Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Joshua Sondheim (born March 22, 1930) is an American composer and lyricist for stage and film. He is the winner of an Academy Award, multiple Tony Awards (eight, more than any other composer) including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre,[1] multiple Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize. He has been described as “the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theatre.”[2] 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.

Sondheim was born to a Jewish family in New York City to Etta Janet (née Fox) and Herbert Sondheim.[3] He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and later, after his parents divorced, on a farm near Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Herbert, his father, was a dress manufacturer and Foxy, his mother, designed the dresses. As an only child of well-to-do parents living in The San Remo on Central Park West, he is described in Meryle Secrest‘s biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, as having had an isolated and emotionally neglected childhood. While living in New York, Stephen Sondheim attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. Later, Sondheim attended George School, a private Quaker preparatory school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He graduated from the New York Military Academy in 1946.

Sondheim traces his interest in theater to Very Warm for May, a Broadway musical he saw at age 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.”[4]

When Stephen was ten, his father, a distant figure, abandoned him and his mother. Stephen “famously despised” Foxy;[2] 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.”[4] When his mother died in the spring of 1992, he did not attend her funeral.[2][5] His mother was allegedly psychologically abusive and distant,[6] using Sondheim as a form of replacement for his father: for example, she would hold his hand at movies. His father sought custody of Stephen, but because he had left Foxy for another woman (Alicia), his efforts failed. Herbert and Alicia had two sons together.

At about the age of ten, around the time of his parents’ divorce, Sondheim became friends with Jimmy Hammerstein, son of the lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. The elder Hammerstein became Sondheim’s surrogate father, helping the young man stay away from home as much as possible. Hammerstein had a profound influence on the young Sondheim, especially in developing a 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. While at the George School, Sondheim wrote a comic musical based on the goings-on of his school, entitled By George. It was a major success among his peers, and it considerably buoyed the young songwriter’s ego; 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 offered, “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.”[7]

Bernadette Peters’s version of Not A Day Goes By from Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim live from Royal Festival Hall London.

Thus began one of the most famous apprenticeships in the musical theatre, as Hammerstein designed a kind of course for Sondheim on the construction of a musical. This training centered around four assignments, which Sondheim was to write. These were musicals:

  • Based on a play he admired (which became All That Glitters)
  • Based on a play he thought was flawed (which became High Tor)
  • 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 (which became Climb High)

None of these “assignment” musicals were ever produced professionally. High Tor and Mary Poppins have never been produced at all, because the rights holders for the original works refused permission.

Carol Burnett sings “The Ladies Who Lunch”, originally written for Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”

Elaine Stritch sings her signature song, “Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company.”

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 “You haven’t exhausted tonal resources for yourself yet, so I’m not going to teach you atonal.” [8] Sondheim agreed, and despite frequent dissonance and a highly chromatic style, his music remains resolutely tonal.

A few painful years of struggle” followed for Sondheim, during which he continually auditioned songs, living in his father’s dining room to save money; he also spent time in Hollywood writing for the television series Topper.[4] He devoured 1940s and ’50s films and has called cinema his “basic language.”[2] (His film knowledge got him through The $64,000 Question contestant tryouts.) Ironically, Sondheim has expressed his dislike of movie musicals, favoring classic dramas like Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath, and A Matter of Life and Death. He adds 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.”[9]

(Not) Getting Married Today – Madeline Kahn – Company

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 a full British premiere with the new songs due in 2009 at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre.

Tony award winner Dorothy Loudon sings a wonderful medley of Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” and “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”. Be sure to watch through to the end to see how she mixes the two songs together.

We made the mistake of posting these as two separate videos on our old BestArts channel, so we’re glad to bring them back together – as they belong.

This video is an excerpt from the highly recommended 1992 concert DVD “Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall”.

Sondheim’s big break came when he wrote the lyrics to West Side Story, lyricizing 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 dissatisfaction with his lyrics, stating they don’t always fit the characters and are sometimes too consciously poetic. It has been rumored that while Bernstein was off trying to fix the musical Candide, Sondheim wrote some of the music for West Side Story, and that Bernstein’s co-lyricist billing mysteriously disappeared from the credits of West Side Story during the tryout, presumably as a trade-off.[10]

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.[11] Sondheim questioned if he should write only the lyrics for yet another show, but Hammerstein told him writing for a star would be valuable experience. Sondheim worked closely with book writer Arthur Laurents to create the show. It ran 702 performances.

Glenn Close sings a touching version of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” from his 1973 musical “A Little Night Music.”

Eventually Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics, for 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.

Cleo Sings Sondheim “Nothing’s Going To Harm You” from Sweeney Todd

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.[2] 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 lyrics are credited to “Nom De Plume“.) In 1968, he wrote the lyrics for The Race to Urga, with Leonard Bernstein.

Cleo Laine with James Galway, “Anyone Can Whistle” 1981

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).[12] 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.

Theater legend Elaine Stritch sings one of her signature songs, Broadway Baby (from the musical Follies) for friend and composer Stephen Sondheim. Performed in honor of Stephen Sondheim’s 75th Birthday on July 8, 2005 at the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles.

Sondheim collaborated with producer/director Harold Prince on six distinctive musicals between 1970 and 1981. Company (1970) centered on a set of characters and themes rather than a straightforward plot. Follies (1971) was similarly-structured, filled with pastiche songs echoing styles of earlier composers. 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. Time magazine called it “Sondheim’s most brilliant accomplishment to date.”[13] 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 single 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.

Catherine Z jones, Angela Lansbury and lots more in the revival of the Sondheim musical.

By Bernstein premiered at the off-broadway Westside Theatre on November 23, 1975 and closed on December 7, 1975. It ran for 17 performances and 40 previews. The lyrics and music were by Leonard Bernstein, with additional lyrics from other lyricists, including Sondheim. It was conceived and written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The production was directed by Michael Bawtree with a cast of Jack Bittner, Margery Cohen, Jim Corti, Ed Dixon, Patricia Elliott, Kurt Peterson, and Janie Sell. The two known songs that had Sondheim contributions are In There from the adaption of The Exception and the Rule (which would later be named The Race to Urga) and a cut song from West Side Story Kids Ain’t (Like Everybody Else).[14]

Angela Lansbury & Len Cariou reprise their original Sweeney Todd roles for Stephen Sondheim’s 75th Birthday benefit concert.

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,” has been seen 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.[15][16][17][18][19]

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.”[20] 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.”[21] The collaboration between Sondheim and Prince would largely end after Merrily – until the 2003 production of Bounce, another failure.

I saw Merrily in 1981 and loved the music, so much that I wrote to Sondheim expressing my frustration that the critics seems to hold him to an unfair, unrealistic expectation, killing many of his projects before the public has the opportunity to decide for itself what they think of the show. Much to my surprise, I received a reply within a couple of weeks. Through the years, I’ve had the occasion to correspond with Mr. Sondheim. In the early 90’s I decided to do a show consisting of mainly less known Sondheim songs and I wrote to him again several times, asking for some suggestions on what to include. Mr. Sondheim replied within a couple of weeks, this time offering me original rehearsal copies of the music if I had trouble finding the music elsewhere. I’ve included is a copy of one of the letters below.

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 avant-garde, but they approached it with the commercial theater’s professionalism and made a real musical. Sondheim’s music evoked the pointillist painting technique of its subject, Georges Seurat.

In 1985, he and Lapine won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Sunday in the Park with George. It is one of only eight musicals to receive this prestigious award. The show had its first revival on Broadway in 2008. The Sondheim-Lapine collaboration also produced the fairy-tale show Into the Woods (1987) and the rhapsodic Passion (1994). 1990 saw the opening of Sondheim’s Assassins off-Broadway.

From Dick Tracey, “Sooner Or Later”

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,[22] 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.

Overture to Merrily We Roll Aong

Regarding his 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.”[23] 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.”[24]

According to a 2008 interview, he is 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.”[25][26] The first volume of his lyrics, titled Finishing the Hat: Volume One, will be published in Fall 2010; a second volume, Look, I Made a Hat: Volume Two, will follow.[27]

Lapine has created a “multimedia revue”, formerly 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”.[28][29] A revised version, titled Sondheim on Sondheim is being produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, premiering on Broadway at Studio 54 in a limited engagement from March 19, 2010 in previews, opening April 22 through June 13. The cast features Barbara Cook, Vanessa L. Williams, Tom Wopat, Norm Lewis and Leslie Kritzer.[30]

In March 2008, Sondheim and Frank Rich of the New York Times appeared in four interviews/conversations in California[31][32][33] and Portland, Oregon[34] titled “A Little Night Conversation with Stephen Sondheim”.[35][36]

This is a compilation of Sondheim teaching the song “My Friends” back in the 80’s – interspersed with footage from the recent film. Notice how well Johnny followed Sondheim’s instructions!

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.”[37][38]

An earlier conversation took place on April 28, 2002, during the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center.[39][40]

Sondheim and Rich had more conversations on January 18, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall,[41] on February 2, 2009 at the Landmark Theater, Richmond, Virginia,[42] on February 21, 2009 at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,[43] and on April 20, 2009 at the University of Akron College of Fine and Applied Arts, EJ Thomas Hall, Akron, Ohio.[44] The conversations were reprised at Tufts and Brown Universities in February 2010.

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.'”[45]

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.)[4] 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, and Richard Benjamin.

He tried his hand at playwriting one more time – in 1996 he collaborated with Company librettist George Furth 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.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTubem,, personal collection.


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