Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

Sondheim circa 1976
Background information
Birth name Stephen Joshua Sondheim
Born (1930-03-22) March 22, 1930
New York City, New York, U.S.
Genres Musical theatre
  • Composer
  • lyricist
Years active 1954–present

Stephen Joshua Sondheim (/ˈsɒ (born March 22, 1930) is an American composer and lyricist known for more than a half-century of contributions to musical theatre. Sondheim has received an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer,[1] including a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre), eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the Laurence Olivier Award, and a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has been described by Frank Rich of The New York Times as "now the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater."[2] His best-known works as composer and lyricist include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Into the Woods. He wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy.

Sondheim has also written film music, contributing "Goodbye for Now" to Warren Beatty's 1981 Reds. He wrote five songs for 1990's Dick Tracy, including "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" by Madonna, which won the Academy Award for Best Song.

The composer was president of the Dramatists Guild from 1973 to 1981. To celebrate his 80th birthday, the former Henry Miller's Theatre was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on September 15, 2010, and the BBC Proms held a concert in his honor. Cameron Mackintosh has called Sondheim "possibly the greatest lyricist ever."[3]

Early years

Sondheim was born into a Jewish family in New York City, the son of Etta Janet ("Foxy," née Fox; 1897-1992) and Herbert Sondheim (1895-1966).[4] His father manufactured dresses designed by his mother. The composer grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and, after his parents divorced, on a farm near Doylestown, Pennsylvania. As the only child of well-to-do parents living in the San Remo on Central Park West, he was described in Meryle Secrest's biography (Stephen Sondheim: A Life) as an isolated, emotionally-neglected child. When he lived in New York, Sondheim attended ECFS, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School known simply as "Fieldston". He later attended the New York Military Academy and George School, a private Quaker preparatory school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where he wrote his first musical, By George, and from which he graduated in 1946. Sondheim spent several summers at Camp Androscoggin.[4]

He traces his interest in theatre to Very Warm for May, a Broadway musical he saw when he was 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."[5]

When Sondheim was ten, his father (already a distant figure) left his mother for another woman (Alicia, with whom he had two sons). Herbert sought custody of Stephen but was unsuccessful. Sondheim explained to biographer Secrest that he was "what they call an institutionalized child, meaning one who has no contact with any kind of family. You're in, though it's luxurious, you're in an environment that supplies you with everything but human contact. No brothers and sisters, no parents, and yet plenty to eat, and friends to play with and a warm bed, you know?"

Sondheim detested his mother,[6] who was said to be psychologically abusive[7] and projected her anger from her failed marriage on her son:[8] "When my father left her, she substituted me for him. And she used me the way she used him, to come on to and to berate, beat up on, you see. What she did for five years was treat me like dirt, but come on to me at the same time."[9] She once wrote him a letter saying that the "only regret [she] ever had was giving him birth."[10] When his mother died in the spring of 1992, Sondheim did not attend her funeral.[6][11]


Mentorship by Oscar Hammerstein II

Studio photo of a smiling Oscar Hammerstein
Hammerstein about 1940

When Sondheim was about ten years old (around the time of his parents' divorce), he became friends with James Hammerstein, son of lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. The elder Hammerstein became Sondheim's surrogate father, influencing him profoundly and developing his love of musical theatre. Sondheim met Hal Prince, who would direct many of his shows, at the opening of South Pacific, Hammerstein's musical with Richard Rodgers. The comic musical he wrote at George School, By George, was a success among his peers and buoyed the young songwriter's self-esteem. When Sondheim asked Hammerstein to evaluate it as though he had no knowledge of its author, he said it was the worst thing he had ever seen: "But if you want to know why it's terrible, I'll tell you." They spent the rest of the day going over the musical, and Sondheim later said, "In that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime."[12]

Hammerstein designed a course of sorts for Sondheim on constructing a musical. He had the young composer write four musicals, each with one of the following conditions:

None of the "assignment" musicals was produced professionally. High Tor and Mary Poppins have never been produced: The rights holder for the original High Tor refused permission, and Mary Poppins was unfinished.[14]

College and early career

Sondheim began attending Williams College, a liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts whose theatre program attracted him. His first teacher there was Robert Barrow:

 ... everybody hated him because he was very dry, and I thought he was wonderful because he was very dry. And Barrow made me realize that all my romantic views of art were nonsense. I had always thought an angel came down and sat on your shoulder and whispered in your ear 'dah-dah-dah-DUM.' Never occurred to me that art was something worked out. And suddenly it was skies opening up. As soon as you find out what a leading tone is, you think, Oh my God. What a diatonic scale is – Oh my God! The logic of it. And, of course, what that meant to me was: Well, I can do that. Because you just don't know. You think it's a talent, you think you're born with this thing. What I've found out and what I believed is that everybody is talented. It's just that some people get it developed and some don't.[15]

The composer told Meryle Secrest, "I just wanted to study composition, theory, and harmony without the attendant musicology that comes in graduate school. But I knew I wanted to write for the theatre, so I wanted someone who did not disdain theatre music."[16] Barrow suggested that Sondheim study with Milton Babbitt, who Sondheim described as "a frustrated show composer" with whom he formed "a perfect combination."[16] When he met Babbitt, he was working on a musical for Mary Martin based on the myth of Helen of Troy. Sondheim and Babbitt would meet once a week in New York City for four hours (at the time, Babbitt was teaching at Princeton University). According to Sondheim, they spent the first hour dissecting Rodgers and Hart or George Gershwin or studying Babbitt's favorites (Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson). They then proceeded to other forms of music (such as Mozart's Jupiter Symphony), critiquing them the same way.[17] Babbitt and Sondheim, fascinated by mathematics, studied songs by a variety of composers (especially Jerome Kern). Sondheim told Secrest that Kern had the ability "to develop a single motif through tiny variations into a long and never boring line and his maximum development of the minimum of material". He said about Babbitt, "I am his maverick, his one student who went into the popular arts with all his serious artillery".[16] At Williams, Sondheim wrote a musical adaption of Beggar on Horseback (a 1924 play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, with permission from Kaufman) which had three performances.[18] A member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, he graduated magna cum laude in 1950.

"A few painful years of struggle" followed, when Sondheim auditioned songs, lived in his father's dining room to save money and spent time in Hollywood writing for the television series Topper.[5] He devoured 1940s and 1950s films, and has called cinema his "basic language";[6] his film knowledge got him through The $64,000 Question contestant tryouts. Sondheim dislikes movie musicals, favoring classic dramas such as Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath and A Matter of Life and Death: "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".[19]

At age 22, Sondheim had finished the four shows requested by Hammerstein. Julius and Philip Epstein's Front Porch in Flatbush, unproduced at the time, was being shopped around by Lemuel (Lem) Ayers. Ayers approached Frank Loesser and another composer, who turned him down. Ayers and Sondheim met as ushers at a wedding, and Ayers commissioned Sondheim for three songs for the show; Julius Epstein flew in from California and hired Sondheim, who worked with him in California for four or five months. After eight auditions for backers, half the money needed was raised. The show, retitled Saturday Night, was intended to open during the 1954–55 Broadway season; however, Ayers died of leukemia in his early forties. The rights transferred to his widow, Shirley, and due to her inexperience the show did not continue as planned;[20] it opened off-Broadway in 2000. Sondheim later said, "I don't have any emotional reaction to Saturday Night at all – except fondness. It's not bad stuff for a 23-year-old. There are some things that embarrass me so much in the lyrics – the missed accents, the obvious jokes. But I decided, leave it. It's my baby pictures. You don't touch up a baby picture – you're a baby!"[6]

Early Broadway success

Burt Shevelove invited Sondheim to a party; Sondheim arrived before him, and knew no one else well. He saw a familiar face: Arthur Laurents, who had seen one of the auditions of Saturday Night, and they began talking. Laurents told him he was working on a musical version of Romeo and Juliet with Leonard Bernstein, but they needed a lyricist; Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who were supposed to write the lyrics, were under contract in Hollywood. He said that although he was not a big fan of Sondheim's music, he enjoyed the lyrics from Saturday Night and he could audition for Bernstein. Sondheim met Bernstein the following day, played for him and Bernstein said he would let him know. The composer wanted to write music and lyrics; after consulting with Hammerstein, Bernstein told Sondheim he could write music later.[20] In 1957, West Side Story opened; directed by Jerome Robbins, it ran for 732 performances. Sondheim has expressed dissatisfaction with his lyrics, saying that they do not always fit the characters and are sometimes too consciously poetic. While Bernstein was working on Candide, Sondheim reportedly wrote some of West Side Story's music; Bernstein's co-lyricist credit disappeared from West Side Story during its tryout, possibly as a trade-off.[21] Sondheim insisted that Bernstein told the producers to list him as the sole lyricist. He described the division of the royalties, saying that Bernstein received three percent and he received one percent. Bernstein suggested evening the percentage at two percent each, but Sondheim refused because he wanted the credit. Sondheim later said he wished "someone stuffed a handkerchief in my mouth because it would have been nice to get that extra percentage".[20]

After West Side Story opened, Shevelove lamented the lack of "low-brow comedy" on Broadway and mentioned a possible musical based on Plautus' Roman comedies. When Sondheim was interested in the idea he called a friend, Larry Gelbart, to co-write the script. The show went through a number of drafts, and was interrupted briefly by Sondheim's next project.[22]

In 1959, Sondheim was approached by Laurents and Robbins for a musical version of Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir after Irving Berlin and Cole Porter turned it down. Sondheim agreed, but Ethel Merman – cast as Mama Rose – had just finished Happy Hunting with an unknown composer (Harold Karr) and lyricist (Matt Dubey). Although Sondheim wanted to write the music and lyrics, Merman refused to let another first-time composer write for her and demanded that Jule Styne write the music.[23] Sondheim, concerned that writing lyrics again would pigeonhole him as a lyricist, called his mentor for advice. Hammerstein told him he should take the job, because writing a vehicle for a star would be a good learning experience. Sondheim agreed; Gypsy opened on May 21, 1959, and ran for 702 performances.[20]

Hammerstein's death

In 1960 Sondheim lost his mentor and father figure, Oscar Hammerstein. He remembered that shortly before Hammerstein's death, Hammerstein had given him a portrait of himself. Sondheim asked him to inscribe it, and said later about the request that it was "weird ... it's like asking your father to inscribe something". Reading the inscription ("For Stevie, My Friend and Teacher") choked up the composer, who said: "That describes Oscar better than anything I could say."[24]

When he walked away from the house that evening, Sondheim remembered a sad, sinking feeling that they had said their final goodbye. He never saw his mentor again; three days later, Hammerstein died of stomach cancer and Hammerstein's protégé eulogized him at his funeral.

As composer and lyricist

The first musical for which Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which opened in 1962 and ran for 964 performances. The book, based on farces by Plautus, was written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Sondheim's score was not well received; although the show won several Tony Awards (including best musical), he did not receive a nomination.

Broadway failures and other projects

Sondheim had participated in three straight hits, but his next show – 1964's Anyone Can Whistle – was a nine-performance failure (although it introduced Angela Lansbury to musical theatre). Do I Hear a Waltz?, based on Arthur Laurents' 1952 play The Time of the Cuckoo, was intended as another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with Mary Martin in the lead. A new lyricist was needed,[25] and Laurents and Rodgers' daughter, Mary, asked Sondheim to fill in. Although Richard Rodgers and Sondheim agreed that the original play did not lend itself to musicalization, they began writing the musical version.[26] The project had many problems, Rodgers' alcoholism among them; Sondheim, calling it the one project he regretted, then decided to work only when he could write both music and lyrics.[6] He asked author and playwright James Goldman to join him as bookwriter for a new musical. Inspired by a New York Times article about a gathering of former Ziegfeld Follies showgirls, it was entitled The Girl Upstairs (and would later become Follies).[27]

In 1966, Sondheim semi-anonymously provided lyrics for "The Boy From...," a parody of "The Girl from Ipanema" in the off-Broadway revue The Mad Show. The song was credited to "Esteban Ria Nido",[28] Spanish for "Stephen River Nest", and in the show's playbill the lyrics were credited to "Nom De Plume". That year Goldman and Sondheim hit a creative wall on The Girls Upstairs, and Goldman asked Sondheim about writing a TV musical. The result was Evening Primrose, with Anthony Perkins and Charmian Carr. Written for the anthology series ABC Stage 67 and produced by Hubbell Robinson, it was broadcast on November 16, 1966. According to Sondheim and director Paul Bogart, the musical was written only because Goldman needed money for rent. The network disliked the title and Sondheim's alternative, A Little Night Music.[29]

After Sondheim finished Evening Primrose, Jerome Robbins asked him to adapt Bertolt Brecht's The Measures Taken despite the composer's general dislike of Brecht's work. Robbins wanted to adapt another Brecht play, The Exception and the Rule, and asked John Guare to adapt the book. Leonard Bernstein had not written for the stage in some time, and his contract as conductor of the New York Philharmonic was ending. Sondheim was invited to Robbins' house in the hope that Guare would convince him to write the lyrics for a musical version of The Exception and the Rule; according to Robbins, Bernstein would not work without Sondheim. When Sondheim agreed, Guare asked: "Why haven't you all worked together since West Side Story?" Sondheim answered, "You'll see". Guare said that working with Sondheim was like being with an old college roommate, and he depended on him to "decode and decipher their crazy way of working"; Bernstein worked only after midnight, and Robbins only in the early morning. Bernstein's score, which was supposed to be light, was influenced by his need to make a musical statement.[30] Stuart Ostrow, who worked with Sondheim on The Girls Upstairs, agreed to produce the musical (now entitled A Pray By Blecht and, later, The Race to Urga). An opening night was scheduled, but during auditions Robbins asked to be excused for a moment. When he did not return, a doorman said he had gotten into a limousine to go to John F. Kennedy International Airport. Bernstein burst into tears and said, "It's over"; Sondheim said, "I was ashamed of the whole project. It was arch and didactic in the worst way."[31] He wrote one-and-a-half songs and threw them away, the only time he has ever done that. Eighteen years later, Sondheim refused Bernstein and Robbins' request to retry the show.[30]

He has lived in a Turtle Bay, Manhattan brownstone since writing Gypsy in 1959. Ten years later, while he was playing music he heard a knock on the door. His neighbor, Katharine Hepburn, was in "bare feet – this angry, red-faced lady" and told him "You have been keeping me awake all night!" (she was practicing for her musical debut in Coco). When Sondheim asked why she had not asked him to play for her, she said she lost his phone number. According to Sondheim, "My guess is that she wanted to stand there in her bare feet, suffering for her art".[32]

Collaborations with Hal Prince (1970–1981)

After finishing Do I Hear a Waltz, Sondheim devoted himself to composing and writing lyrics for a variety of musicals. He collaborated with producer-director Hal Prince on six musicals from 1970 to 1981, beginning with the 1970 concept musical Company. Without a straightforward plot, Company (with a book by George Furth) centered on a set of characters and themes. It opened on April 26, 1970 at the Alvin Theatre, where it ran for 705 performances after seven previews, and won Tony Awards for best musical, best music and best lyrics.

Follies (1971), with a book by James Goldman, opened on April 4, 1971 at the Winter Garden Theatre and ran for 522 performances after 12 previews. The plot centers on a reunion, in a crumbling Broadway theatre scheduled for demolition, of performers in Weismann's Follies (a musical revue, based on the Ziegfeld Follies, which played in that theatre between the world wars). Follies focuses on two couples: Buddy and Sally Durant Plummer, and Benjamin and Phyllis Rogers Stone.

A Little Night Music (1973), with a more traditional plot based on Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night and a score primarily in waltz time, was one of the composer's greatest successes. Time magazine called it "Sondheim's most brilliant accomplishment to date."[33] "Send in the Clowns", a song from the musical, was a hit for Judy Collins. A Little Night Music opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre on February 25, 1973 and closed on August 3, 1974, after 601 performances and 12 previews. It moved to the Majestic Theatre on September 17, 1973, where it finished its run.

By Bernstein premiered at the off-Broadway Westside Theatre on November 23, 1975 and closed on December 7, running for 40 previews and 17 performances. Its lyrics and music were by Leonard Bernstein, with additional lyrics by others (including Sondheim). Conceived and written by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Norman L. Berman and directed by Michael Bawtree, By Bernstein featured Jack Bittner, Margery Cohen, Jim Corti, Ed Dixon, Patricia Elliott, Kurt Peterson and Janie Sell. The two Sondheim contributions were "In There" (from the adaptation of The Exception and the Rule) and a song cut from West Side Story, "Kids Ain't (Like Everybody Else)".[34] Pacific Overtures (1976), the most non-traditional of the Sondheim—Prince collaborations, explored the westernization of Japan.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), Sondheim's most operatic score and libretto (which, with Pacific Overtures and A Little Night Music, has been produced in opera houses), explores an unlikely topic: murderous revenge and cannibalism. The book, by Hugh Wheeler, is based on Christopher Bond's 1973 stage version of the Victorian original.[35][36][37][38][39]

Merrily We Roll Along (1981), with a book by George Furth, is one of Sondheim's more traditional scores; Frank Sinatra and Carly Simon have recorded songs from the musical. According to Sondheim's music director, Paul Gemignani, "Part of Steve's ability is this extraordinary versatility." Although Merrily closed after 16 performances, its score has been subsequently recorded. Martin Gottfried wrote, "Sondheim had set out to write traditional songs ... But [despite] that there is nothing ordinary about the music."[40] Sondheim and Furth have revised the show since its original production, and Sondheim later said: "Did I feel betrayed? I'm not sure I would put it like that. What did surprise me was the feeling around the Broadway community – if you can call it that, though I guess I will for lack of a better word – that they wanted Hal and me to fail."[32]

Collaborations with James Lapine (1984–1994)

Merrily's failure greatly affected Sondheim; he was ready to quit theatre and do movies, create video games or write mysteries: "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."[41] Sondheim and Prince's collaboration was suspended from Merrily to the 2003 production of Bounce, another failure.

However, Sondheim decided "that there are better places to start a show" and found a new collaborator in James Lapine after he saw Lapine's Twelve Dreams off-Broadway in 1981: "I was discouraged, and I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't discovered Twelve Dreams at the Public Theatre";[32] Lapine has a taste "for the avant-garde and for visually-oriented theatre in particular". Their first collaboration was Sunday in the Park with George (1984), with Sondheim's music evoking Georges Seurat's pointillism. Sondheim and Lapine won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play, and it was revived on Broadway in 2008.

They collaborated on Into the Woods (1987), a musical based on several Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Although Sondheim has been called the first composer to bring rap music to Broadway (with the Witch in the opening number of "Into the Woods"), he attributes the first rap in theatre to Meredith Willson's "Rock Island" from The Music Man.[17]

Sondheim and Lapine's last work together was the rhapsodic Passion (1994), adapted from Ettore Scola's Italian film Passione D'Amore. With a run of 280 performances, Passion was the shortest-running show to win a Tony Award for Best Musical.[42]

Later work

Assassins opened off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons on December 18, 1990, with music and lyrics by Sondheim and its book by John Weidman. The musical closed on February 16, 1991, after 73 performances. Its idea derived from Sondheim's days as a panelist at producer Stuart Ostrow's Musical Theater Lab, when he read a script by playwright Charles Gilbert. He asked Gilbert for permission to use his idea; although Gilbert offered to write the book, Sondheim had Weidman in mind.[43]

Saturday Night was shelved until its 1997 production at London's Bridewell Theatre. The following year, its score was recorded; a revised version, with two new songs, ran off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre in 2000 and at London's Jermyn Street Theatre in 2009.[44]

During the late 1990s, Sondheim and Weidman reunited with Hal Prince for Wise Guys, a musical comedy following brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner. A Broadway production, starring Nathan Lane and Victor Garber, directed by Sam Mendes and planned for the spring of 2000,[45] was delayed. Renamed Bounce in 2003, it was produced at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Although after poor reviews Bounce never reached Broadway, a revised version opened off-Broadway as Road Show at the Public Theater on October 28, 2008. Directed by John Doyle, it closed on December 28, 2008.

Asked about writing new work, Sondheim replied in 2006: "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."[46] In December 2007 he said that in addition to continuing work on Bounce, he was "nibbling at a couple of things with John Weidman and James Lapine."[47]

Lapine created a multimedia production, originally entitled Sondheim: a Musical Revue, which was scheduled to open in April 2009 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta; however, it was canceled due to "difficulties encountered by the commercial producers attached to the project ... in raising the necessary funds".[48][49] A revised version, Sondheim on Sondheim, was produced at Studio 54 by the Roundabout Theatre Company; previews began on March 19, 2010, and it ran from April 22 to June 13. The revue's cast included Barbara Cook, Vanessa L. Williams, Tom Wopat, Norm Lewis and Leslie Kritzer.[50]

Sondheim collaborated with Wynton Marsalis on A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair, an Encores! concert on November 13–17, 2013 at New York City Center. Directed by John Doyle with choreography by Parker Esse, it consisted of "more than two dozen Sondheim compositions, each piece newly re-imagined by Marsalis".[51] The concert featured Bernadette Peters, Jeremy Jordan, Norm Lewis, Cyrille Aimee, four dancers and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra conducted by David Loud.[52] In Playbill, Steven Suskin described the concert as "neither a new musical, a revival, nor a standard songbook revue; it is, rather, a staged-and-sung chamber jazz rendition of a string of songs ... Half of the songs come from Company and Follies; most of the other Sondheim musicals are represented, including the lesser-known Passion and Road Show".[53] Sondheim wrote additional songs for the film adaptation of Into the Woods, including "Rainbows" (which he included in his second book).[54][55]

Upcoming projects

In February 2012 it was announced that Sondheim would collaborate on a new musical with David Ives, and he had "about 20–30 minutes of the musical completed".[56][57][58][59][60] The show, tentatively called All Together Now, was assumed to follow the format of Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim described the project as "two people and what goes into their relationship ... We'll write for a couple of months, then have a workshop. It seemed experimental and fresh 20 years ago. I have a feeling it may not be experimental and fresh any more".[61] On October 11, 2014, it was confirmed the Sondheim and Ives' musical would be based on two Luis Buñuel films (The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and will open (in previews) at the Public Theater in March 2017, under the working title Bunuel.[62]

Conversations with Frank Rich and others

The Kennedy Center held a Sondheim Celebration, running from May to August 2002, consisting of six of Sondheim's musicals: Sweeney Todd, Company, Sunday in the Park With George, Merrily We Roll Along, Passion and A Little Night Music.[63][64][65] On April 28, 2002, in connection with the Sondheim Celebration Sondheim and Frank Rich of the New York Times had a conversation.[63][66] They appeared in four interviews, entitled "A Little Night Conversation with Stephen Sondheim",[67][68] in California[69][70][71] and Portland, Oregon in March 2008[72] and at Oberlin College in September. The Cleveland Jewish News reported on their Oberlin appearance: "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".[73][74] Sondheim and Rich had additional conversations on January 18, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall,[75] on February 2 at the Landmark Theatre in Richmond, Virginia,[76] on February 21 at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia[77] and on April 20 at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio.[78] The conversations were reprised at Tufts and Brown University in February 2010, at the University of Tulsa in April[79] and at Lafayette College on March 8, 2011.[80] Sondheim had another "conversation with" Sean Patrick Flahaven (associate editor of The Sondheim Review) at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach on February 4, 2009, in which he discussed many of his songs and shows: "On the perennial struggles of Broadway: 'I don't see any solution for Broadway's problems except subsidized theatre, as in most civilized countries of the world.'"[81]

On February 1, 2011, Sondheim joined former Salt Lake Tribune theatre critic Nancy Melich before an audience of 1,200 at Kingsbury Hall. Melich described the evening:

He was visibly taken by the university choir, who sang two songs during the evening, "Children Will Listen" and "Sunday", and then returned to reprise "Sunday". During that final moment, Sondheim and I were standing, facing the choir of students from the University of Utah's opera program, our backs to the audience, and I could see tears welling in his eyes as the voices rang out. Then, all of a sudden, he raised his arms and began conducting, urging the student singers to go full out, which they did, the crescendo building, their eyes locked with his, until the final "on an ordinary Sunday" was sung. It was thrilling, and a perfect conclusion to a remarkable evening – nothing ordinary about it.[82]

On March 13, 2008, A Salon With Stephen Sondheim (which sold out in three minutes) was hosted by the Academy for New Musical Theatre in Hollywood.[83][84]

Work away from Broadway

An avid fan of games, in 1968 and 1969 Sondheim published a series of cryptic crossword puzzles in New York magazine. In 1987 Time called his love of puzzlemaking "legendary in theater circles," adding that the central character of Anthony Shaffer's play Sleuth was inspired by the composer. According to a rumor (denied by Shaffer in a March 10, 1996 New York Times interview), Sleuth had the working title Who's Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?[5] His love of puzzles and mysteries is evident in The Last of Sheila, an intricate whodunit written with longtime friend Anthony Perkins. The 1973 film, directed by Herbert Ross, featured Dyan Cannon, Raquel Welch, James Mason, James Coburn and Richard Benjamin.

Sondheim tried playwriting one more time, collaborating with Company librettist George Furth on Getting Away with Murder in 1996, but the unsuccessful Broadway production closed after 29 previews and 17 performances. His compositions have included a number of film scores, including a set of songs written for Warren Beatty's 1990 film version of Dick Tracy. One of Sondheim's songs for the film, "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" by Madonna, won him an Academy Award.

Unfinished and canceled works

According to Sondheim, he was asked to translate Mahagonny-Songspiel: "But, I'm not a Brecht/Weill fan and that's really all there is to it. I'm an apostate: I like Weill's music when he came to America better than I do his stuff before ... I love The Threepenny Opera but, outside of The Threepenny Opera, the music of his I like is the stuff he wrote in America – when he was not writing with Brecht, when he was writing for Broadway."[54] He turned down an offer to musicalize Nathanael West's A Cool Million with James Lapine around 1982.[85][86]

Sondheim worked with William Goldman on Singing Out Loud, a musical film, in 1992, penning the song "Water Under the Bridge".[87][88] According to the composer, Goldman wrote one or two drafts of the script and Sondheim wrote six-and-a-half songs when director Rob Reiner lost interest in the project. "Dawn" and "Sand", from the film, were recorded for the albums Sondheim at the Movies and Unsung Sondheim.[54] Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein wrote The Race to Urga, scheduled for Lincoln Center in 1969, but when Jerome Robbins left the project it was not produced.[89]

In 1991 Sondheim worked with Terrence McNally on a musical, All Together Now. McNally said, "Steve was interested in telling the story of a relationship from the present back to the moment when the couple first met. We worked together a while, but we were both involved with so many other projects that this one fell through". The story follows Arden Scott, a 30-something female sculptor, and Daniel Nevin (a slightly-younger, sexually attractive restaurateur). Its script, with concept notes by McNally and Sondheim, is archived in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.[90]


Sondheim's 2010 Finishing the Hat annotates his lyrics "from productions dating 1954–1981. In addition to published and unpublished lyrics from West Side Story, Follies and Company, the tome finds Sondheim discussing his relationship with Oscar Hammerstein II and his collaborations with composers, actors and directors throughout his lengthy career".[91][92] The book, first of a two-part series, is named after a song from Sunday in the Park With George. 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".[93][94] Finishing the Hat was published in October 2010. According to a New York Times review, "The lyrics under consideration here, written during a 27-year period, aren't presented as fixed and sacred paradigms, carefully removed from tissue paper for our reverent inspection. They're living, evolving, flawed organisms, still being shaped and poked and talked to by the man who created them".[95] The book was 11th on the New York Times' Hardcover Nonfiction list for November 5, 2010.[96]

Its sequel, Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981–2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany, was published on November 22, 2011. The book, continuing from Sunday in the Park With George (where Finishing the Hat ended), includes sections on Sondheim's work in film and television.[97]


After he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II[12] Sondheim has returned the favor, saying that he loves "passing on what Oscar passed on to me".[24] In an interview with Sondheim for The Legacy Project, composer-lyricist Adam Guettel (son of Mary Rodgers and grandson of Richard Rodgers) recalls how as a 14-year-old boy he showed Sondheim his work. Guettel was "crestfallen" since he had come in "sort of all puffed up thinking [he] would be rained with compliments and things", which was not the case since Sondheim had some "very direct things to say." Later, Sondheim wrote and apologized to Guettel for being "not very encouraging" when he was actually trying to be "constructive".[98]

Sondheim also mentored a fledgling Jonathan Larson, attending Larson's workshop for his Superbia (a musical version of Nineteen Eighty-Four). In Larson's musical Tick, Tick... Boom!, the phone message is played in which Sondheim apologizes for leaving early, says he wants to meet him and is impressed with his work. After Larson's death, Sondheim called him one of the few composers "attempting to blend contemporary pop music with theater music, which doesn't work very well; he was on his way to finding a real synthesis. A good deal of pop music has interesting lyrics, but they are not theater lyrics". A musical-theatre composer "must have a sense of what is theatrical, of how you use music to tell a story, as opposed to writing a song. Jonathan understood that instinctively."[99]

Around 2008, Sondheim approached Lin-Manuel Miranda to work with him translating West Side Story lyrics into Spanish for an upcoming Broadway revival.[100][101] Miranda then approached Sondheim with his new project Hamilton, then called The Hamilton Mixtape, which Sondheim gave notes on.[102][103] Sondheim was originally wary of the project saying he was "worried that an evening of rap might get monotonous." However, Sondheim believed Miranda's attention to, and respect for, good rhyming made it work.[103]

Major works

Unless otherwise noted, music and lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim.

Revues and anthologies

Side By Side By Sondheim (1976), Marry Me A Little (1980), Putting It Together (1993) and Sondheim on Sondheim (2010): Anthologies or revues of Sondheim's work as composer and lyricist, with songs performed or cut from productions. Jerome Robbins' Broadway features "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" from Gypsy, "Suite of Dances" from West Side Story and "Comedy Tonight" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. A new revue, Secret Sondheim ... a celebration of his lesser known work, conceived and directed by Tim McArthur, was produced at the Jermyn Street Theatre in July 2010.[105] Sondheim's "Pretty Women" and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" are featured in The Madwoman of Central Park West.[106]

Minor works


Film and TV

Honors and awards

Sondheim at 80

Several benefits and concerts were performed to celebrate Sondheim's 80th birthday in 2010. Among them were the New York Philharmonic's March 15 and 16 Sondheim: The Birthday Concert at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, hosted by David Hyde Pierce. The concert included Sondheim's music, performed by some of the original performers. Lonny Price directed, and Paul Gemignani conducted; performers included Laura Benanti, Matt Cavenaugh, Michael Cerveris, Victoria Clark, Jenn Colella, Jason Danieley, Alexander Gemignani, Joanna Gleason, Nathan Gunn, George Hearn, Patti LuPone, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, John McMartin, Donna Murphy, Karen Olivo, Laura Osnes, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Bobby Steggert, Elaine Stritch, Jim Walton, Chip Zien and the 2009 Broadway revival cast of West Side Story. A ballet was performed by Blaine Hoven and María Noel Riccetto to Sondheim's score for Reds, and Jonathan Tunick paid tribute to his longtime collaborator.[113][114] The concert was broadcast on PBS' Great Performances show in November,[115] and its DVD was released on November 16.

Sondheim 80, a Roundabout Theatre Company benefit, was held on March 22. The evening included a performance of Sondheim on Sondheim, dinner and a show at the New York Sheraton. "A very personal star-studded musical tribute" featured new songs by contemporary musical-theatre writers. The composers (who sang their own songs) included Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, Michael John LaChiusa, Andrew Lippa, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Lin-Manuel Miranda (accompanied by Rita Moreno), Duncan Sheik, and Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire. Bernadette Peters performed a song which had been cut from a Sondheim show.[116][117]

An April 26 New York City Center birthday celebration and concert to benefit Young Playwrights, among others, featured (in order of appearance) Michael Cerveris, Alexander Gemignani, Donna Murphy, Debra Monk, Joanna Gleason, Maria Friedman, Mark Jacoby, Len Cariou, B. D. Wong, Claybourne Elder, Alexander Hanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Raúl Esparza, Sutton Foster, Nathan Lane, Michele Pawk, the original cast of Into the Woods, Kim Crosby, Chip Zien, Danielle Ferland and Ben Wright, Angela Lansbury and Jim Walton. The concert, directed by John Doyle, was co-hosted by Mia Farrow; greetings from Sheila Hancock, Julia McKenzie, Milton Babbitt, Judi Dench and Glynis Johns were read. After Catherine Zeta-Jones performed "Send in the Clowns", Julie Andrews sang part of "Not a Day Goes By" in a recorded greeting. Although Patti LuPone, Barbara Cook, Bernadette Peters, Tom Aldredge and Victor Garber were originally scheduled to perform, they did not appear.[118][119]

A July 31 BBC Proms concert celebrated Sondheim's 80th birthday at the Royal Albert Hall. The concert featured songs from many of his musicals, including "Send in the Clowns" sung by Judi Dench (reprising her role as Desirée in the 1995 production of A Little Night Music), and performances by Bryn Terfel and Maria Friedman.[120][121]

On November 19 the New York Pops, led by Steven Reineke, performed at Carnegie Hall for the composer's 80th birthday. Kate Baldwin, Aaron Lazar, Christiane Noll, Paul Betz, Renee Rakelle, Marilyn Maye (singing "I'm Still Here"), and Alexander Gemignani appeared, and songs included "I Remember," "Another Hundred People," "Children Will Listen" and "Getting Married Today". Sondheim took the stage during an encore of his song, "Old Friends".[122][123]



Grammy Awards

Tony Awards

Drama Desk Awards

OBIE Awards

Laurence Olivier Awards

Presidential Medal of Freedom

In November 2015, Sondheim was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House.[lower-alpha 1][130][131]


Sondheim founded Young Playwrights Inc. in 1981 to introduce young people to writing for the theatre, and is the organization's executive vice-president.[132] The Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts, at the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center in Fairfield, Iowa, opened in December 2007 with performances by Len Cariou, Liz Callaway, and Richard Kind (all of whom had participated in Sondheim musicals).[133][134]

The Stephen Sondheim Society was established in 1993 to provide information about his work, with its Sondheim - the Magazine provided to its membership. The society maintains a database, organizes productions, meetings, outings and other events and assists with publicity. Its annual Student Performer of the Year Competition awards a £1,000 prize to one of twelve musical-theatre students from UK drama schools and universities. At Sondheim's request, an additional prize is offered for a new song by a young composer. Judged by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, each contestant performs a Sondheim song and a new song.

Most episode titles of the television series Desperate Housewives refer to Sondheim's song titles or lyrics,[135][136][137][138] and the series finale is entitled "Finishing the Hat".[139] In 1990 Sondheim, as the Cameron Mackintosh chair in musical theatre at Oxford, conducted workshops with promising musical writers including George Stiles, Anthony Drewe, Andrew Peggie, Paul James and Stephen Keeling. The writers founded the Mercury Workshop in 1992, which merged with the New Musicals Alliance to become MMD (a UK-based organization to develop new musical theatre, of which Sondheim is a patron).

Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia established its Sondheim Award, which includes a $5,000 donation to a nonprofit organization of the recipient's choice, "as a tribute to America's most influential contemporary musical theatre composer". The first award, to Sondheim, was presented at an April 27, 2009 benefit with performances by Bernadette Peters, Michael Cerveris, Will Gartshore and Eleasha Gamble.[140][141][142] The 2010 recipient was Angela Lansbury, with Peters and Catherine Zeta-Jones hosting the April benefit.[143] The 2011 honoree was Bernadette Peters.[144] Other recipients were Patti LuPone in 2012,[145] Hal Prince in 2013 and Jonathan Tunick in 2014.[146]

Henry Miller's Theatre, on West 43rd Street in New York City, was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on September 15, 2010 for the composer's 80th birthday. In attendance were Nathan Lane, Patti LuPone and John Weidman. Sondheim said in response to the honor, "I'm deeply embarrassed. Thrilled, but deeply embarrassed. I've always hated my last name. It just doesn't sing. I mean, it's not Belasco. And it's not Rodgers and it's not Simon. And it's not Wilson. It just doesn't sing. It sings better than Schoenfeld and Jacobs. But it just doesn't sing". Lane said, "We love our corporate sponsors and we love their money, but there's something sacred about naming a theatre, and there's something about this that is right and just".[147] According to The Daily Telegraph, Sondheim is "almost certainly" the only living composer with a quarterly journal published in his name;[148] The Sondheim Review, founded in 1994, chronicles and promotes his work.[149]

Musical style

According to Sondheim, when he asked Milton 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".[150] Sondheim agreed, and despite frequent dissonance and a highly-chromatic style, his music is tonal.

He is noted for complex polyphony in his vocals, such as the five minor characters who make up a Greek chorus in 1973's A Little Night Music. Sondheim uses angular harmonies and intricate melodies. His musical influences are varied; although he has said that he "loves Bach", his favorite musical period is from Brahms to Stravinsky.[151]

Personal life

Sondheim has been described as introverted and solitary. In an interview with Frank Rich, he said, "The outsider feeling – somebody who people want to both kiss and kill – occurred quite early in my life".[6] The composer is in a relationship with Jeff Romley, and lived with dramatist Peter Jones for eight years (until 1999).[152][153]


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  137. Chang, Justin. Variety, "Sondheim, Streisand infuse Wisteria Lane," December 20–26, 2004, p. 8; "Broadway-literate fans may have noticed the skein's first three post-pilot episodes ... are all named after classic Stephen Sondheim showtunes ..."
  138. Sperling, Daniel. "'Desperate Housewives' final episode title revealed", April 19, 2012
  139. Jones, Kenneth. "Signature Creates Sondheim Award, to Be Presented at April 2009 Gala" Archived December 29, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.., October 6, 2008
  140. Horwitz, Jane. "Backstage" column Washington Post, October 8, 2008
  141. Jones, Kenneth. Peters and Cerveris Celebrate Sondheim at DC Sondheim Award Gala April 27"., April 27, 2009
  142. Jones, Kenneth. "Garber, Mazzie, Danieley and More Celebrate Lansbury in DC Gala April 12" Archived March 17, 2014, at the Wayback Machine., April 12, 2010
  143. Jones, Kenneth. "Bernadette Peters Gets Sondheim Award April 11; Stephen Buntrock, Rebecca Luker, Euan Morton Sing" Archived April 8, 2014, at the Wayback Machine.., April 11, 2011
  144. Jones, Kenneth. "Laura Benanti, Howard McGillin and More Sing the Praises of Patti LuPone in DC Sondheim Award Gala April 16" Archived April 8, 2014, at the Wayback Machine., April 16, 2012
  145. Purcell, Carey. "Signature's Sondheim Award Gala, Featuring Ron Raines, Heidi Blickenstaff and Pamela Myers, Honors Jonathan Tunick April 7" Archived April 12, 2014, at the Wayback Machine., April 7, 2014
  146. "It might not sing, but it's right and just". The Sondheim Review. Sondheim Review, Inc. XVII (3): 4. 2011. ISSN 1076-450X.
  147. Brown, Mick (27 September 2010). "Still cutting it at 80: Stephen Sondheim interview". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 10 July 2014.
  148. "The Sondheim Review". Retrieved September 28, 2014.
  149. Horowitz, Mark Eden, Sondheim on Music, New York: Scarecrow Press, 2003, p. 117, ISBN 978-0-8108-4437-7, ISBN 0-8108-4437-0
  150. interview on Sunday Arts, ABC (Australia) TV August 5, 2007 An Audience With Stephen Sondheim2007 ABC Australia TV interview downloadable ("Episode 26")
  151. Brown, Mick (September 27, 2010). "Still cutting it at 80: Stephen Sondheim interview". The Telegraph (UK). Retrieved 19 November 2013. Sondheim has spoken in the past of feeling like an outsider – 'somebody who people want to both kiss and kill' – from quite early on in his life. He spent some 25 years – from his thirties through his fifties – in analysis, did not come out as gay until he was about 40, and did not live with a partner, a dramatist named Peter Jones, until he was 61. They separated in 1999. For the past six years he has been in a relationship with Jeff Romley, 36, a personable young man with even good looks ...
  152. Franks, Alan. "Stephen Sondheim: 'My ideal collaborator is me'". Times Online, April 25, 2009


  1. Sondheim was named for this award for 2014, but was unable to attend the ceremony, and thus was named again for the 2015 award and ceremony.[129]


Further reading

External links

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Harold Prince
Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre
Succeeded by
Jerry Herman
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