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If you like Stephen Sondheim's story, you might also like:
Carol Burnett,
Jeremy Irons,
James Earl Jones,
Quincy Jones,
Johnny Mathis,
Audra McDonald,
Trevor Nunn,
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Twyla Tharp and
Kiri Te Kanawa

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Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim
Profile of Stephen Sondheim Biography of Stephen Sondheim Interview with Stephen Sondheim Stephen Sondheim Photo Gallery

Stephen Sondheim Biography

Award-winning Composer and Lyricist

Stephen Sondheim Date of birth: March 22, 1930

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  Stephen Sondheim

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Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born in New York City. His father, Herbert Sondheim, was a successful dress manufacturer, his mother, Janet Fox, a fashion designer. Young Stephen was given piano lessons from an early age, and showed a distinct aptitude for music, puzzles and mathematics. His parents divorced when he was only ten, and Stephen, an only child, was taken by his mother to live on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The area had attracted a number of well-known personalities from the New York theater world; a close neighbor was the playwright, lyricist and producer Oscar Hammerstein II, who had a son Stephen's age. Stephen Sondheim and Jimmy Hammerstein soon became friends, and Stephen came to see the older Hammerstein as a role model. At the time, Hammerstein was inaugurating his historic collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers. When Sondheim was in his teens, Rodgers and Hammerstein were enjoying unprecedented success with the shows Oklahoma! and South Pacific. Sondheim resolved that, like Hammerstein, he too would write for the theater.

Sondheim studied piano seriously through his prep school years, while Hammerstein tutored him in writing for the theater. With Hammerstein's guidance, he wrote scripts and scores for four shows, a project that occupied Sondheim through his student years at Williams College. On graduation, he was awarded a two-year scholarship to study composition. He studied with the avant-garde composer Milton Babbit, writing a piano concerto and a violin sonata while trying to break into the theater. Sondheim's first efforts at securing a Broadway assignment fell through, but he found work writing for television, and made the acquaintance of two playwrights who were to play a significant role in his career: Arthur Laurents and Burt Shevelove.

Stephen Sondheim Biography Photo
Although Sondheim aspired to write both words and music, his first Broadway assignments called on him to write either one or the other. At age 25 he was hired to write lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's music in the landmark musical West Side Story. Before West Side Story opened, he made his Broadway debut as a composer, with incidental music to N. Richard Nash's play, The Girls of Summer. After the success of West Side Story in 1957, he won a second lyric-writing assignment for the Broadway musical Gypsy. Both shows had scripts by Arthur Laurents and were directed by Jerome Robbins.

The credit, "Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim" finally appeared on Broadway for the first time in 1962. The show, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was an unqualified success, and introduced the first of Sondheim's tunes to become a show business standard, "Comedy Tonight." The script for Forum was co-written by Sondheim's friend, Burt Shevelove. Sondheim collaborated with Arthur Laurents again on Anyone Can Whistle (1964). The show closed almost immediately, but has since become a cult favorite; its title song remains a favorite of Sondheim's admirers.

Sondheim returned to the role of lyricist-for-hire one more time to collaborate with Hammerstein's old partner Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz? in 1965. From then on, he would insist on writing both music and lyrics, although nearly five years would elapse before a new Sondheim musical opened on Broadway. Royalties from West Side Story, Gypsy and Forum, all of which were made into motion pictures, freed him to develop projects of his choosing. In the meantime, he published a remarkable series of word puzzles in New York Magazine. Many critics have related his love of puzzles and word games to the dazzling word play of his lyrics, with their intricate rhyme schemes, internal rhymes, puns and wide-ranging allusions.

Stephen Sondheim Biography Photo
Sondheim made a historic breakthrough as both composer and lyricist with Company (1971), a caustic look at love and marriage in contemporary New York City. The show marked a sharp break with Broadway's past, and established Sondheim as the most inventive and daring composer working in the musical theater. Company was Sondheim's first collaboration with director Harold Prince, who had produced both West Side Story and Forum. Sondheim's second collaboration with Prince as director, Follies, paid masterful tribute to the song styles of Broadway's past, while deploying them to ironic effect in a poignant commentary on the disappointment of middle age and the corrosive effects of nostalgia and self-delusion. While Sondheim's admirers stood in awe of his accomplishments, his detractors claimed that his work was too bitter to win wide popularity, and his music too sophisticated for popular success. His next production, A Little Night Music, put these doubts to rest. Its elegant, waltz-based score and warm humor charmed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, while its signature song, "Send in the Clowns," became an unexpected pop standard.

Sondheim received Tony Awards for the music and lyrics of all three of these shows. The following year, the winning composer thanked Sondheim, "for not writing a show this year." Sondheim did find time in 1974 to write a show for a performance in the Yale University swimming pool, an adaptation of the classical Greek comedy The Frogs, with a script by his old friend Burt Shevelove. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the fiendishly intricate murder mystery, The Last of Sheila (1973). From 1973 to 1981, Sondheim served as President of the Dramatists Guild, the professional association of playwrights, theatrical composers and lyricists.

Stephen Sondheim Biography Photo
Never content to continue along comfortable or familiar lines, Sondheim and Harold Prince explored further new territory with Pacific Overtures (1976), an imaginative account of relations between Japan and the United States, from the 1850s to the present. Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), adapted an early Victorian melodrama in a combination of grand guignol, bitter satire and Sondheim's most complex score yet. Sweeney Todd enjoyed a healthy run and brought Sondheim another Tony Award. While a number of Sondheim's shows have enjoyed successful revivals in the commercial theater, Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music have found a second home in the opera houses of the world, where classical standards of musicianship can do justice to their soaring scores.

Sweeney Todd marked the climax of Sondheim's long collaboration with Harold Prince. Merrily We Roll Along (1981), adapted from a bittersweet Kaufman and Hart drama of the 1930s, was the last of their shows together. Although Sondheim and Prince remained close friends, they sought renewed inspiration in collaboration with others. Sondheim embarked on a partnership with playwright and director James Lapine.

The first fruit of their collaboration was Sunday in the Park With George (1984), a work inspired by Georges Seurat's pointillist painting, "Sunday Afternoon On the Isle of the Grande Jatte." The play intertwines the story of Seurat and his mistress with that of a contemporary painter and his lover. Sunday in the Park With George was a solid success, and brought Sondheim and Lapine the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a rare instance of the Pulitzer committee honoring a musical play. Into the Woods (1987), another collaboration with Lapine, sought the meaning inside some of the most familiar childhood fairly tales, and has been produced successfully all over the United States.

Between Broadway assignments, Sondheim has written scores for the films Stavisky (1974) and Reds (1981), and contributed songs to the films The Seven Percent Solution (1976) and Dick Tracy (1990). "Sooner or Later," written for Dick Tracy, won him an Oscar for Best Song. In 1990, Sondheim spent a term as the first Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University. In his own country, he was honored with the National Medal of Arts.

Stephen Sondheim Biography Photo
One of Sondheim's most disturbing productions was Assassins (1990), an examination of the motives and delusions of the men who murdered American presidents. Passion (1994), another collaboration with James Lapine, took a dark, intimate story of unrequited love and set it to music of heartrending poignancy. As the Broadway theater turned to more predictable fare, Sondheim and his collaborators sought out new venues for his increasingly daring work. Bounce, recounting the follies of the 1920s Florida land boom, opened in Chicago and Washington in 2003. Its script, like that of Pacific Overtures and Assassins, was written by the playwright John Weidman.

Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday was celebrated with all-star tribute concerts in New York, London and Los Angeles. In 2008, the American Theatre Wing presented him with a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. At the time, two of his shows, Gypsy and Sunday in the Park With George, were enjoying successful revivals on Broadway. Sondheim gathered 50 years of his writing for the stage in two volumes, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, and Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany. The books provide invaluable insight into the art and craft of songwriting, as practiced by an artist of monumental accomplishment. His contribution to American culture was officially recognized in 2015 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, his country's highest civilian honor.

For over 50 years, Stephen Sondheim set an unsurpassed standard of brilliance and artistic integrity in the musical theater. His music, steeped in the history of the American stage, is also deeply informed by the classical tradition and the advances of modern concert music. His words, unequalled in their wit and virtuosity, have recorded a lifetime of profound, unblinking insight into the joys and sorrows of life and love.

This page last revised on Apr 01, 2016 11:39 EDT
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