Memoriam Stephen Sondheim: legendary Broadway composer and lyricist

Stephen Sondheim

Broadway composer & lyricist

a life well lived

Gone but never forgotten — Legendary composer Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, in New York City. His parents, Herbert and Janet worked in New York’s garment industry; his father was a dress manufacturer and his mother was a designer. They divorced in 1942 and Sondheim moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, with his mother. He began studying piano and organ at a young age, and he was already practicing songwriting as a student at the George School.

In Pennsylvania, Sondheim became friends with the son of Broadway lyricist and producer Oscar Hammerstein II, who as a mentor, gave the young Sondheim advice and tutelage in musical theatre, and served as a surrogate father during a time of tumult.

In his teens, Sondheim had penned a satire about his school, the musical BY GEORGE!, which he thought his mentor would love and thus asked for feedback. Hammerstein in fact thought the project needed tons of work and offered honest criticism, which his protégé would later see as invaluable. Sondheim also worked as an assistant on 1947’s ALLEGRO, one of Hammerstein’s theatre collaborations with composer Richard Rodgers, the experience having long-lasting implications on the young composer’s approach to his work.

Sondheim attended Williams College, where he majored in music. After graduating from the school in 1950, he moved to New York City.

In the early 1950s, Stephen Sondheim moved to Los Angeles, California, and wrote scripts for the television series Topper and The Last Word. Returning to New York, he composed background music for the play THE GIRLS OF SUMMER in 1956. An acquaintance with director Arthur Laurents brought Sondheim into contact with composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins, who were looking for a lyricist for a contemporary musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Writing the song lyrics for WEST SIDE STORY, which opened in 1957, Sondheim thus became part of one of Broadway’s most successful productions of all time.

Sondheim’s next theatre project was similarly high profile: He teamed up with composer Jule Styne to write the lyrics for GYPSY, which opened in 1959 with Ethel Merman as its star. 

Sondheim’s contributions to WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY in the 1950s brought him recognition as a rising star of Broadway. 

Sondheim then wrote both lyrics and music for A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, a farce starring Zero Mostel which opened in 1962, ran for nearly 1,000 performances and won a Tony Award for best musical.

Sondheim won several more Tony Awards in the 1970s for his collaborations with producer/director Harold Prince, including the musicals COMPANY (1970), a meditation on contemporary marriage and commitment; FOLLIES (1971), an homage to the Ziegfeld Follies and early Broadway; A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1973), a period comedy-drama that included the hit song “Send in the Clowns”; and SWEENEY TODD (1979), a gory melodrama set in Victorian London.

Sondheim became known for his witty, conversational lyrics, his seamless merging of words with music and the variety of his source materials. PACIFIC OVERTURES (1976) was partially inspired by haiku poetry and Japanese Kabuki theatre, and 1981’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG was adapted from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

In the 1980s, Sondheim collaborated several times with playwright/director James Lapine. Their SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, which opened in 1984, was inspired by the iconic painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat, and 1987’s INTO THE WOODS was a collage of plots from classic fairy tales.

Sondheim continued to combine various musical genres with sharp lyrical writing and unexpected subject matter in the 1990s, though some of his work of that decade received less critical and popular acclaim. ASSASSINS (1990) told the tales of nine presidential assassins in American history; and PASSION, a 1994 collaboration with Lapine, was a melodramatic romance based on the Italian film Passione d’Amore.

Sondheim’s work has also been the subject of several revues, including SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM in 1976, PUTTING IT TOGETHER in 1992 and SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM in 2010. 

Known for the startling complexity of his lyricism and music, his major works for the theatre ave been revived around the world, claimed 8 Tony Awards, a record for a composer, as well as 8 Grammy Awards. He shared the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Lapine for SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, and won an Academy Award for the song “Sooner or Later,” one of five tracks written for the 1990 film Dick Tracy, starring Warren Beatty and Madonna.

Sondheim was honored as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2015.

Sondheim died on November 26, 2021. He was 91.

Stephen Sondheim’s Musicals

  • SATURDAY NIGHT (1954, produced 1997): Book by Julius and Philip Epstein
  • WEST SIDE STORY (1957): Music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents, directed by Jerome Robbins. Sondheim is the lyricist.
  • GYPSY (1959): Music by Jule Styne, book by Arthur Laurents, directed by Jerome Robbins. Sondheim is the lyricist.
  • A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1962): Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, directed by George Abbott
  • ANYONE CAN WHISTLE (1964): Book and direction by Arthur Laurents
  • DO I HEAR A WALTZ? (1965): Music by Richard Rodgers, book by Arthur Laurents
  • COMPANY (1970): Book by George Furth
  • FOLLIES (1971): Book by James Goldman
  • A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1973): Book by Hugh Wheeler
  • THE FROGS (1974): Book by Burt Shevelove (2004 version book by Nathan Lane)
  • PACIFIC OVERTURES (1976): Book by John Weidman
  • SWEENEY TODD (1979): Book by Hugh Wheeler
  • MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (1981): Book by George Furth
  • SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (1984): Book and direction by James Lapine
  • INTO THE WOODS (1987): Book and direction by James Lapine
  • ASSASSINS (1990): Book by John Weidman
  • PASSION (1994): Book and direction by James Lapine
  • ROAD SHOW (2008): Book by John Weidman (formerly titled BOUNCE, WISE GUYS, and GOLD!)
  • HERE WE ARE (2023): Book by David Ives (formerly titled BUÑUEL)

I had a few meetings at the home of iconic theatrical guru Stephen Sondheim often with his partner, a dramatist named Peter Jones, within their 4-story brownstone at 246 East 49th St. in the celebrity enclave of Turtle Bay Gardens.

My first face to face meeting in the ‘90’s was setup by Freddie Gershon of Music Theatre International, a consulting client of mine at the time.

Their home epitomized New York elegance while oozing unusual interests.

According to them, it was the house the GYPSY bought, thanks to the ongoing royalties. His 2nd floor maintained his music room with a central grand piano surrounded by shelves of 33rpm vinyl records. His 3rd floor had a small TV room with original FOLLIES artwork. 

Katharine Hepburn was his oft-complaining neighbor.

The first-ground floor front facing living room is surrounded by hundreds of antique games, framed decks of Victorian period illustrated pornographic playing cards, puzzles, crossword books and games. An avid lover of cryptic crossword puzzles, Sondheim explained “art is a puzzle, making order out of chaos. . . you have so many brushes and so many colors, and you have to put it together and make it come out right. The same with music. ” 

Stephen appeared fascinated with the potential of the internet, although he admitted he knew very little about computers, and had a consultant, the son of an investor friend, on call to help him navigate computer issues.

Sometimes, we simply met for cocktails at their favorite gay bar ‘Perdition’ in Hell’s Kitchen. He explained he best composed with a frozen Absolut Citron or two and was particularly motivated when laying horizontal. I was not sure if this was a bar pickup line, or the truth.

I later learned that Peter Jones was living with Amon Miyamoto, the Japanese director of the 2000 Tokyo, 2002 Kennedy Center and 2004 Broadway productions of Sondheim’s PACIFIC OVERTURES.

Did You Know?

Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber shared the same birthday.

Toby Simkin’s Broadway Entertainment, LLC
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