Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, in New York City. His parents worked in the fashion industry: His father was a dress manufacturer; his mother was a designer. Sondheim showed early musical aptitude — playing piano at a young age — but his parents were largely distracted, his father by work, and his mother by unhappiness. They divorced when Sondheim was 10; she and her son moved to Bucks County near Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Sondheim received encouragement from his Pennsylvania neighbor, Oscar Hammerstein II, the renowned Broadway lyricist and producer, best known for his shows with Richard Rodgers. Sondheim and Hammerstein’s son Jamie were acquainted, and Hammerstein became Sondheim’s surrogate father for all intents and purposes.
Sondheim so admired Hammerstein that he says if his mentor had been a geologist that would have become his own career. But Hammerstein was a man of the musical theater, and that sparked the 15-year-old Sondheim’s imagination. He had crafted a musical satire about the private school in Pennsylvania he attended, By George!, and thought Hammerstein would be dazzled by it. Sondheim was wrong, but Hammerstein saw potential and offered honest criticism, suggesting a set of writing exercises that laid the foundation for Sondheim’s subsequent output.
He studied math and music at Williams College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1950. While there he wrote several student shows based on Hammerstein’s recommendations. Upon graduation he received the Hutchinson Prize for composition, a fellowship that enabled him to study music in New York City for two years with the composer Milton Babbitt.
For five months in 1953 Sondheim lived in Hollywood and wrote scripts for Topper, a TV sitcom. He earned enough to rent a New York City apartment, returned there and in 1955 began to create his first professional show, Saturday Night, with Broadway producer Lemuel Ayers. It was based on the play Front Porch in Flatbush by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein. Ayers unexpectedly passed away from leukemia, and the show was abandoned. It was not professionally staged until 1997 in London.
Sondheim made his first significant mark on Broadway as the lyricist for West Side Story, which opened in 1957. He was initially reticent to join the team of composer Leonard Bernstein, director and choreographer Jerome Robbins and playwright Arthur Laurents as lyricist, since he wanted to be a Broadway composer. But Hammerstein convinced him that the experience of working with three legends of the Broadway stage to create a contemporary Romeo and Juliet would be valuable — and it was. Sondheim then grudgingly agreed to a second lyric-writing assignment on Gypsy with composer Jule Styne, writing lyrics for Ethel Merman’s iconic stage-mother character Rose. It was another important lesson, crafting material for a well-established star. The show was a hit and received eight Tony Award® nominations. Sondheim was not yet 30. After Merman, subsequent productions of Gypsy showcased numerous Broadway stars, including Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone.
In 1962, Sondheim finally achieved his goal of writing both music and lyrics for a show with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a hilarious, bawdy and more or less timeless farce based on comedies by the Roman playwright Plautus. Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart wrote the book, full of vaudeville-styled humor, and the expansive jokester Zero Mostel starred. The show ran for 964 performances—and won the Tony for Best Musical.
The mid-1960s had mixed results. He wrote music and lyrics for Anyone Can Whistle (1964), with a script and direction by Arthur Laurents. The complex story of a town fighting bankruptcy, a corrupt mayoress (played by Angela Lansbury in her Broadway debut), an idealistic nurse and a man who might be a doctor, proved too avant garde for the time. It closed after just nine performances despite some fine songs by Sondheim, including the title number. He next contributed lyrics to Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965) with a score by Richard Rodgers after Oscar Hammerstein’s death, but their difficult collaboration near the end of Rodgers’ career affirmed Sondheim’s desire to handle both the composing and lyric writing on his own for future shows.
A glimmer of future promise was offered when he wrote a half-dozen songs for the 1966 teleplay, Evening Primrose, with a script by playwright James Goldman. Based on a short story by John Collier, the 60-minute tale focused on a secret community of people who take refuge from the world in a department store, only coming out after it closes. Anthony Perkins played the central character, a poet, and Charmian Carr was a young woman hoping to escape. It aired on ABC Stage 67 on November 16, 1966.
Sondheim had a remarkable period of artistic creativity in the 1970s, in shows produced and directed by Hal Prince. Company (1970) with George Furth’s script about contemporary marriage
and bachelorhood, won six Tonys and included several memorable songs, notably “Being Alive.” Next, Sondheim collaborated again with James Goldman for Follies (1971) a tribute to early 20th-century Broadway extravaganzas with songs evoking that era. The show became a legendary hit with fans, although it was not a financial success.
Following Follies, Sondheim and Prince created the delectable A Little Night Music (1973), with a script by Hugh Wheeler and based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). Composed almost entirely in three-quarter time, the show is comprised of a cast of characters who are paired in unlikely matches that eventually sort themselves out. It has an acerbic streak, and Sondheim has characterized it as “whipped cream and knives.” Sondheim’s best known song, “Send in the Clowns,” is from this show. (It won a Grammy Award in 1975 for the Song of the Year, thanks to a rendition by Judy Collins.)
In 1974 he enjoyed working again with Burt Shevelove on The Frogs, inspired by the ancient Greek comic playwright Aristophanes (5th century B.C.). Set in Hades among a chorus of frogs, Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw debate the work of dramatists — Shakespeare wins, is returned from the dead, and art saves civilization. Produced in the Yale University swimming pool, among the carefree chorus of frogs were actresses Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver and playwright Christopher Durang, all students at the Yale Drama School. In 2004 actor Nathan Lane took the 50-minute work and expanded it into a two-hour Broadway production that he starred in, with seven added songs by Sondheim.
Sondheim’s next production in 1976 was a startling change of pace: Pacific Overtures, created with playwright John Weidman. The musical is about the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century by Commodore Matthew Perry, an era when the Asian nation stepped out on the world stage. Inspired by haiku, Kabuki theater and Asian tonalities, Sondheim’s score is unlike anything he has written before or since.
Up next was Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), a macabre tale about a serial killer in Victorian London that many consider to be his greatest work. It’s one of the few shows that Sondheim advanced the idea of creating, after seeing a London production of Christopher Bond’s play about the murderous barber. Working with bookwriter Hugh Wheeler, who adapted Bond’s script, Sondheim crafted a melodrama that he hoped would scare theatergoers. The character of Sweeney Todd (played by Len Cariou in the original Broadway production), unjustly deported to Australia, returns to London a violently changed man bent on seeking vengeance on the Judge who convicted him. He commits a series of ghastly murders of innocent people and partners with his former landlady Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury, in a Tony-winning performance) who processes Todd’s victims into meat pies.
That was followed by Merrily We Roll Along (1981), adapted by George Furth from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. A musical comedy features a reverse chronology tale of artists who have sold their souls to achieve success. Using an inexperienced cast of young actors, the show had several production challenges, resulting in just 16 performances before closing. Despite a glorious, brassy score, the show’s failure marked the end Sondheim’s long collaboration with Hal Prince. (Merrily has been resuscitated and is now a much admired if still flawed work.)
The failure of Merrily and a significant amount of negative criticism left Sondheim considering no longer creating musical theater. Before long, however, he partnered with a new collaborator, playwright-director James Lapine to create Sunday in the Park with George (1984), a musical inspired by the painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by pointillist Georges Seurat, played by Mandy Patinkin. The show’s first act portrays the artist’s obsessive work on his most memorable painting, to the exclusion of personal relationships, especially with his mistress and muse, Dot (Bernadette Peters). The second act happens a century later with Seurat’s great-grandson as a contemporary American artist who has lost his way and seeks to find the inspiration to move on. It won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize.
Sondheim and Lapine paired again for Into the Woods (1987), a mash-up of familiar fairy tales — Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel — with the story of a Baker and his wife (who the show’s creators have described as suburban Americans lost in the fairytale stories). In the original production Bernadette Peters played the Witch, a vindictive neighbor of the Baker who needs to sort out her own life. The show’s first act tells familiar “happily ever after” stories, while the second act offers what comes after “ever after” — a harsher reality. The show won three Tony Awards® for Lapine’s book, Sondheim’s score and actress Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife. It is Sondheim’s most frequently produced work.
His second collaboration with John Weidman, Assassins (1990), explored nine men and women who either attempted to or successfully assassinated U.S. presidents. It suffered from bad timing, first opening off-Broadway around the time the Gulf War began in 1991 and then having its 2001 Broadway debut postponed until 2004 following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Passion (1994), a melodramatic romance based on a 1981 Italian film, was another partnership with James Lapine. The musical, about an unlikely romance between a handsome soldier who breaks from his beautiful mistress for a relationship with a lonely, unattractive woman, is through-sung — perhaps Sondheim’s most operatic score. It won four Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Book (Lapine), Best Score (Sondheim) and Best Actress (Donna Murphy as Fosca).
Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Sondheim and Weidman worked and reworked a show about the Mizner brothers, early 20th-century American entrepreneurs. It had a long, complicated development process, evolving from Wise Guys (with a 1999 workshop) to Bounce (2003, produced in Chicago and Washington, D.C.) and eventually retitled Road Show (receiving an Off-Broadway production in 2008).
Six of Sondheim’s shows have become movies, starting with the Academy Award®-winning West Side Story (1961) and Gypsy (1962). Others include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) with Zero Mostel; A Little Night Music (1977), featuring Elizabeth Taylor; Tim Burton’s film of Sweeney Todd (2007) with Johnny Depp in the title role; and Into the Woods (2014), with Meryl Streep as the Witch. Sondheim is a film buff, and he has contributed incidental music to several movies, including Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1992), including the song “Sooner or Later,” sung by Madonna and the winner of a 1991 Academy Award® for the year’s best original song.
Sondheim’s shows continue to be frequently staged in theaters across America and beyond. His works are very popular in England and Australia. Many have been translated into other languages, including Danish, German, Japanese, Polish, Spanish and Swedish. Several shows have received Punk Rock or Heavy Metal stagings.
In the summer of 2002, the Kennedy Center presented a “Stephen Sondheim Celebration” in Washington, D.C., producing six of his shows in repertory: Sweeney Todd, Company, Sunday inthe Park with George, Merrily We Roll Along, Passion and A Little Night Music. Many of his songs have been assembled into one-time celebratory concerts and several popular revues, starting with Side by Side by Sondheim (1976). Others include Marry Me a Little (1980), You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow (1983), Putting It Together (1992), and Sondheim on Sondheim (2010).
In 2008 Sondheim received a lifetime achievement Tony Award®. In 2010 and 2011 he published Finishing the Hat (2010) and a second volume, Look, I Made a Hat (2011), both collections of his lyrics with commentaries about them and the shows they were created for, truly a capstone to his long creative career, not to mention a resource for both academics and anyone aspiring to create musical theater.
Sondheim has had a lifelong enthusiasm for games, mysteries and crossword puzzles. With actor Anthony Perkins he cowrote the screenplay for a 1973 murder mystery, and with George Furth he drafted the play Getting Away with Murder (1996).
He served as president of the Dramatists Guild from 1973 to 1981; in 1981 through the Guild, he founded Young Playwrights Inc., a professional theater in America dedicated to identifying, developing, producing and promoting playwrights who are 18 or younger. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983 and to the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2014. In 1997 he received the National Medal of the Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts; in 2015 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Sondheim has been able to connect various types of music and theater, producing works of remarkable craft. His shows deal with unexpected themes that range far beyond the traditional subjects typically explored by American musicals. His brilliance across a spectrum of thought, artistry and achievement set him above most of his peers. A great admirer of teachers, he has been a generous mentor to many aspiring musical theater artists. After more than six decades of active creation, he continues to work as a creative artist.
Although he has a farm retreat in Connecticut, Sondheim has lived most of his life in New York City.
Rick Pender previously edited The Sondheim Review and Everything Sondheim. He is presently assembling The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia for the publisher Rowman & Littlefield. This comprehensive, one-volume resource is scheduled for publication in late 2019.