|Birth name||Stephen Joshua Sondheim|
|Born||March 22, 1930
New York City, New York, USA
Stephen Joshua Sondheim (born March 22, 1930) is an American composer and lyricist for stage and screen, winner of an Academy Award, multiple Tony Awards (seven, more than any other composer) and the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, multiple Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize. He has been described as "the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theatre." His most famous scores include (as composer/lyricist) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and Assassins, as well as the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. He was president of the Dramatists Guild from 1973 to 1981.
Stephen Sondheim was born to Herbert and Janet ("Foxy") Sondheim, in New York City, New York, and grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and later on a farm in Pennsylvania, after his parents divorced. While living in New York, Stephen Sondheim attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. Herbert, his father, was a dress manufacturer and Foxy, his mother, designed the dresses. An only child of well-to-do parents living in a high-rise apartment on Central Park West, Sondheim's childhood has been portrayed as isolated and emotionally neglected in Meryle Secrest's biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life. He graduated New York Military Academy in 1946.
Sondheim traces his interest in theater to Very Warm for May, a Broadway musical he saw at the age of nine. "The curtain went up and revealed a piano," Sondheim recalled. "A butler took a duster and brushed it up, tinkling the keys. I thought that was thrilling."
When Stephen was ten years old, his father Herbert, a distant figure in Stephen's life, abandoned him and his mother. Stephen "famously despised" Foxy; he once wrote a thank-you note to close friend Mary Rodgers that read, "Dear Mary and Hank, Thanks for the plate, but where was my mother's head? Love, Steve." When his mother died in the Spring of 1992, he did not attend her funeral.
Mentorship under Oscar Hammerstein II
At about the age of ten, around the time of his parents' divorce, Sondheim became friends with Jimmy Hammerstein, son of the well-known lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. The elder Hammerstein became a surrogate father to Sondheim, as the young man attempted to stay away from home as much as possible. Hammerstein had a profound influence on the young Sondheim, especially in his development of love for musical theater. Indeed, it was at the opening of Hammerstein's hit show South Pacific that Sondheim met Harold Prince, who would later direct many of Sondheim's most famous shows. During high school, Sondheim attended George School, a private Quaker preparatory school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He had the chance to write a comic musical based on the goings-on of his school, entitled By George. It was a major success among his peers, and it inflated the young songwriter's ego considerably; he took it to Hammerstein, and asked him to evaluate it as though he had no knowledge of its author. Hammerstein said it was the worst thing he had ever seen. "But if you want to know why it's terrible," Hammerstein consoled the young man, "I'll tell you." The rest of the day was spent going over the musical, and Sondheim would later say that "in that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime."
Thus began one of the most famous apprenticeships in the musical theatre, as Hammerstein designed a kind of course for Sondheim to take on the construction of a musical. This training centered around four assignments, which Sondheim was to write. These were:
- A musical based on a play he admired (which became All That Glitters)
- A musical based on a play he thought was flawed (which became High Tor)
- A musical based on an existing novel or short story not previously dramatized (which became his unfinished Mary Poppins, not connected to the musical film and stage play scored by the Sherman Brothers.)
- An original musical (which became Climb High)
None of these "assignment" musicals was ever produced professionally. High Tor and Mary Poppins have never been produced at all, because the rights holders for the original works refused to grant permission for a musical to be made.
In 1950, Sondheim graduated magna cum laude from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he was a member of Beta Theta Pi fraternity. He went on to study composition with the composer Milton Babbitt. Sondheim says that when he asked Babbitt if he could study atonality, Babbitt replied "No, I don't think you've exhausted your tonal resources yet." . Sondheim agreed, and despite frequent dissonance and a highly chromatic style, his music remains resolutely tonal.
Move to Broadway and work as lyricist
"A few painful years of struggle" followed for Sondheim, during which he conditionally auditioned songs and lived in his father's dining room to save money. He also spent some time in Hollywood writing for the television series Topper. Though, to date, Sondheim has only dabbled in movie musicals, he devoured the film of the forties and fifties and has called cinema his "basic language." In the fifties, his knowledge of film got him through The $64,000 Question contestant tryouts. Though his favorite movies include classics like Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath, and A Matter of Life and Death, Sondheim says he dislikes movie musicals. He added that "studio directors like Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh....were heroes of mine. They went from movie to movie to movie, and every third movie was good and every fifth movie was great. There wasn't any cultural pressure to make art."
In 1954, Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics for Saturday Night, which was never produced on Broadway and was shelved until a 1997 production at London's Bridewell Theatre. In 1998 Saturday Night received a professional recording, followed by a revised version with two new songs and an Off-Broadway run at Second Stage Theatre in 2000 and its full British premiere with the new songs due in 2009 at London's Jermyn Street Theatre.
Sondheim's big break came when he wrote the lyrics to West Side Story, accompanying Leonard Bernstein's music and Arthur Laurents's book. The 1957 show, directed by Jerome Robbins, ran for 732 performances. While this may be the best-known show Sondheim ever worked on, he has expressed some dissatisfaction with his lyrics, stating they don't always fit the characters and are sometimes too consciously poetic.
In 1959, he wrote the lyrics for another hit musical, Gypsy. Sondheim would have liked to write the music as well, but Ethel Merman, the star, insisted on a composer with a track record. Thus, Jule Styne was hired. Sondheim questioned if he should write only the lyrics for yet another show, but his mentor Oscar Hammerstein told him it would be valuable experience to write for a star. Sondheim worked closely with book writer Arthur Laurents to create the show. It ran 702 performances.
Finally, Sondheim participated in a musical for which he wrote both the music and lyrics, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It opened in 1962 and ran 964 performances. The book, based on the farces of Plautus, was written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Sondheim's score was not especially well-received at the time. Even though the show won several Tony Awards, including best musical, Sondheim did not even receive a nomination. In addition, some critics felt the songs were not properly integrated into the farcical action.
At this point, Sondheim had participated in three straight hits. His next show ended the streak. Anyone Can Whistle (1964) was a 9-performance flop, although it introduced Angela Lansbury to musical theatre and has developed a cult following.
In 1965 he donned his lyricist-for-hire hat for one last show, Do I Hear a Waltz?, with music by Richard Rodgers—the one project he has since openly regretted working on. In 1966, he semi-anonymously provided the lyric for "The Boy From...", a parody of "The Girl from Ipanema" that was a highlight of the off-Broadway revue The Mad Show. (The official songwriting credit went to the linguistically-minded pseudonym "Esteban Rio Nido", which translates from the Spanish to "Stephen River Nest". In the show's Playbill, the lyric was credited to "Nom De Plume".)
Maturity as composer/lyricist in the 70s
Since then Sondheim has devoted himself to both composing and writing lyrics for a series of varied and adventurous musicals, beginning with the innovative "concept musical" Company in 1970.
Sondheim's work is notable for his use of complex polyphony in the vocal parts, such as the chorus of five minor characters who function as a sort of Greek chorus in 1973's A Little Night Music. He also displays a penchant for angular harmonies and intricate melodies reminiscent of Bach (Sondheim has claimed that he "loves Bach" but his favorite period is Brahms to Stravinsky). To aficionados, Sondheim's musical sophistication is considered to be greater than that of many of his musical theater peers, and his lyrics are likewise renowned for their ambiguity, wit, and urbanity.
Sondheim collaborated with producer/director Harold Prince on six distinctive musicals between 1970 and 1981. Company (1970) was a "concept musical", a show centered on a set of characters and themes rather than a straightforward plot. Follies (1971) was a similarly-structured show filled with pastiche songs echoing styles of composers from earlier decades. A Little Night Music (1973), a more traditionally plotted show based on the film Smiles of a Summer Night by Ingmar Bergman, was one of his greatest successes, with Time magazine calling it "Sondheim's most brilliant accomplishment to date." Notably, the score was mostly composed in waltz time (either ¾ time, or multiples thereof.) Further success was accorded to A Little Night Music when "Send in the Clowns" became a hit for Judy Collins. Although it was Sondheim's only Top 40 hit, his songs are frequently performed and recorded by cabaret artists and theatre singers in their solo careers.
Pacific Overtures (1976) was the most non-traditional of the Sondheim-Prince collaborations, an intellectual exploration of the westernization of Japan. Sweeney Todd (1979), Sondheim's most operatic score and libretto (which, along with "A Little Night Music," found a definite foothold in opera houses), once again explores an unlikely topic, this time murderous revenge and cannibalism. The book, by Hugh Wheeler, is based on Christopher Bond's 1973 stage version of the Victorian original.
Merrily We Roll Along (1981), with a book by George Furth, is one of Sondheim's more "traditional" scores and was thought to hold potential to generate some hit songs (Frank Sinatra and Carly Simon each recorded a different song from the show). Sondheim's music director, Paul Gemignani, said, “Part of Steve’s ability is this extraordinary versatility.” Merrily, however, was a 16-performance flop. "Merrily did not succeed, but its score endures thanks to subsequent productions and recordings. According to Martin Gottfried, "Sondheim had set out to write traditional songs… But [despite] that there is nothing ordinary about the music." Sondheim and Furth have extensively revised the show since its initial opening.
The failure of Merrily greatly affected Sondheim; he was ready to quit theater and do movies or create video games or write mysteries. He was later quoted as saying, "I wanted to find something to satisfy myself that does not involve Broadway and dealing with all those people who hate me and hate Hal." The collaboration between Sondheim and Prince would largely end after Merrily - until the 2003 production of Bounce, another failure.
However, instead of quitting the theater following the failure of Merrily, Sondheim decided "that there are better places to start a show", and found a new collaborator in the "artsy" James Lapine. Lapine has a taste "for the avant-garde and for visually oriented theater in particular." Sunday in the Park with George (1984), their first collaboration, was very much the avant-garde, but they had blended it together with the professionalism of the commercial theater to make a different kind of musical. Sondheim again was able to show his versatility and his adaptability. His music took on the style of the artist Georges Seurat's painting techniques. In doing so, Sondheim was able to bring his work to another level.
In 1985, he and Lapine won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Sunday in the Park with George. It is one of only seven musicals that have received this prestigious award. The show had its first revival on Broadway in 2008. The Sondheim-Lapine collaboration also produced the popular fairy-tale show Into the Woods (1987) and the rhapsodic Passion (1994). 1990 saw the opening of Sondheim's Assassins off-Broadway.
In the late nineties, Sondheim reunited with Hal Prince for Wise Guys, a long-in-the-works musical comedy about brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner. Though a Broadway production starring Nathan Lane and Victor Garber and directed by Sam Mendes was announced for Spring 2000, the New York debut of the musical was delayed. Rechristened Bounce in 2003, the show was mounted at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.. Bounce received disappointing reviews and never reached Broadway. A revised version of Bounce premiered off-Broadway at The Public Theater under the new name Road Show from October 28, 2008 through December 28, 2008, under the direction of John Doyle.
Regarding whether he had any interest in writing new work, Sondheim was quoted in a 2006 Time Out: London interview as saying, "No... It's age. It's a diminution of energy and the worry that there are no new ideas. It’s also an increasing lack of confidence. I’m not the only one. I’ve checked with other people. People expect more of you and you’re aware of it and you shouldn’t be." In December 2007, however, Sondheim said that, along with continued work on Bounce, he was "nibbling at a couple of things with John Weidman and James Lapine."
According to a 2008 interview with Playbill.com, he is currently working on a book of annotations of his lyrics. Sondheim said "It's going to be long. I'm not, by nature, a prose writer, but I'm literate, and I have a couple of people who are vetting it for me, whom I trust, who are excellent prose writers."
Lapine has created a "multimedia revue", titled iSondheim: aMusical Revue, which had been scheduled to premiere in April 2009 at the Alliance Theatre, Atlanta, Georgia. However that production was canceled, due to "difficulties encountered by the commercial producers attached to the project...in raising the necessary funds".
In Conversation with Frank Rich
In March 2008, Sondheim and Frank Rich of the New York Times appeared in four interviews/conversations in Californiaand Portland, Oregon titled "A Little Night Conversation with Stephen Sondheim".
In September 2008, they appeared at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. The "Cleveland Jewish News" reported on the Oberlin event, writing: "Sondheim said: 'Movies are photographs; the stage is larger than life.' What musicals does Sondheim admire the most? "Porgy and Bess" tops a list which includes "Carousel," "She Loves Me," and "The Wiz," which he saw six times. Sondheim took a dim view of today’s musicals. What works now, he said, are musicals that are easy to take; audiences don’t want to be challenged."
An earlier conversation took place on April 28, 2002, during the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center.
Sondheim and Rich have more conversations: on January 18, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall ; on February 2, 2009 at the Landmark Theater, Richmond, Virginia, ; on February 21, 2009 at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, , and on April 20, 2009 at the University of Akron College of Fine and Applied Arts, EJ Thomas Hall, Akron, Ohio.
Sondheim had an additional "conversation with" Sean Patrick Flahaven (associate editor of The Sondheim Review) at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, on February 4, 2009, during which he spoke of many of his songs and shows. "On the perennial struggles of Broadway: 'I don’t see any solution for Broadway's problems except subsidized theater, as in most civilized countries of the world.' "
Work away from Broadway
Sondheim's mature career has been varied, encompassing much beyond composition of musicals.
An avid fan of games, in 1968 and 1969 Sondheim published a series of cryptic crossword puzzles in New York magazine. (In 1987, Time referred to his love of puzzlemaking as "legendary in theater circles," adding that the central character in Anthony Shaffer's hit play Sleuth was inspired by Sondheim. That the show was given the working title Who's Afraid of Stephen Sondheim? is an urban legend. In a New York Times interview on March 10, 1996, Shaffer denied ever using the title, and Sondheim speculated that it was the invention of producer Morton Gottlieb.) He parlayed this talent into a film script, written with longtime friend Anthony Perkins, called The Last of Sheila. The 1973 film, directed by Herbert Ross, starred Dyan Cannon, Raquel Welch, Richard Benjamin, and others.
He tried his hand at writing one more time - in 1996 he collaborated on a play called Getting Away with Murder. It was not a success, and the Broadway production closed after 29 previews and 17 performances.
His compositional efforts have included a number of film scores, notably a set of songs written for Warren Beatty's 1990 film version of Dick Tracy; one song, "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" (as performed by Madonna), won Sondheim an Academy Award.
Unless otherwise noted, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
- Saturday Night (1954, though unproduced until 1997) (book by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein)
- West Side Story (1957) (music by Leonard Bernstein; book by Arthur Laurents; directed by Jerome Robbins)
- Gypsy (1959) (music by Jule Styne; book by Arthur Laurents; directed by Jerome Robbins)
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) (book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart; directed by George Abbott)
- Anyone Can Whistle (1964) (book by Arthur Laurents; directed by Arthur Laurents)
- Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965) (music by Richard Rodgers; book by Arthur Laurents; directed by John Dexter)
- Company (1970) (book by George Furth; directed by Hal Prince)
- Follies (1971) (book by James Goldman; directed by Hal Prince)
- A Little Night Music (1973) (book by Hugh Wheeler; directed by Hal Prince)
- Pacific Overtures (1976) (book by John Weidman; directed by Hal Prince)
- Sweeney Todd (1979) (book by Hugh Wheeler; directed by Hal Prince)
- Merrily We Roll Along (1981) (book by George Furth; directed by Hal Prince)
- Sunday in the Park with George (1984) (book by James Lapine; directed by James Lapine)
- Into the Woods (1987) (book by James Lapine; directed by James Lapine)
- Assassins (1990) (book by John Weidman; directed by Jerry Zaks)
- Passion (1994) (book by James Lapine; directed by James Lapine)
- Bounce (2003) (book by John Weidman; directed by Hal Prince); retitled Road Show
- The Frogs - Second version (2004) (revised book by Nathan Lane, from Burt Shevelove's 1974 book. Contains seven new songs)
- Road Show (2008) (book by John Weidman; directed by John Doyle); (formerly titled Bounce)
Side By Side By Sondheim (1976), Marry Me A Little (1980), You're Gonna Love Tomorrow (1983) and Putting It Together (1993) are anthologies or revues of Sondheim's work as composer and lyricist, featuring both produced songs and songs cut from productions.
- Girls of Summer (1956) (incidental music by Sondheim; play by N. Richard Nash)
- Invitation to a March (1960) (incidental music by Sondheim; play by Arthur Laurents)
- The World of Jules Feiffer (1962) (incidental music by Sondheim; sketches by Jules Feiffer)
- Hot Spot (1963) (music mostly by Mary Rodgers; lyrics mostly by Martin Charnin)
- The Enclave (1973) (incidental music to the play by Arthur Laurents)
- The Mad Show (1966) (music mostly by Mary Rodgers; lyrics mostly by Marshall Barer) wrote the lyric for "The Boy From...", a parody of The Girl from Ipanema.
- Candide - Second Version (1974) (new lyrics by Sondheim; original lyrics by Richard Wilbur; music by Leonard Bernstein; Book by Hugh Wheeler)
- The Frogs (1974), a musical version of Aristophanes' comedy with a book by Burt Shevelove. Performed in the Yale University swimming pool.
- Getting Away With Murder (1996), a "comedy thriller" (non-musical play), co-written with George Furth.
- King Lear (2007), incidental music for a Public Theater production of the Shakespeare tragedy, composed with orchestrator Michael Starobin. The production was directed by James Lapine and starred Kevin Kline.
Film and TV
- Topper (circa 1953), a non-musical television comedy series for which Sondheim wrote about ten episodes.
- Evening Primrose (1966), a made-for-TV musical about a secret society of people living in department stores and the romance between Ella, a department store denizen, and Charles, a poet who decides to live in the department store after renouncing the world. Four songs, including the cabaret standard "Take Me To The World" and the well-loved, if lesser-known, ballad "I Remember".
- The Last of Sheila (1973), a nonmusical film mystery written with Anthony Perkins. Perkins and Sondheim received a 1974 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay.
- Sondheim appears in the 1974 PBS television version of the play June Moon by George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner. In the film, Sondheim plays a wise-cracking pianist named Maxie Schwartz.
- "The Madam's Song", also called "I Never Do Anything Twice", for the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).
- The score for Alain Resnais's film Stavisky (1974).
- Music for the film Reds starring Warren Beatty (1981), including the song "Goodbye For Now."
- Five songs for Warren Beatty's film Dick Tracy (1990), including "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)", which won the Academy Award for Best Song.
- Two songs for the film The Birdcage (1996) "It Takes All Kinds" (not used) and "Little Dream".
- Cameo as himself in the 2003 film Camp.
- Sondheim had a guest part on The Simpsons episode "Yokel Chords" as himself (2007).
- Sweeney Todd, (2007) a movie adaptation of the stage work, made with Sondheim's participation and approval, was directed by Tim Burton, featuring a largely-nonmusical cast of actors led by Johnny Depp (who was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor). Running time: 116 minutes. All choral numbers were cut in order to focus more on the primary characters. The movie, in the USA and abroad, grossed over $150 million.
Honors and awards
- Hutchinson Prize for Music Composition
- Grammy Awards, Sweeney Todd (1979); "Send in the Clowns" Song of the Year (1976)
- Elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters (1983)
- Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Sunday in the Park with George (1985)
- Academy Award for Best Song, "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" from Dick Tracy (1990)
- Kennedy Center Honors, Lifetime Achievement, (1993)
- Multiple Drama Desk Awards and other smaller awards for his Off Broadway productions
- Tony Awards
- Company (1971, Best Score, Best Lyrics)
- Follies (1972, Best Score)
- A Little Night Music (1973 Best Score)
- Sweeney Todd (1979, Best Score)
- Into The Woods (1988, Best Score)
- Passion (1994 Best Score)
- Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre (2008)
- Young Playwrights
This organization, founded by Sondheim in 1981, is intended to introduce young people to writing for the theater. He is the Executive Vice President.
- The Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts
The Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts opened December 7-9, 2007, located at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center in Fairfield, Iowa. The Center opened with performances from seven notable Broadway performers, including Len Cariou, Liz Callaway and Richard Kind, all of whom had taken part in the musicals of Sondheim. The center is the first one in the world named after him.
In 1993 The Stephen Sondheim Society was set up to promote and provide information about the works of Stephen Sondheim. "The Sondheim Review" is a quarterly magazine totally devoted to Sondheim's work. Most of the episode titles from the popular television series Desperate Housewives reference his work in some way, through the use of either song titles or lyrics.
- Musical Theatre Development
In 1990, Sondheim took the Cameron Mackintosh chair in musical theatre at Oxford, and in this capacity ran workshops with promising writers of musicals, such as George Stiles, Anthony Drewe, Andrew Peggie, Paul James and others. These writers jointly set up the Mercury Workshop in 1992, which eventually merged with the New Musicals Alliance to become MMD, a UK-based organisation developing new musical theatre, of which Sondheim continues to be patron.
- The Sondheim Award
The Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia, has announced a new award, "The Sondheim Award", "as a tribute to America's most influential contemporary musical theatre composer." The first award will be presented at a gala fund-raiser on April 27, 2009, with help from performers Bernadette Peters, Michael Cerveris, Will Gartshore and Eleasha Gamble. Sondheim himself will be the first recipient of the award, which also includes a $5000 honorarium for the recipients' choice of a nonprofit organization.