(Lyricist) Do I Hear a Waltz? (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 (produced in New York, NY, 1970), Random House (New York, NY),1970, reprinted, Theatre Communications Group(New York, NY), 1995.
(Composer and lyricist) Follies (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 (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), original lyrics by Richard Wilbur, music by Leonard Bernstein, produced in Brooklyn, NY, 1973n—1974, produced on Broadway, 1974.
(Composer and lyricist) The Frogs, produced at Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, CT, 1974, produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1983.
(Composer, with John Kander and Giuseppe Verdi) Once in a Lifetime, produced in New York, NY,1975.
(Lyricist, with others) By Bernstein, produced in New York, NY, 1975.
(Composer and lyricist) Pacific Overtures (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 (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 (produced in New York, NY, 1981), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1998.
(Composer and lyricist) Sunday in the Park with George (produced in workshop, 1983, produced in New York, NY, 1984n—1985), Dodd (New York, NY), 1986, reprinted, Applause Theater (New York, NY), 1991.
(Composer and lyricist) Into the Woods (produced in San Diego, CA, 1986, produced in New York, NY, 1987n—1989), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1989.
(Composer and lyricist, with others) Jerome Robbins' Broadway, produced in New York, NY, 1989n—1990.
(Composer and lyricist; with John Weidman) Assassins (produced off-Broadway, 1991, produced at Studio 54, New York, NY, 2004), 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, produced at Applause Theatre (New York, NY), 2000.
(Composer and lyricist) Bounce, produced at Good man Theater (Chicago, IL), 2003.
(Adapter; with Nathan Lane and Burt Shevelove) Aristophanes, The Frogs, produced at Lincoln Center (New York, NY), 2004.
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 anthologies, including Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, 1973; Side by Side by Sondheim, 1976; Marry Me a Little, 1980; Follies in Concert with New York Philharmonic, 1985; Julie Wilson: From Weill to Sondheimm—A Concert, 1987; You're Gonna Love Tomorrow: A Stephen Sondheim Evening, 1987; Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, 1992; Putting It Together, 1993; Opening Doors, 2004; Children and Art: A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim on the Eve of his Seventy-fifth Birthday, 2005.
(Lyricist) West Side Story, United Artists (UA), 1961.
(Lyricist) Gypsy, Warner Bros., 1962.
(Composer and lyricist) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, United Artists, 1966.
Stavisky, Cinemation, 1974.
(Composer and lyricist) A Little Night Music, New World, 1977.
(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, 1957n—1959.
(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 (screen-play), Warner Bros., 1973.
Stephen Sondheim's Crossword Puzzles, Harper (New York, NY), 1980.
(Editor) Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, revised edition, Hal Leonard Publishing, 1985.
Also author of The Hansen Treasury of Stephen Sondheim Songs, 1977; The Stephen Sondheim Songbook, 1979; All Sondheim, 1980. 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.
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 Streis and, 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.
"My experience with Sondheim musicalsm—and I expect that of most Sondheim enthusiastsm—has inevitably been the same," New York Times theater critic Frank Rich once remarked. "One sits in a theater where people are cheering or sneering; the pitch and conflict of battle drift into intermission, where heated arguments ensue. At the packed closing performance of Follies at the Winter Garden in 1972, people threw flowers at the stage in the same theater where, only a week or so earlier, audiences had greeted the same production with indifference and coughing. At an early preview of Sweeney Todd (1979), dozens of unprepared theater goers ran for the exits once it became apparent that cannibalism was on the evening's menu. At a final-week performance of the short-lived Merrily We Roll Along (1982), scattered clumps of theater goers rose to give every song an ovation while the majority of the house looked on in perplexed, dumbfounded silence. I never saw a performance of Sunday in the Park with George (1984) at which some members of the audience didn't walk out earlym—often not even waiting until intermission to do som—while others, sobbing in their seats, refused to budge until well after the house lights were up."
Widely recognized as the most prominent composer on Broadway today, Stephen Sondheim is also renowned for consistently arousing heated critical and popular debate. A large number of theater reviewers love him for his ingenuity and inventive-nessm—he has garnered a number of Tony and New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, as well as an Oscar, a handful of Grammys, and a Pulitzer. Critics celebrate the sharp wit and sophistication of his lyrics and credit him with redefining the American theater because of his high intellectual ambitions. He is acclaimed for tackling hefty, innovative subjects that range from revenge and injustice in Sweeney Todd to aestheticism and creativity in Sunday in the Park with George to Western imperialization in Pacific Overtures, and his productions are among the most highly anticipated on Broadway.
His appeal among general audiences, however, has been limited. Though many of his shows have enjoyed lengthy runs, the majority of them have lost money, like his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, as well as Sweeney Todd and Follies, which lost all $800,000 of its investment. To theatergoers anticipating blithe, escapist fare reminiscent of the "traditional" American musical, his productions are perceived as disturbing and called inaccessible, cold, and calculated. He has been labelled "all mind, no heart," as he writes in Sunday in the Park, and many conservative theatergoers charge him with, as Herbert Kretzmer reported in a London Times piece, "bring[ing] the U.S. musical to its present moribund state by draining it of the warmth, humanity and vulgar excitements that once constituted the life blood of Broadway." Kretzmer added: "Sondheim is not a people's man."
Sondheim himself is perhaps one of his own worst critics. Religious about not bowing to public taste, he constructs songs that are integral to the musical's story line and that enhance and develop its charactersm—no matter what the current pop music fad. Many critics point out that his songs are dramatic vignettes in and of themselves and become self-contained playlets when performed outside the context of the drama. Intricate rhymes and tricky word-play infuse his works, and he carefully pieces together words and melodies much like he would approach the solving of one of the crossword puzzles he enjoys so much. Lyric writing is "an elegant form of puzzle," he was quoted as saying in a Los Angeles Times article by Barbara Isenberg. As thorough as he is about composing, he admits he still experiences self-doubt when his songs are performed. "When I first hear a song sung," he said in a New York Times article by Samuel G. Freedman, "I'm worried that I'm going to be embarrassed by what I wrote. . . . Out there in front of other people with performers, it's got to carry its own weight and I'm worried it won't. I'm less nervous than I used to be. The agony is at a lower level. But it's not entirely free from nerves, from apprehension."
"I write generally experimental, unexpected work," Sondheim continued. "My kind of work is caviar to the general. It's not that it's too good for people, it's just that it's too unexpected to sustain itself very firmly in the commercial theater." Hardly afraid of failure, he has candidly admitted that as long as he has attempted something enterprising and inventive, he will not be mortified if the work flops. As he acknowledges in his song 'Live, Laugh, Love' from Follies: "Success is swell / And success is sweet / But every height has a drop. / The less achievement / The less defeat."
In spite of a rocky childhood, Sondheim realized a love for music and the theater from an early age. He was born in 1930 New York to moderately wealthy parents, who divorced when Sondheim was ten and were often too busy with professional pursuits to spend time with him. His father he remembers as a dress manufacturer, whose constant worrying endowed Sondheim with a tendency toward cynicism. His mother he recalls as a dress designer who, following the venomous divorce, vented her hostility toward her former husband on her son. "From her I get my tendency to hysteria," Sondheim later admitted to William A. Henry III and Elizabeth L. Bland in Time. Lyrics from at least one Sondheim song, "The Little Things You Do Together" from Company, his 1970 musical about marriage, hint at the trauma the songwriter experienced over the divorce: "The concerts you enjoy together,/ the neighbors you annoy together, / the children you destroy together."
Fortunately for Sondheim, in the summer of 1942 he became friends with neighbor Jamie Hammer-stein, the young son of celebrated Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. Sondheim developed an affinity for the family so quickly that "by Christmas," Jamie quipped in Henry and Bland's Time article, "Stephen was more a Hammerstein than a Sondheim." The most pivotal relationship developed between Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein, who at the time was working on the Broadway musical Oklahoma! "Oscar was everything to me," Sondheimre called to Charles Michener in Newsweek. "He was a surrogate father and I wanted to be exactly like him." Hammerstein encouraged the youngster's burgeoning enthusiasm for the theater and music (Sondheim had taken piano lessons sporadically from the time he was seven), and the teenager responded by collaborating with a few other school-mates on By George, a musical for their school in Pennsylvania. "I really thought it was terrific," Sondheim told Craig Zadan in Sondheim and Co. "And when I finished it, I not only wanted Oscar to see it but I wanted him to be the first to read it, because I just knew he and [collaborator Richard] Rodgers would want to produce it immediately and I'd be the first fifteen-year-old ever to have a musical done on Broadway." Hammerstein didn't agree.
"'It's the worst thing I've ever read.' And he probably saw that my lower lip began to tremble," Sondheim continued, "and he said, 'Now, I didn't say that it was untalented, I said it was terrible. And if you want to know why it's terrible I'll tell you.'" Hammerstein went on to explain to the youngster such artistic techniques as how to compose songs within the framework of the story, how to write lyrics that encompass one-act dramas, and how to build character. Hammerstein also illuminated the relationship between words and music as well as the significance of content. "At the risk of hyper-bole," Sondheim later recalled, "I'd say that in that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime. I was getting the distillation of thirty years of experience."
Hammerstein mapped out an informal apprenticeship for the young composer, which involved the writing of four musicals over a span of six years, and allowed Sondheim the opportunity to observe while he and Rodgers collaborated on what would ultimately become the classic musicals The King and I and South Pacific. While Sondheim was an eager pupil, he had no intention of continuing his study of music in college, preferring instead to enter Massachusetts's Williams College in 1946 to pursue his love of mathematics. Then a freshman music course changed his mind. "The professor, Robert Barrow, was cold and dogmatic," Sondheim remembered for Henry and Bland. "I thought he was the best thing I had ever encountered, because he took all the romance away from art. Instead of the muse coming at midnight and humming Some Enchanted Evening into your ear, music was constructed. It wasn't what other people wanted to hear, but it turned me into a music major." Following his graduation in 1950 with honors in composition and music theory, Sondheim won the Hutchinson Prize, a two-year fellowship that allowed him to study both structure and theory with avant-garde American composer Milton Babbitt. Five years later, after gaining some professional experience writing for the short-lived television series Topper and composing music for a production that was shelved when its producer died, Sondheim got his break in the mid-1950s. Playwright Arthur Laurents, familiar with Sondheim's apprentice musicals and in need of a lyricist for an upcoming project, hooked Sondheim up with Leonard Bernstein, the project's composer. The meeting was concise: Sondheim played; Bernstein "freaked out," as he admitted in Broadway Song and Story; and the youngster was hired.
A Broadway Classic
Unaware that Laurent's projec m—West Side Story m—would launch his career, Sondheim at first hesitated to accept the position, hoping instead to break into Broadway as both a composer and lyricist. Prodded by Hammerstein, though, he took the jobm—a decision that ultimately made him, at the tender age of twenty-seven, lyricist for what has become a classic of American musical theater. West Side Story, a modernized version of William Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet, opened in September of 1957 and quickly gained recognition for its innovative subject matter. The production, which ran for 732 performances, greeted theatergoers accustomed to traditionally optimistic American musicals with examinations of violence, hatred, delinquency, prejudice, passion, and death. Audiences and critics were impressed by the bold musical that blended song, choreography, music, and book for the first time into an integrated whole. Much of West Side Story 's critical accolades were reserved for the collaborative efforts of its creators: Laurents, Bernstein, Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins, a gathering of talent "which should remain for many seasons as the most fortunate union in the history of money," decided John McClain in Journal American. Sondheim's lyrics garnered some attention as well, though: His words are "biting and tender," judged Robert Coleman in the Daily Mirror, while John Chapman of the New York Daily News asserted they possess "simple grace."
Sondheim himself did not view his work as kindly. Even though such pieces as "Gee, Officer Krupke, ""America," "Maria," "I Feel Pretty," "Somewhere," "Tonight," and "Cool" became audience favorites after the release of the film version in 1961, Sondheim never felt completely satisfied with many of them and even admitted they embarrassed him. "I changed the lyric of 'I Feel Pretty' after seeing the run-through in New York because I was ashamed of it," he disclosed in Broadway Song and Story. "Laterthe others said they liked it better the way it was before, so I went home. I'm not fond of a lot of the West Side Story lyrics. To me, they seem very'written.' I like 'Something's Coming' and 'Jet Song'because they have a kind of energy to them. The more contemplative lyrics I find very self-conscious and a mite pretentious every now and then. I hear a writer at work instead of a character."
On the heels of West Side Story's stage success, Sondheim was offered the chance to write for another Laurent showm—a prime opportunity, but a job Sondheim was not completely convinced he wanted. "I really didn't want to wait another couple of years to write a score myself," Sondheim remembered in Broadway Song and Story. "But I went to Oscar [Hammerstein], and he persuaded me to do Gypsy. He said that the chance to work with these people and particularly to write a show for a star (which I had never done before) was invaluable. . . . Because I liked the piece enough and because I knew and liked [composer Jule Styne]'s stuff a lot, I said O.K. . . . I haven't regretted it for one second. Not only do I love the score, I love the show."
An enormous theatrical triumph upon its May 1959 Broadway opening, Gypsy starred Rosalind Russell and Jack Klugman and ran for more than seven hundred performances. A re-creation of the old vaudeville and burlesque shows, the musical revolves around Rose, the domineering and sometimes brutal mother of Gypsy Rose Lee, the real-life American striptease queen of the mid-1900s. In Gypsy, the coldly ambitious Rose epitomizes the quintessential stage mother who is willing to sacrifice virtually anything to make her daughter a star. "The first half of [Gypsy] brings together in effortless coalition all the arts of the American musical stage at their highest point of development," decided Kenneth Tynan in Curtains. "So smooth is the blending of skills, so precise the interlocking of song, speech, and dance, that the sheer contemplation of technique becomes a thrilling emotional experience." Sondheim's work garnered particular acclaim: William K. Zinsser of Horizon stressed that "if[Sondheim] were merely a brilliant technician, [West Side Story and Gypsy] would not have made such an impact. It is because his lyrics so surely fit not only the moment but the total mood and character of the story that West Side Story and Gypsy have an extraunity, maturity, and dramatic strength."
First Work as Composer
Even with two Broadway successes to his name, Sondheim still had not accomplished what he really wanted to dom—compose. Then he got his wish. Teaming up with playwrights Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, he found in the comedies of classical Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus the inspiration for what would become his debut work as both composer and lyricist. The result was a smash hit. Running for almost a thousand performances, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum premiered on Broadway in 1962 and a year later snatched the Tony Award for best new musical. One of the most conventional of Sondheim's works, the outrageous, farcical work blends vaudeville bits, sight gags, and spoofs, and is considered the composer's most purely comedic production. Forum is "about the funniest musical comedy ever written," lauded New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. Unfortunately, the wave of accolades was short-lived. Throughout the remainder of the decade, Sondheim never came close to realizing the enormous success of Forum. The next two projects he wrote form— Anyone Can Whistle, an ephemeral 1964 show about insanity in a corrupt town, and Do I Hear a Waltz? (with music by Richard Rodgers), a 1965 musical detailing an American tourist's search for love abroadm—flopped.
Five years later Sondheim turned himself around by joining forces with noted director and producer Harold Prince. Together the two would create seven musicals over the span of a decade and forge a reputation for experimental, conceptual works that most often find their inspiration in such cheerless and atypical Broadway themes as desolation, disillusionment, and despair. Company, their first collaboration, was a landmark hit that offers an unsentimental and pessimistic look at marriage and the loneliness of a citified life filled with answering machines, beepers, and intercoms. The production is structured as a series of vignettes and focuses on Robert, a thirty-five-year-old New York bachelor who, though intensely afraid of commitment, realizes he must make some human connection. His surprise birthday party given by his married friends opens Company, while flashbacks reveal his prior troublesome, and generally disheartening, encounters with his wedded friends. Ultimately he moves from protesting against "Someone you have to let in, / Someone whose feelings you spare," to a dire plea that "Somebody crowd me with love, / Somebody force me to care."
Sondheim's score and lyrics were among the most applauded elements of Company. Many critics found his jeering, brittle words an exact match for the empty, vacuous lives of the matrons who spend days "Keeping house but clutching a copy of Life / Just to keep in touch," as proclaimed in "Ladies Who Lunch." John Lahr in Harper's called the particular piece "a superb song . . . [in which] Sondheim lets mockery have a field day. With her checklist of the various bourgeois pastimes, the sozzled singer uses anger to stir things up and create the illusion of movement in a stalled life." His music was lauded as clever, sophisticated, and eclectic, prompting one critic, Martin Gottfried in Women's Wear Daily, to assert that Sondheim "is the most exciting, stimulating, theatre-minded composer at work today. His freedom from standard forms, his meters, harmonies, modulations, long-lined constructions. . ., dissonances and plain music are so superior to what we hear in the theatre that comparisons are absurd." "Sondheim and Prince," News week 'sMichener ventured, "[have] given the Broadway musical comedy a new lease on life."
The triumph of the Sondheim-Prince musical continued a year later with Follies, a musical throwback to the 1920s and 1930s that examines the progression of time as well as the disintegration of optimism. In Follies, a troupe of retired showgirls reunite in a crumbling vaudeville theater three decades after the close of the fictional Weismann Follies. Throughout the show, ghosts of the past continually "bump" into the characters of the present, as each individual's former and current self is portrayed by two different actors. "It is this idea," assessed Gottfried in Women's Wear Daily, "and the awesomeness of its execution that give the show its monumental feelingm—a breath away from the living." Four partygoers are spotlighted in particular in the production: Phyllis, who married the prosperous and charming Ben, and her best friend Sally, who wed the unfaithful Buddy and still longs for Ben, her old flame. The folly of trying to recapture what the characters remember as the youthful innocence of their past is played out when old rivalries and relationships are revived. "Middle-aged compromise intervenes," described Irving Wardle in the London Times, "and the party breaks up in disenchantment and a return to the old domestic tread-mill."
Despite its reputation as a significant musical work and the handful of Tonys it won, Follies failed to recoup its investment and incited widely contradictory criticism. Sondheim's score, which many critics described as a salute to his Broadway predecessors, generated both wide acclaim as well as half-hearted recognition. Follies "is an incredible display of musical virtuosity," declared T. E. Kalem in Time. "It is a one-man course in the theatrical modes of the '20s,'30s, and '40s musicals, done not as a parody or mimicry, but as a passionately informed tribute." Arlene Croce was less enthusiastic about the composer's effort, arguing in Stereo Review that "to his credit, Sondheim seems to have offered his pastiches in a genial spirit, like a host showing us his collection of old movies; but to some critics this is enough to make him the king of a new genre." Criticism of the emotional content of Follies sparked debate as well: on one hand reviewers complained that the work was bleak, and that a more compelling and engaging story was needed. On the other hand, many lauded the intense feelings expressed in Sondheim's lyrics. Fury surfaces, they pointed out, in "Could I live through the pain / On a terrace in Spain? / Would it pass? / It would pass. / Could I bury my rage / With a boy half your age / In the grass? / Bet your ass" while ambivalence emerges through "God why don't you love me / Oh you do,I'll see you later / Blues."
Pens A Little Night Music
Turning from the acerbic wit of Follies and Company, Sondheim and Prince achieved a rare commercial success with 1973's A Little Night Music, a bitter sweet love story set in turn-of-the-century Sweden. Based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, the work turns on the foolishness of love among members of a debauched Swedish elite, and is one of the few Sondheim musicals that ends optimistically. Night Music follows such individuals as Frederick Egerman, a middle-aged attorney whose marriage to a giddy eighteen-year-old has never been consummated despite his pleas; his gloomy, seminarian-pupil son, who craves his stepmother; and Frederick's mistress, who is coupled with a dragoon who considers his beautiful wife "irrelevant." As Sondheim writes, all involved are arrested in a state of "perpetual anticipation . . .Playing a role / Aching to start / Keeping control /While falling apart."
In critiques of Night Music, theater reviewers especially pointed out Sondheim's innovative approach to the production's score. Imposing a stylistic constraint on the music, he composed each piece in a variant of 3/4 time, creating a lilting, waltz-like backdrop for the romantic encounters on stage. "The warm, beating heart of this tender, witty musical for lovers and other grownups is Steve Sondheim's music and words," conjectured Michener in Newsweek. "His music fits Night Music as perfectly as the lace-over-chiffon bodices and long skirts fit its leading ladies. In keeping with an age of grand, stylized gestures, his score is something of a tour deforce." A Little Night Music also marked the first time a Sondheim song broke outside the Broadway theater circuit to become a pop hit. "Send in the Clowns" was subsequently recorded by Frank Sinatra, as well as Barbra Streis and, and captured a Grammy for best song of the year. Later Bernstein wrote in Sondheim and Co. that the work "really breaks your heart . . . that's a real piece of poetry both musically and verbally."
Sondheim and Prince aspired to a new artistic form three years later with Pacific Overtures, a musical that examines the metamorphosis of an entire culture. Called "bold," "audacious," and "ambitious," the critically successful production turns on the westernization of Japan, which began in the mid-nineteenth century when American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in the Orient on an expedition. Relations opened between the two nations, and Japanm—which had been isolated from the world for 250 yearsm—was thrust into the modern age. Tackling a political issue for the first time, the collaborators question in Pacific Overtures the "triumph" of Western civilization and suggest at the close of the work that the conquest (or exploitation) of Japanese culture has come full circle: the "students" have become the "teachers."
Though disregarded for the most part by theatre audiences, Pacific Overtures met with an enthusiastic reception among many reviewers, who especially found Sondheim's score impressive and evocative of traditional Japanese music. "Sondheim didn't pretend to write Oriental music, but instead grasped its texture," determined Gottfried in the New York Post. "Sondheim's feeling for the weight and wit of measured language allows him to deftly absorb Japanese poetic forms such as haiku into his lyrics," asserted Jack Kroll in Newsweek. "His parallel gift for the histrionic shapes and gestures of music lets him slip with sneaky grace between Western and Eastern modes." "Sondheim is the most remarkable man in the Broadway musical today," judged Clive Barnes in New York Times piece. "Here he shows it victoriously."
A Gruesome Musical
Sondheim and Prince swapped politics for injustice, cannibalism, and Hitchcockian gore with 1979's Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet. Considered a major contribution to the American theater, the grim, gruesome musical is based on one of the most popular plays in British theater history, which was originally penned by nineteenth-century playwright George Dibdin Pitt. Sweeney Todd revolves around the title character, a barber who is wrongfully exiled to Australia by an unscrupulous judge and then returns to London to exact his revenge. Obsessed with vengeance, Sweeney Todd slits the throats of unsuspecting patrons, then donates the bodies to his industrious landlady Mrs. Lovett, who blends the carcasses into her acclaimed meat-pies.
A moderate success with more than five hundred performances on Broadway, Sweeney Todd roused considerable critical debate. Some theater reviewers faulted Sondheim for his macabre choice of subjects: "This 'musical thriller' about a homicidal barber, a tonsorial Jack the Ripper in Dickensian London, slashes at the jugular instead of touching the heart," observed Kroll in Newsweek. Other critics, such as High Fidelity's Alan Rich, considered the production a "musical masterpiece," emphasizing in particular the range, depth, and innovation of Sondheim's music. "Sondheim has composed an endlessly inventive, highly expressive score that works indivisibly from his brilliant and abrasive lyrics," declared Richard Eder in the New York Times. "In some waysit is [Sondheim's] most melodic, richest work," appraised Howard Kissel in Women's Wear Daily, "yet, even at its lushest moments, the context never lets the music seem merely 'beautiful.' The tenderest moment, musically, for example, is a love song the vengeful barber sings to his razor." Broadway composer Jule Styne, commenting in a 1985 interview excerpted in Sondheim and Co., insisted that "the most unbelievable job of music writing . . . and I say this with deep reverence and envy, the most brilliant job of music writing ever in my life, is Sweeney Todd." With Sweeney Todd, opined Lahr in Harper's, "Sondheim has become the American musical: a king on a field of corpses."
Sondheim's reign as king did not last long. In late 1981 Prince and Sondheim's next musical, Merrily We Roll Along, opened, then just as quickly closed after only sixteen performances. Considered a critical flop, the work follows in reverse chronological order the lives of a trio of Broadway writers, whose success at the outset of the production is offset by the realization at the close that their lives are empty and loveless. "Sondheim has given this evening a half-dozen songs that are crushing and beautifulm— that soar and linger and hurt," conceded Rich in the New York Times. "But the show that contains them is a shambles." Decrying a weak, awkward book, Walter Kerr of the New York Times advised Sondheim and Prince to "take fresh stock of their imaginative energies. They are much too innovative to allow themselves to become so predictable."
After Merrily 's bitter failure, Kretzmer reported in the London Times that "Sondheim became severely depressed and announced that he would renounce the theatre. 'I felt the hatred on Broadway that was directed at Hal [Prince] and me,'" Sondheim was quoted as saying. "'I really don't like that whole aspect of show business and I wish it would goaway.'" Sondheim subsequently severed his partnership with Prince, marking the first time in his career he was without a veteran collaborator. Some critics have speculated that this separation finally gave Sondheim the opportunity to create a project entirely his own. They also asserted that after a career spent collaborating with such innovators as Rodgers, Michael Bennett, and Robbins, Sondheim was finally free to explore an issue he has felt passionate about throughout his careerm—the dramatic creation of art.
Wins a Pulitzer Prize
Enlisting the talents of James Lapine, a commercially unseasoned playwright and director, Sondheim embarked on the project, which ultimately became the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George. A novel work inspired by the landmark nineteenth-century painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," the musical revolves around the painting's creator, French artist Georges Seurat, a pointillist who fashioned the work using multitudinous dots of paint. In two acts, Sunday in the Park turns on a single ideam—how an innovative, principled artist works. The musical opens in Paris, where Seurat set his painting, and follows the creation of the piece from sketch to final canvas. The second act jumps more than one hundred years to 1984 and Seurat's fictional great-grandson, an avant-garde laser artist who aspires to reach the artistic heights his great-grandfather did. In the twentieth century, however, art is no longer a valued commodity; the art world has become flashy, high-tech, commercial, and empty, much like the musical theater Sondheim was facing, many critics suggested Commentators also pointed out that parallels exist between Seurat himself and Sondheim, both of whose works have been labelled inventive, yet emotionally cold. As Rich wrote in the New York Times: "Sunday allows Sondheim at last to channel his own passion into a musical that is not about marriage, class inequities or other things he doesn't seem sincerely to care about, but is instead about what does matter to himm—art itself, and his own predicament as a driven artist whose austere vision, like Seurat's, is often incorrectly judged as heartless."
Sondheim opted to stage Sunday in the Park at Playwrights Horizons, a nonprofit, Off-Broadway theater known for presenting innovative works. Following the production's successful 1983 run, Sondheim moved the musical to Broadway's Booth Theatre, where it remained for another five hundred performances. The critical reception, characteristically enough, was decidedly mixed. Although most reviewers acknowledged the fresh concept of the work, many complained of flat dialogue and static, underdeveloped characters that generated no empathy among theatergoers. "The sad fact," concluded Kissel in Women's Wear Daily, "is that despite [Sondheim's] obvious intention to treat the subject in a mode as experimental as it deserves,. . . Sunday is a thin and lifeless evening." "I found Sunday in the Park with George . . . empty and pretentious," held Victoria Radlin in New Statesman. Conversely, many other reviewers commended Sondheim and Lapine for their ambitious vision of struggling artists and judged Sunday in the Park a major contribution to the American theater. "To say that this show breaks new ground is not enough," emphasized Kroll in Newsweek, "it also breaks new sky, new water, new flesh and new spirit."
Folktale Characters Hit Broadway
Invigorated by his recent collaboration with Lapine, Sondheim teamed with the librettist a second time to produce 1986's Into the Woods. A somewhat philosophical examination of what happens after the "happily ever after" in children's stories, the two act intertwines two Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm fables, one traditional yarn, and one original tale. As the musical opens, a humble, childless couple is doggedly combing the woods in search of four objects that when delivered to an evil witch will restore their fertility. On their quest they cross paths with well-known fairy tale characters like Little Red Ridinghood, Cinderella, and Jack, who are traipsing merrily through the forest seeking to fulfill their own adventuresm—which more often than not involve the loss of innocence. After Jack climbs the beanstalk and slays the giant, for example, he sings about his brief encounter with Mrs. Giant: "She holds you to her giant breast . . . You know things you never knew before." Little Red Ridinghood, too, emerges from her confrontation with the lecherous wolf crooning, "He showed me things . . . many beautiful things . . . He got me excited and scared." By the close of the first act, all appears to be well: Jack has slaughtered the giant, Cinderella has found her prince, Little Red Ridinghood has been rescued from the wolf, and the baker has secured all of his goods. The contentment, however, is short-lived. "Ever-after lasts until the second act," explained Gerald Weales in Commonweal, "when the characters find that they have left fairy-tale land for Sondheim country, where they find betrayal, infidelity, boredom, recrimination, the taste of ashes in the mouth of realized desire. And pain. And death."
With advance sales reaching $3.7 million, Into the Woods opened on Broadway in November of 1987 to widely disparate reactions that ranged from awful to superb. Many critics complained that with Into the Woods Sondheim finally caved in to public demands and created a show that ultimately sacrificed innovation for light, frothy fare. As Ray Conlogue explained in the Toronto Globe and Mail: "There is a kind of desperation about this show, a desperation to be clever and witty, to please, to be original and yet loved by everybody." "Sondheim's songs are largely unmemorable, uninteresting, and bereft of sophistication," declared John Podhoretzin the American Spectator. "Apparently, in his quest to save the musical, he has decided to jettison his greatest strength as a lyricist in order to appeal to the greatest number." Other reviewers raved about the production. "Into the Woods is the best show yet from the most creative mind in the musical theatertoday," asserted William A. Henry, III, and Elizabeth L. Bland in Time. "It is also that joyous rarity, a work of sophisticated artistic ambition and deep political purpose that affords nonstop pleasure."
Sondheim's compositions from Into the Woods provoked just as wide a variety of reactions. Among the most critically discussed was the production'sfinal song, "No One Is Alone." The lyrics, sung by Cinderella to Little Red Ridinghood in the wake of the musical's final disaster, read: "Mother cannot guide you / Now you're on your own . . . Only me beside you / Still, you're not alone. / No one is alone, truly. / No one is alone." Los Angeles Times critic Dan Sullivan observed that "this false-positive solution seems unworthy of a show that elsewhere won't settle for formula. It would be more honest at this point in the story to have a song where the characters admit that everybody is alonem—which is whyit's necessary for them to band together. The woods are a place for tough thinking, not platitudes." At the other end of the spectrum was Rich of the New York Times, who declared, "To hear 'No One Is Alone,' the cathartic and beautiful final song of Into the Woods, is to be overwhelmed once more by the continuity of one of the American theater's most extraordinary songwriting careers. The lyric's terrifying opening admonitionm—'Mother cannot guide you'm—sends one reeling back three decades to the volcanic finale of Gypsy, in which the mother . . . at last casts her children into the woods of adulthood with the angry outburst, 'Mama's got to let go!'"
Sondheim experienced a surge of popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when anxious Londoners swarmed to the British revival of A Little Night Music; copies of Streisand's Broadway Album, which features Sondheim songs, were selling in the millions; and "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)," his nightclub song composed for 1990's Dick Tracy, earned him his first Academy Award.
In 1991 Sondheim produced Assassins, a musical many reviewers judged his most daring to date. Called alternately "disturbing," "audacious," "intellectually ambitious," and "grotesque," Assassins offers a dark look at the men and women who throughout history have attempted to kill United States presidents. Among the assassins featured are John Wilkes Booth, the actor who murdered Abraham Lincoln and who reappears throughout the production prodding others to kill; John Hinckley, the Jodie Foster-obsessed criminal who clipped President Ronald Reagan in 1981; Samuel Byck, the lunatic who in 1974 hijacked a commercial jetliner in the hope that it would crash into Richard Nixon's White House; and Lynette "Squeaky" From me, the woman obsessed with serial killer Charles Manson who in the mid-1970s attempted to kill Gerald Ford. Sketches, songs, and monologues pepper the ninety minute revue-type production, which opens at a fairgrounds shooting gallery game that boasts: "Hit the Prez and Win a Prize." The work climaxes as the assassins gather at the Texas School Book Depository and goad Lee Harvey Oswaldm—who is contemplating suicidem—to "join the family" by slaying President John F. Kennedy.
Although many theatergoers expressed dismay at Sondheim's choice of subjectsm—objecting to what they considered to be a glorification of assassinsm—the production sold out before its limited Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons and ticket cancellations were snatched up by eager customers. Theater critics, however, were a bit less enthusiastic. For example, New York 's John Simon found the closing scene with Oswald "preposterous and tasteless" and felt the musical never should have reached the stage while the United States was engaged in the Persian Gulf War. "When the terrible events in the gulf began, Sondheim & Co.m—all affluent folks in no great need of turning a buckm—could have done the gallant thing and shut down, or shot down, their not very viable brainchild." Those critics who applauded the effort pointed to the production's emphasis on America as the land of opportunity, explaining that many of the assassins, frustrated by their failed attempts at realizing the American dream, became crazed destroyers intent on killing the chief executive and perhaps ensuring their own renown. "This songwriter gives genuine, not mocking, voice to the hopes, fears and rages of two centuries' worth of American losers, misfits, nuts, zombies and freaks," asserted Rich in the New York Times. "These are the lost and underprivileged souls who, having been denied every American's dream of growing up to be President, try to achieve a warped, nightmarish inversion of that dream instead." Rich added: "Sondheim has real guts. He isn't ashamed to identify with his assassins to the extreme point where he will wave a gun in a crowded theater, artistically speaking, if that's what is needed to hit the target of American complacency." Other admirers commended Sondheim's work for its originality. "No musical in the last decade has ever dared this much," judged David Richards in the New York Times. "It turns the musical's traditional values inside out and delivers a rebuke to [famed American playwright, producer, and actor] George M. Cohan on his very own turf." The entire range of reactions, however, were summed up by Kroll in his Newsweek assessment of the piece: Assassins is "a show that will disturb many, enrage some and even move others." In 2001 a new version of Assassins was slated for its Broadway premiere; it was postponed in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11,2001. The musical finally made it to Broadway in 2004, opening at Studio 54 thirteen years after it was first staged.
In 1992 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 declaresher 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, "Adark 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 "emergesas 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.
Honored at the Kennedy Center
The "Sondheim Celebration," a 2002 retrospective of Sondheim's musicals, including Sweeney Todd, Company, and Sunday in the Park with George, drewenormous crowds to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. According to Entertainment Weekly reviewer Lisa Schwarzbaum, the event "is a meditation on Sondheim's profound and revolutionary contributions to the form and content of musical theaterm—his subject matter powered by feelings, his characters fractured by conflicting desires, his music and lyrics probing, commenting, questioning." Sondheim returned to Broadway in 2004 with The Frogs, a musical based on the comedy by Aristophanes. "Gleefully raiding from the bulging grab bag of American musical-comedy tradition," observed Variety critic Marilyn Stasio, Sondheim and collaborators Nathan Lane and Susan Stroman "concoct a brash and breezy style covering everything from burlesque and vaudeville to Broadway extravaganza."
Throughout his entire career Sondheim has routinely disturbed, enraged, and moved audiences, prompting many critics to highlight his repeated ventures into the unexpected when reviewing his work. "The biggest challenge for me is the opportunity to constantly try new things," Sondheim commented in Sondheim and Co. "I believe it's the writ-er's job to educate the audience . . . to bring them things they would never have expected to see. It's not easy, but writing never has been." He added: "I learned a long time ago to write what I care about and what I want to see, so of course there's always the danger that not everyone is going to agree with our shows or even like them." He has defied tradition by selecting unusual, and sometimes bizarre, subjects, and has stretched the traditional boundaries of the American musical by tackling such ambitious issues as artistry, vengeance, imperialization, loneliness, obsession, and disillusionment. Sondheim "has steadily pushed towardm—or beyondm—the limits of what the score, the narrative, the very premise of a musical can be," exclaimed William A. Henry, III, in Time. "More than anyone else writing today, perhaps more than anyone who came before, he emerges a consummate master of what musicals have been with a vision of what they should become."
Sondheim's vision throughout the years has been complemented by an enormous musical talent that his contemporaries have readily recognized. "It was self-evident that Steve Sondheim was incredibly gifted before any of his work was seen by anybody but some friends around a piano," recalled Princein Broadway Song and Story, who first met the composer in the late 1940s. "I wish more people could write with his sophistication and elegance of lyrics and music and present such challenging material," Sweeney Todd actor George Hearn told Sheryl Flatowin Opera News. Lyricist Alan Jay Lerner joked in the London Times that "it's a federal offence . . . to criticize Steve Sondheim in any way." Sondheim's "music sings to me, and I respond to it," emphasizedSunday in the Park star Mandy Patinkin in Opera News, "It takes me away, and God knows that's all I want in life." And Herbert Kretzmer, himself winner of a Tony Award for his lyrics for Les Miserables, proclaimed in the London Times that "Sondheim is simply the best songwriter alive, inspiring an im-measurable awe."
Asked by American Theatre contributor Frank Richwhat he still hoped to accomplish, Sondheim responded, "I think the more you write, the more you realize how much you don't know. You get a view of yourself and your weaknesses, the dangers of things like repetition, the feeling that you've written it all before. Those things make it harder to write. But, in a way, that also makes me want to write more, because I want to overcome it. And, to put it sentimentally, there are just so many wonderful stories to tell, and I really would like to find some that would lend themselves to music that I haven't heard before."
Biographical and Critical Sources
American Decades, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Citron, Stephen, Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber: The New Musical, Oxford University Press (New York, NY),2001.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 30, 1984, Volume 39, 1986.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 38, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
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.
Gordon, Joanne, Art Isn't Easy: The Theater of Stephen Sondheim, Da Capo Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Gordon, Joanne, editor, Stephen Sondheim: A Case-book, Garland (New York, NY), 1999.
Gottfried, Martin, Sondheim, Abrams (New York, NY), 2000.
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.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Secrest, Meryle, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Delta (New York, NY), 1998.
Swayne, Steve, How Sondheim Found His Sound, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2005.
Zadan, Craig, Sondheim and Company, Avon (New York, NY), 1976, 2nd edition, Da Capo Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Advocate, July 9, 2002, Robert Abele, "Show by Show by Sondheim," pp. 56-58; May 25, 2004, Don Shewey, "Dead Presidents," pp. 64-65.
America, December 12, 1987, p. 485.
American Spectator, March, 1988, pp. 28-29.
American Theatre, July-August, 2002, Frank Rich, "Side by Side by Side," pp. 20-27.
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 Mirror, September 27, 1957, Robert Coleman, "West Side Story a Sensational Hit!"
Daily News, September 27, 1957; April 6, 1964; April 27, 1970; February 26, 1973; March 2, 1979; February 15, 1980; May 3, 1984.
Entertainment Weekly, June 21, 2002, Lisa Schwarzbaum, "A Little Feast," p. 74; August 23,2002, Lisa Schwarzbaum, "Stephen, King," p. 135.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 7, 1987.
If you enjoy the works of Stephen Sondheim
If you enjoy the works of Stephen Sondheim, you may also want to check out the following:
The musical works of Ira and George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Marvin Hamlisch.
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.
Horizon, July, 1961, William K. Zinsser, "On Stage: Stephen Sondheim," pp. 98-99.
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; January1, 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; March2, 1979, p. C3; June 2, 1979; February 14, 1980;March 14, 1981; November 17, 1981; December13, 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; April 19, 2004, Richard Zoglin, "In the Cross Hairs," p. 72.
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; July 14, 2003, Chris Jones, review of Bounce, pp. 35-36; July 26, 2004, Marilyn Stasio, "Frogs Takes Dip in Political Pond," pp. 68-69, and Robert Hofler, "Masterpiece Theater," p. 74.
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.
Internet Broadway Database,http://www.ibdb.com/ (June 15, 2005), "Stephen Sondheim."
Songwriters Hall of Fame,http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/ (June 15, 2005), "Stephen Sondheim."
Stephen Sondheim Official Web site,http://sondheim.com/ (June 15, 2005).*
Sondheim, Stephen 1930-
Sondheim, Stephen 1930-
Full name, Stephen Joshua Sondheim; born March 22, 1930, in New York, NY; son of Herbert (a dress manufacturer) and Etta Janet (a fashion designer and interior decorator; maiden name, Fox) Sondheim. Education: Graduated from George School, Newton, PA, 1946; Williams College, B.A. (magna cum laude), music, 1950. Informal apprentice to Oscar Hammerstein II, mid-1940s; studied composition with Milton Babbitt, early 1950s. Avocational Interests: Mathematics, crossword puzzles.
Composer, lyricist, singer, and writer. Visiting professor of contemporary theatre and fellow at St. Catherine's College, Oxford, England, 1990.
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 of council, 1973-81).
Hutchinson Prize, Williams College, 1950; Antoinette Perry Award nomination (with Leonard Bernstein), outstanding musical, 1958, for West Side Story; Antoinette Perry Award nomination (with Jule Styne), musical play, 1960, for Gypsy; Antoinette Perry Award, musical play, 1963, for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; Antoinette Perry Award nomination (with Richard Rodgers), composer and lyricist—musical play, 1965, for Do I Hear a Waltz?; Drama Desk awards for music and lyrics, 1970, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, best new musical, 1970, Grammy Award, musical cast show—best album, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1970, and Antoinette Perry awards, best music of a musical play and best lyrics of a musical play, 1971, all for Company; Drama Desk awards, for music and lyrics, 1971, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, best new musical, 1971, Antoinette Perry Award, best score of a musical, 1972, Evening Standard Drama Award, best musical, 1987, and Laurence Olivier Theatre Award, Society of West End Theatre, 1988, all for Follies; Honorary doctorate, Williams College, 1971; Drama Desk awards, for music and lyrics, 1973, Antoinette Perry Award, best score of a musical, 1973, Grammy Award, musical cast show—best album, 1973, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, best new musical, 1973, and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, music and lyrics, 1974, all for A Little Night Music; musical salute given by the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and the National Hemophilia Foundation at Shubert Theatre, 1973; Edgar Allan Poe Award, best motion picture screenplay, Mystery Writers of America, 1974, for The Last of Sheila; Grammy Award, song of the year, 1975, for "Send in the Clowns" from the musical A Little Night Music; Antoinette Perry Award nomination, best score of a Broadway musical, 1976, and New York Drama Critics Circle Award, best new musical, 1976, both for Pacific Overtures; Drama Desk awards for music and for lyrics, 1978, Antoinette Perry Award, best score of a musical, 1979, Grammy Award, musical cast show—best album, 1979, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, best new musical, 1979, and Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award, Dramatists Guild, 1979, all for Sweeney Todd; Drama Desk Award, lyrics, 1982, Antoinette Perry Award nomination, best score of a musical, 1982, both for Merrily We Roll Along; Brandeis University Creative Arts Medal in theatre arts, 1982; Unique Contribution Award, Drama League of New York, 1983; Drama Desk Award, lyrics, 1984, Antoinette Perry Award nomination, score of a musical, 1984, Grammy Award, musical cast show—best album, 1984, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, best new musical, 1984, Pulitzer Prize for drama, 1985, and Laurence Olivier Award, musical of the year, 1990, all for Sunday in the Park with George; Commonwealth Award of Distinguished Service in dramatic arts, Bank of Delaware, 1984; Grammy Award, musical cast show—best album, 1986, for Follies in Concert; Drama Desk awards for best lyrics and for outstanding musical, 1988, Antoinette Perry Award, best original score, 1988, Grammy Award, musical cast show—best album, 1988, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, best new musical, 1988, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, original musical score, 1989, and Evening Standard Drama Award, best musical, 1989, all for Into the Woods; named Lion of the Performing Arts, New York Public Library, 1989; Academy Award, best achievement in music—original song, Golden Globe Award nomination, best original song—music and lyrics, 1990, for "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" from the film Dick Tracy; Golden Globe Award nomination, best original song—music and lyrics, 1990, for "What Can You Lose?" from the film Dick Tracy; Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award, 1993; Drama Desk awards, outstanding music and outstanding lyrics, 1994, Evening Standard Award (with James Lapine), best musical, 1996, and Grammy Award (with Phil Ramone), best musical show album, 1994, for Passion; Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, best music and lyrics, 1995, for Assassins; London Critics Circle Award, best musical, 1995, for Company; National Medal of Freedom, National Endowment of the Arts, 1996; Johnny Mercer Lifetime Achievement Award, Songwriters Hall of Fame, 1999; Laurence Olivier Theatre Award nomination, outstanding musical production, 2000, for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; Praemium Imperiale, Japan Art Association, 2000, Drama Desk Award, best lyrics, 2000, Drama Desk Award nomination, best music, 2000, both for Saturday Night; Laurence Olivier Theatre Award, best new musical, 2001, for Merrily We Roll Along; Laurence Olivier Theatre Award, outstanding musical production, 2004, for Pacific Overtures.
Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, Sam S. Schubert Theatre, New York City, 1973.
Host, Allegro, City Center Theatre, New York City, 1994.
Clapper boy, Beat the Devil (also known as Il Tesoro dell frica), 1953.
Himself, Original Cast Album-Company, 1970.
Singer, Hey Mr. Producer (also known as Hey Mr. Producer!: The Musical World of Cameron Mackintosh), 1998.
Himself, West Side Memories, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists Home Entertainment, 2003.
Himself, Camp, 2003.
Himself, Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There (also known as Broadway, Broadway: The Golden Age, and Broadway: The Movie), Dada Films, 2003.
Broadway: Beyond the Golden Age (documentary; also known as B.G.A. 2 and Broadway: The Golden Age Two), 2008.
Television Appearances; Specials:
Maxie Schwartz, June Moon, PBS, 1974.
Putting It Together—The Making of the Broadway Album, HBO, 1986.
Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, 1992.
The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts, CBS, 1993.
Some Enchanted Evening: Celebrating Oscar Hammerstein II (also known as Celebrating Oscar Hammerstein II), PBS, 1995.
Hey, Mr. Producer! The Musical World of Cameron Mackintosh (also known as Great Performances: Hey, Mr. Producer! The Musical World of Cameron Mackintosh and Hey, Mr. Producer!), 1998.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
The David Frost Show, 1971.
"Broadway Sings: The Music of Jule Styne," Great Performances, PBS, 1987.
"Bernstein at 70," Great Performances, PBS, 1989.
"Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall," Great Performances, 1993.
Inside the Actors Studio, 1994.
"From Russia with Love," Walk On By: The Story of the Popular Song (also known as Popular Song: Soundtrack of the Century and The Story of Pop), 2001.
"Soundtrack," Walk On By: The Story of the Popular Song (also known as Popular Song: Soundtrack of the Century and The Story of Pop), 2001.
"Dominick Dunne: Murder He Wrote," Biography, Arts and Entertainment, 2001.
Changing Stages, PBS, 2001.
"Rose," Character Studies, PBS, 2005.
Voice of himself, "Yokel Chords," The Simpsons (animated), Fox, 2007.
"Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," HBO First Look, HBO, 2008.
"The Homecoming Opening/Sweeney Todd from Stage to Screen," Broadway Beat, 2008.
Albums; As Composer and Lyricist:
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Capitol, 1962.
Anyone Can Whistle, Columbia, 1964.
Do I Hear a Waltz?, Columbia, 1965.
Company, Columbia, 1970.
Follies, Capitol, 1971, released as Follies in Concert, RCA, 1985.
A Little Night Music (includes song "Send in the Clowns"), Columbia, 1973.
Sondheim: A Musical Tribute (anthology), Warner Bros., 1973, released as Sondheim Evening: A Musical Tribute, RCA, 1990.
Pacific Overtures, RCA, 1976.
Sweeney Todd, RCA, 1979.
Marry Me a Little, RCA, 1981.
Merrily We Roll Along, RCA, 1981.
Sunday in the Park with George, RCA, 1984.
Music of Stephen Sondheim, Book of the Month Records, 1985.
Into the Woods, RCA, 1988.
(With others) I'm Breathless (Music from and Inspired by the Film "Dick Tracy") (includes songs "Sooner or Later [I Always Get My Man]" and "What Can You Lose?"), Sire, 1990.
The Stephen Sondheim Album, Fynsworth Alley, 2000.
Musicality of Sondheim, Jay Records, 2002.
Comedy Tonight: Stephen Sondheim's Funniest Songs, RCA Victor, 2002.
Send in the Clowns: The Ballads of Stephen Sondheim, RCA Victor, 2002.
Simply Sondheim: 75th Birthday Benefit, Kritzerland, 2007.
Songs also included in Stephen Sondheim: A Collectors Sondheim (compilation of original cast recordings), RCA.
Albums; As Lyricist Only:
West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein), Columbia, 1957, released as film soundtrack, 1961.
Gypsy (music by Jule Styne; includes song "Small World"), Columbia, 1959.
The Girls of Summer, Longacre Theatre, New York City, 1956.
Invitation to a March, Music Box Theatre, New York City, 1960.
The Enclave, Theatre Four, New York City, 1973.
(With John Kander and Giuseppe Verdi) Once in a Lifetime, Public Players Inc., Central Arts Theatre, New York City, 1975.
King Lear, Joseph Papp Public Theatre, New York City, 2007.
West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein), produced at Winter Garden Theatre, New York City, 1957 and 1960, book and vocal score published, 1958.
Gypsy (music by Jule Styne; includes song "Small World"), produced at Broadway Theatre, New York City, 1959, book and vocal score published, 1960.
Do I Hear a Waltz? (music by Richard Rodgers), produced at 46th Street Theatre, New York City, 1965, book and vocal score published, 1966.
(With others) Leonard Bernstein's Theatre Songs, Theatre De Lys, New York City, 1965.
Cowriter of additional lyrics with John LaTouche), Candide (revival; original lyrics by Richard Wilbur; music by Leonard Bernstein), Chelsea Theatre Center of Brooklyn, Brooklyn, NY, 1973-74, then Broadway Theatre, New York City, 1974.
(With others) By Bernstein, Westside Theatre, New York City, 1975.
Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, 2005.
Stage Music and Lyrics:
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, produced at Alvin Theatre, New York City, 1962, book and vocal score published, 1963.
Anyone Can Whistle, produced at Majestic Theatre, New York City, 1964, book and vocal score published, 1965.
Company, produced at Alvin Theatre, 1970, book and vocal score published, 1971.
Follies, produced at Winter Garden Theatre, New York City, 1971, book and vocal score published, 1972.
A Little Night Music (includes song "Send in the Clowns"), produced at Shubert Theatre, New York City, 1973, then Majestic Theatre, 1973-74, book and vocal score published, 1974.
The Frogs, Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, CT, 1974.
Pacific Overtures, produced at Winter Garden Theatre, 1976, book and vocal score published, 1977.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, produced at Uris Theatre (now Gershwin Theatre), New York City, 1979-80, book and vocal score published, 1979.
(With others) The Madwoman of Central Park West, 22 Steps Theatre, New York City, 1979.
Merrily We Roll Along, Alvin Theatre, New York City, 1981-82.
Sunday in the Park with George, produced at Playwrights Horizons Theatre, New York City, 1983, book and vocal score published, 1986.
Sunday in the Park with George, Booth Theatre, New York City, 1984-85.
Into the Woods, Old Globe Theatre, San Diego, CA, 1986, then Martin Beck Theatre, New York City, 1987-89.
(With others) Jerome Robbins Broadway, Imperial Theatre, New York City, 1989-90.
Assassins, Playwrights Horizons Theatre, 1991.
Passion, Plymouth Theatre, New York City, 1994.
Wise Guys, workshop performance, 1999.
Saturday Night, Second Stage Theatre, New York City, 2000.
Bounce, Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL, 2003.
Stage Musical Anthologies:
Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, Shubert Theatre, New York City, 1973.
Side by Side by Sondheim, Music Box Theatre, New York City, 1977.
Marry Me a Little, Actors Playhouse, New York City, 1981.
Julie Wilson: From Weill to Sondheim—A Concert (one act devoted to Sondheim's work), Kaufman Theatre, New York City, 1987.
You're Gonna Love Tomorrow: A Stephen Sondheim Evening, New Playwrights Theatre, Washington, DC, 1987.
Getting Away with Murder, Broadhurst Theatre, New York City, 1996.
Stavisky (also known as L'empire d'alexandre and Stavisky, il grande truffatore), Cinemation, 1974.
A Little Night Music (also known as Das Lacheln einer sommernacht), New World, 1977.
(With Dave Grusin) Reds, Paramount, 1981.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (also known as Sweeney Todd), DreamWorks, 2007.
West Side Story, United Artists, 1961.
Gypsy, Warner Bros., 1962.
Film Song Lyrics:
"Something's Coming," Defending Your Life, 1991.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, United Artists, 1966.
"Madame's Song," The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, 1976.
Terms of Endearment, 1983.
Rhosyn a Rhith, 1986.
(With others) Dick Tracy (includes songs "Sooner or Later [I Always Get My Man]" and "What Can You Lose?"), Touchstone-Buena Vista, 1990.
Postcards from the Edge, 1990.
The Fisher King, 1991.
The Birdcage (also known as Birds of a Feather), United Artists, 1996.
A Simple Wish, 1997.
In & Out, 1997.
Drop Dead Gorgeous, 1998.
(With Anthony Perkins) The Last of Sheila, Warner Bros., 1973.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, DreamWorks, 2007.
Television Lyricist; Movies:
Gypsy, CBS, 1993.
Television Scores; Specials:
Passion, PBS, 1996.
Television Music and Lyrics; Specials:
(With Burt Shevelove) The Fabulous 50s, CBS, 1960.
Evening Primrose, ABC, 1966.
Annie, the Woman in the Life of a Man, CBS, 1970.
Sweeney Todd (also known as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Entertainment Channel, 1982.
Television Lyrics Only; Specials:
"Somewhere," Putting It Together—The Making of the Broadway Album, HBO, 1986.
Passion, PBS, 1996.
Television Music Only; Specials:
Time Warner Presents the Earth Day Special, ABC, 1990.
Television Music and Lyrics; Episodic:
"Follies in Concert," Great Performances, PBS, 1986.
"Sunday in the Park with George," Broadway on Showtime, Showtime, then American Playhouse, PBS, both 1986.
"The Saga of Lenny," included in "Bernstein at 70," Great Performances, PBS, 1989.
"A Little Night Music," Live from Lincoln Center, PBS, 1990.
"Into the Woods," Great Performances, PBS, 1991.
Television Lyrics Only; Episodic:
"Candide," Great Performances, PBS, 1986.
(With others) Topper, NBC, 1953-54.
The Last Word, CBS, 1957-1959.
Banfield, Stephen, Sonheim's Broadway Musicals, University of Michigan Press, 1993.
Contemporary Musicians, Vol. 8, Gale Research, 1992.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, Gale, 1998.
Gordon, Joanne, Art Isn't Easy, Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.
Gordon, Joanne, ed., Stephen Sondheim: A Casebook, 1997.
Gottfried, Martin, Sondheim, 1993.
Secrest, Meryle, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, A. Knopf, 1998.
Zadan, Craig, Sondheim & Co., Macmillan, 1974.
American Scholar, autumn, 2007, p. 109.
Insight, August 28, 1989, p. 59.
Macleans, December 24, 1984, p. 41.
New York Times, April 1, 1984.
Opera News, November, 1985, p. 18.
People, September 23, 1985, p. 78.
Variety, February 4, 1991, p. 95.
Vogue, April, 1984, p. 85.
Born: March 22, 1930
New York, New York
Stephen Sondheim redefined the Broadway musical form with his creative and award winning productions. He continues to be a major force in the shaping of the musical theater.
Stephen Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, to upper-middle-class parents, Herbert and Janet Sondheim. His father was a dress manufacturer and his mother was a fashion designer and interior decorator. He studied piano for two years while very young and continued his interest in the musical stage throughout his education.
Sondheim's parents divorced in 1942 and his mother took up residence in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which was near the summertime residence of Oscar Hammerstein II (1895–1960). As a friend of Hammerstein's son, Sondheim was able to ask the famous librettist (a person who writes the words for a musical or opera) for an evaluation of his first stage work, a high school production produced at the age of fifteen.
Hammerstein's critical evaluation of By George began the four-year relationship that was decisive in formulating the young Sondheim's style. Sondheim became Hammerstein's personal assistant and gained entry into the world of professional theater.
While attending Williams College in Massachusetts, Sondheim performed duties in the preparation and rehearsals of the Rogers and Hammerstein productions of South Pacific and The King and I. Upon graduation he won the Hutchinson Prize, which enabled him to study composition at Princeton University.
Sondheim began his professional career in television by writing scripts for the Topper and The Last Word series. He also composed incidental music (minor pieces used as background or between scenes) for the Broadway musical Girls of Summer.
Shortly after that Sondheim made the acquaintance of Arthur Laurents, who introduced him to Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) as the possible song writer for West Side Story, which was produced in 1957. The young man found himself involved in one of the most successful shows ever produced on Broadway. However, in an interview Sondheim gave to National Public Radio (NPR) in 2002, he said that, in spite of the success of West Side Story, he is embarrassed by the lyrics he wrote for the show because of their lack of artistic merit.
Sondheim followed this success by working on the Broadway production of Gypsy in 1959, distinguishing himself as one of the great young talents in American musical theater.
Sondheim, intent on broadening his talents, sought productions where he could use his musical as well as lyrical expertise. He produced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962, a farce (broad and unsophisticated humor) based on the plays of Plautus (c. 254–184 b.c.e.). The show had an impressive run of almost one thousand performances, won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and was made into a successful film in 1966. Sondheim followed with two less successful ventures: Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and Do I Hear a Waltz (1965). Although both failed commercially, Sondheim contributed songs of high quality.
Develops his own musicals
In 1970 Sondheim produced Company, which once again won him unanimous (an agreement by all) praise from the critics. The production was awarded the Drama Critics and Tony Award for Best Musical of the season, and Sondheim received awards for the best composer (writer of music) and best lyricist (song writer). One critic commented that Company "is absolutely first rate … the freshest … in years.… This is a wonderful musical score, the one that Broadway has long needed."
The following year Sondheim produced Follies, a retrospective (a look back) musical about the Ziegfield Follies, large Broadway productions of the 1920s. The composer blended the nostalgia (sentimental feelings for the past) of popular songs of the past with his own style of sentimental ballad. He was awarded both the Drama Critics and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical of 1971.
In A Little Night Music (1973) Sondheim exposed his strong background in classical music. Critics were reminded of several classical composers: Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), Franz Liszt (1811–1886), and Sergey Rachmaninoff (1873–1943). The musical won the Tony Award and included his first commercial hit song, "Send in the Clowns."
Noted as a relentless (untiring, unwilling to stop) innovator, Sondheim worked with Hal Prince on Pacific Overtures (1976). In an attempt to relate the westernization of Japan with the commercialized present, Sondheim fused the unlikely elements of Haiku poetry (unrhymed verse of three lines that are made up of seventeen syllables), Japanese pentatonic scales (musical scales made up of only five notes), and Kabuki theater (a form of traditional classical Japanese drama) with modern stage techniques in a production that was hailed as a successful Broadway hit. It was followed by Sweeney Todd (1979), the melodramatic story of the barber of Fleet Street (London) who conspired with the neighborhood baker to supply her with enough barbershop victims for her meat pies. Less funny than tragic, Sweeney Todd explored the dark side of the nineteenth-century English social system.
Sondheim's talent derives from his ability to cross different types of music and theater, thus offering Broadway audiences works of remarkable craft. He deals with unexpected subjects that challenge and test the form of the American musical. Sondheim explores issues of contemporary life: marriage and relationships in Company; madness and the human condition in Anyone Can Whistle; nostalgia and sentiment in Follies; Western imperialism (extension of power) in Pacific Overtures; and injustice and revenge in Sweeney Todd.
Sondheim avoids filler, or needless content, in his lyrics. He concentrates on direct impact through verbal interplay. His lyrics are witty without ever sacrificing honesty for superficially (shallow and unimportant) clever rhyme. Similarly, he maintains his musical individuality even while operating in the adopted Eastern musical style of Pacific Overtures. Sondheim's consistent ability to merge words and music that hint at the deeper personality of his characters distinguishes him as a composer of rare ingenuity (clever at inventing) and talent.
Side by Side by Sondheim, a musical tribute to the artist, was successfully produced in 1976. Sondheim's later works included the film score for Reds (1981) and Sunday in the Park with George (1984), which won a 1985 Pulitzer Prize. Into the Woods was another musical hit on Broadway in 1987.
In recent years many of Sondheim's earlier projects have been reproduced and have enjoyed success in cities in the United States and in Europe. Sondheim's first musical Front Porch in Flatbush, which first opened in 1955 on Broadway, was put on in Chicago, Illinois, in 1999. In 2001 Follies, a musical that had not been on Broadway since opening in 1971, returned to the New York theater district. In 2000 Sondheim won the best new musical award from the twenty-fifth annual Laurence Olivier Awards for Merrily We Roll Along. The show had first opened in 1981 on Broadway but was new to London, England. Sondheim's musicals have thus stood the test of time, as they continue to entertain theatergoers worldwide.
For More Information
Gottfried, Martin. Sondheim. Rev. ed. New York: H. N. Abrams, 2000.
Green, Stanley. The World of Musical Comedy. San Diego, CA: A. S. Barnes, 1980.
Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998.
Zadan, Craig. Sondheim and Company. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
Born: New York, New York, 22 March 1930
Genre: Musical Theater
Best-selling album since 1990: Passion (1994)
Getting his start as a lyricist in the late 1950s, Stephen Sondheim had by the 1970s become the most influential Broadway theater composer of his generation, changing the way in which the musical as an art form is understood and appreciated. Sondheim is the sole modern Broadway composer whose work withstands comparison to that of theatrical tunesmiths and lyricists of the past such as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Beyond the complexity and richness of his music, Sondheim's greatness lies in his daring pursuit of subject matter previously considered off-limits for Broadway musicals. Exploring themes of obsession, evil, the fragility of human relationships, and the dissociation and cynicism of modern life, Sondheim has pushed the musical form in new, startling directions. Yet his work evinces respect for Broadway's long tradition of escapism and fun; far from depressing, Sondheim's musicals often display a darkly humorous edge. Always more popular with critics than with mainstream audiences, who have tended to prefer more accessible, pop-oriented composers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sondheim has remained active in the 1990s and 2000s, creating challenging new musicals, contributing to Hollywood film soundtracks, and influencing a new generation of theater composers.
Early Life and Success
Born to a wealthy New York manufacturing family of German-Jewish descent, Sondheim endured an unhappy childhood after his father left to live with a girlfriend. The scars from that experience—coming when Sondheim was only ten—along with the influence of a dominating mother, later found voice in his best-known work, particularly through themes of alienation and isolation. In his early teens Sondheim's life changed after his mother moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Soon Sondheim had fallen under the creative influence of his new neighbor Hammerstein, then working on a show, Oklahoma! (1943), that proved to be a landmark of American musical theater. After graduating from Williams College, where he won the Hutchinson Prize for Music Composition, Sondheim studied with the renowned modern classical composer Milton Babbitt before getting hired to write lyrics for the Broadway musical West Side Story (1957). As a result of the show's great success, Sondheim was also recruited as a lyricist for Gypsy (1959). Based on the memoirs of famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, the musical was a commercial hit and an artistic triumph, paving the way for Sondheim's first success as both a composer and lyricist, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). The show's lyrical intelligence and racy sense of humor proved that a successful Broadway musical could be both entertaining and challenging.
Peak Artistic Years
Working with the Broadway director Harold Prince, Sondheim embarked upon his greatest artistic period in the early 1970s, composing a series of groundbreaking musicals: Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973) and Sweeney Todd (1979). While Company, a modern look at love and relationships through the eyes of a thirty-five-year-old bachelor, brought a new degree of wit and sophistication to the Broadway stage, Sweeney Todd saw Sondheim's humor take on a dark, macabre edge—the musical told the story of a revenge-seeking barber who kills his customers. A Little Night Music contains one of Sondheim's best-known songs, "Send in the Clowns," a wistful distillation of romantic confusion that became a pop and jazz standard. During the 1980s Sondheim continued experimenting with form and structure: Merrily We Roll Along (1981), for example, moves backward in time, tracing the life of a composer from adulthood to youth. Unfortunately, such experiments did not endear Sondheim to the Broadway theatergoing public: Merrily We Roll Along ran for only sixteen performances
After presenting two highly regarded Broadway musicals, Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and Into the Woods (1987), Sondheim turned to the lower profile world of off-Broadway for Assassins (1990), one of his darkest, most compelling works. Produced by the noted New York theater company Playwrights Horizons, the musical surveys American assassinations through the ages. It features historical characters such as Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and John Hinckley, who in 1981 tried to kill President Ronald Reagan. In a deliberately perverse move, Sondheim presents "Unworthy of Your Love," a duet between Hinckley and President Gerald Ford's attempted assassin, Squeaky Fromme, as a cheerful, Top-40 style love ballad. Beyond its unusual subject matter, Assassins challenges audiences through its rejection of a linear plot; instead, its scenes are arranged according to thematic references. The famous Presidential march, "Hail to the Chief," is used throughout the musical as a means of linking characters and scenes; in Sondheim's typically ironic fashion, music familiarly associated with reverence becomes a commentary on political insecurity and death.
Challenging Audiences in the 1990s
Sondheim turned to high-profile film work in the 1990s, contributing songs for the Hollywood movies Dick Tracy (1990) and The Birdcage (1996). Nevertheless, he continued to explore anxious, dark themes with the Broadway musical, Passion (1994). The story of a sickly, unattractive woman obsessively in love with an Army soldier—himself involved with a married woman—Passion is a compelling study of desire and transformation. A modest hit that ran for six months, Passion was perhaps too challenging musically and thematically to achieve widespread success. During the remainder of the 1990s and early 2000s Sondheim largely focused on teaching, although his earlier work was celebrated in several Broadway revivals, including a 2002 production of Into the Woods that starred the pop singer and actress Vanessa Williams. After many delays and title changes, Sondheim's new musical, Bounce, was scheduled to open at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in the summer of 2003. Bounce, which reunites Sondheim with director Prince, is the story of Addison and Wilson Mizner, two brothers who led picaresque lives as con artists, entrepreneurs, and celebrities during the early twentieth century.
By the turn of the millennium, Sondheim was widely acknowledged as the most important living artist in musical theater, his work influencing younger composers such as Michael John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel, and Jason Robert Brown. Hailed for his daring, complex use of theme and structure, Sondheim raised the musical form to a new level of artistic ambition and achievement, stimulating audiences with his invention, humor, and intelligence.
Original Broadway and off-Broadway cast recordings: West Side Story (Columbia, 1957); Gypsy (Columbia, 1959); A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Angel, 1962); Anyone Can Whistle (Columbia, 1964); Company (Columbia, 1970); Follies (Angel, 1971); A Little Night Music (Columbia, 1973); Sweeney Todd (RCA Victor, 1979); Sunday in the Park with George (RCA Victor, 1984); Into the Woods (RCA Victor, 1987); Assassins (RCA Victor, 1991); Passion (Angel, 1994). Film soundtracks : Music from and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy (Sire, 1990); The Birdcage (Edeltone, 1996).
M. Secrest, Sondheim: A Life (New York: 1998).
Active in major Broadway productions of American musical theater beginning in 1957, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (born 1930) redefined the Broadway musical form with his innovative and award winning productions. He continued to be a major force in the shaping of this genre into the 1980s.
American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is mainly known for his stage works, which included A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962); Anyone Can Whistle (1964); Company (1970); Follies (1971); and A Little Night Music (1973). He is known for his collaborations with Leonard Bernstein as lyricist for West Side Story (1957) and Candide (1974), and with Richard Rogers on Do I Hear a Waltz (1965). Sondheim's partnership with the director/producer Hal Prince resulted in Tony Awards for Best Musical Scores for three consecutive years (1971-1973), and Pacific Overtures (1976) was hailed as a landmark in American musical theater because of its masterful use of traditional Japanese theater elements. In 1984, Sondheim paired himself with James Lapine to put together Sunday in the Park with George, a musical inspired by a Georges Seurat painting.
Sondheim was born into a prosperous business family on March 22, 1930. He studied piano for two years while very young and continued his interest in the musical stage throughout his education. Sondheim's parents divorced in 1942 and his mother took up residence in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, close to the summertime residence of Oscar Hammerstein II. As a friend of Hammerstein's son, Sondheim was able to ask the famous librettist for an evaluation of his first stage work, a high school production produced at the age of 15. Hammerstein's critical evaluation of By George initiated a four-year relationship that was decisive in formulating the young artist's style. As Hammerstein's personal assistant, Sondheim gained entry into the world of professional theater.
While attending Williams College he performed duties in the preparation and rehearsals of the Rogers and Hammerstein productions of South Pacific and The King and I. Upon graduation he won the Hutchinson Prize, which enabled him to study composition at Princeton University with Milton Babbitt.
Sondheim began his professional career in television by writing scripts for the Topper and The Last Word series and incidental music for the Broadway musical Girls of Summer. Shortly thereafter he made the acquaintance of Arthur Laurents, who introduced him to Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein as the possible lyricist for West Side Story, which was produced in 1957. The young songwriter found himself involved in one of the most successful shows ever produced on Broadway. Sondheim followed this success by collaborating on the Broadway production of Gypsyin 1959, distinguishing himself as one of the great young talents in American musical theater.
Intent on broadening his talents, Sondheim sought productions where he could use his musical as well as lyrical expertise. He produced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962 … a bawdy farce based on the plays of Plautus. The show had an impressive run of almost 1,000 performances, won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and was made into a successful film in 1966.
Sondheim followed with two less successful ventures: Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and Do I Hear a Waltz (1965). Although both failed commercially, Sondheim contributed songs of high quality.
In 1970 Sondheim produced Company, which once again won him unanimous praise from the critics. The production was awarded the Drama Critics and Tony Awards for Best Musical of the season, and Sondheim received awards for the best composer and best lyricist. One critic commented that Company "is absolutely first rate … the freshest … in years … This is a wonderful musical score, the one that Broadway has long needed…." The following year Sondheim produced Follies, a retrospective of the Ziegfield Follies, in which the composer blended the nostalgia of popular songs of the past with his own style of sentimental ballad. He was awarded both the Drama Critics and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical of 1971.
In A Little Night Music (1973) Sondheim exposed his strong background in classical music. It was described by critics as reminiscent of Mahler, Strauss, Ravel, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. Another Tony Award winner, A Little Night Music also included his first commercial hit song, "Send in the Clowns."
Noteworthy as a relentless innovator, Sondheim collaborated with Hal Prince on Pacific Overtures (1976). In an attempt to relate the westernization of Japan with the commercialized present, Sondheim fused the unlikely elements of Haiku poetry, Japanese pentatonic scales, and Kabuki theater with contemporary stage techniques in a production that was hailed as a successful Broadway hit. He followed this with Sweeney Todd (1979), the melodramatic story of the demon barber of Fleet Street who conspired with the neighborhood baker to supply her with sufficient barber-shop victims for her meat pies. Less funny than tragic, Sweeney Todd explored the dark side of the 19th-century English social system.
Sondheim's talent derived from his ability to cross genres of music and theater to offer Broadway audiences works of remarkable craft on unexpected subjects that challenged and tested the form of the American musical. Sondheim explored issues of contemporary life; marriage and relationships in Company; madness and the human condition in Anyone Can Whistle; nostalgia and sentiment in Follies; Western imperialism in Pacific Overtures; and injustice and revenge in Sweeney Todd.
Sondheim avoided filler in his lyrics and concentrated on direct impact through verbal interplay. His lyrics were witty without his ever sacrificing integrity for superficially clever rhyme. Similarly, he maintained his musical individuality even while operating in the adopted Eastern musical style of Pacific Overtures. Sondheim's consistent ability to merge words and music that hint at the deeper personality beneath the prototype character distinguished him as a composer of rare ingenuity and talent.
Side by Side by Sondheim, a musical tribute to the artist, was successfully produced in 1976. Sondheim's later works included the film score for Reds (1981) and Sunday in the Park with George (1984), which won a 1985 Pulitzer Prize. Into the Woods was another musical hit on Broadway in 1987.
Sondheim participated on the council of the Dramatists Guild and served as its president from 1973 to 1981. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983. He won the 1990 Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" from the movie Dick Tracy.
Sondheim composed the music for the ABC television presentation Time Warner Presents the Earth Day Special (1990). In 1992, he declined a National Medal of Arts Award, from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The reader should consult the excellent biography Sondheim and Company (1974) by Craig Zadan; David Ewen's Popular American Composers (1st Supplement, 1972); The World of Musical Comedy (1980) by Stanley Green; and "The Words and Music of Stephen Sondheim" by Samuel G. Freedman, which appeared in the New York Times Magazine on April 1, 1984. □
SONDHEIM, STEPHEN (Joshua ) (1930– ), U.S. composer and lyricist born in New York. His meeting with his neighbor Oscar *Hammersteinii in Pennsylvania (where he moved with his mother) led him to write lyrics for stage shows. Winning the Hutchinson Prize for music at Williams College enabled him to study privately with Milton *Babbitt. Sondheim leapt to the forefront of Broadway lyricists while still in his twenties when he coauthored the songs (with Leonard *Bernstein) for West Side Story (1957). He followed this hugely successful musical with another lyrical triumph, Jule Styne's Gypsy (1959), and then wrote both the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). Company (1970) revolutionized the art form, and Follies (1971) marked the start of Sondheim's collaboration with Hal Prince. A Little Night Music (1973) contained his most popular song "Send in the Clowns," while Pacific Overtures (1976) broke new ground with its use of Japanese kabuki theater techniques. Sweeney Todd (1979) is his biggest work. In Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Sondheim, inspired by a painting by Seurat, conveyed his images of the pointillist style through use of musical minimalism. His later works include Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1991), and Passion (1994), his most symphonic score. He also wrote film scores. Sondheim's musical language, in which melody and harmony are closely argued, retains strong affinities with Ravel and *Copland, while making sophisticated use of jazz and dance idioms; it is intensely personal. His use of counterpoint is the anchor which separates him from most of today's theatrical composers. Sondheim is on the Council of the Dramatist Guild, having served as its president from 1973 to 1981. In 1983 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was appointed the first Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University (1990) and was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors (1993), a National Medal of Arts Award (1997), and the Praemium Imperiale, Japan's highest honor, for a lifetime of artistic achievement (2000). In 2002 he received the ascap Richard Rodgers Award. Most of his scores have won Tony and New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards. "Sooner or Later" from Dick Tracy won an Academy Award, and Sunday in the Park with George was awarded the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Sondheim Review is a quarterly magazine dedicated to his works. Sondheim productions in translation have also spread to Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.
Grove Music Online; J. Gordon (ed.), Stephen Sondheim: A Casebook (1997); M. Secrest, Stephen Sondheim: A Life (1998); M. Gottfried, Sondheim (2000).
[Jonathan Licht /
Naama Ramot (2nd ed.)]