Stephen Sondheim Biography

Stephen Joshua Sondheim, 22 March 1930, New York City, New York, USA. Sondheim is generally regarded as the most important theatrical composer of the 70s and 80s - his introduction of the concept musical (some say, anti-musical) or ‘unified show’, has made him a cult figure. Born into an affluent family, his father was a prominent New York dress manufacturer, Sondheim studied piano and organ sporadically from the age of seven. When he was 10 his parents divorced, and he spent some time at military school. His mother’s friendship with the Oscar Hammerstein II family in Philadelphia enabled Sondheim to meet the lyricist, who took him under his wing and educated him in the art of writing for the musical theatre. After majoring in music at Williams College, Sondheim graduated in 1950 with the Hutchinson Prize For Musical Composition, a two-year fellowship, which enabled him to study with the innovative composer Milton Babbitt. During the early 50s, he contributed material to television shows such as Topper, and wrote both music and lyrics for the musical, Saturday Night (1954), which was abandoned owing to the death of producer Lemuel Ayres. Sondheim also wrote the incidental music for the play Girls Of Summer (1956).

His first major success was as a lyric writer, with Leonard Bernstein’s music, for the 1957 Broadway hit musical West Side Story. Initially, Bernstein was billed as co-lyricist, but had his name removed before the New York opening, giving Sondheim full credit. The show ran for 734 performances on Broadway, and 1, 039 in London. The songs included ‘Jet Song’, ‘Maria’, ‘Something’s Coming’, ‘Tonight’, ‘America’, ‘One Hand, One Heart’, ‘I Feel Pretty’, ‘Somewhere’ and ‘A Boy Like That’. A film version was released in 1961 and there were New York revivals in 1968 and 1980. Productions in London during in 1974 and 1984 were also significant in that they marked the first of many collaborations between Sondheim and producer Harold Prince. It was another powerful theatrical personality, David Merrick, who mounted Gypsy (1959), based on stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s book, Gypsy: A Memoir, and considered by some to be the pinnacle achievement of the Broadway musical stage. Sondheim was set to write both music and lyrics before the show’s star Ethel Merman demanded a more experienced composer. Jule Styne proved to be acceptable, and Sondheim concentrated on the lyrics, which have been called his best work in the musical theatre, despite the critical acclaim accorded his later shows. Gypsy’s memorable score included ‘Let Me Entertain You’, ‘Some People’, ‘Small World’, ‘You’ll Never Get Away From Me’, ‘If Momma Was Married’, ‘All I Need Is The Girl’, ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, ‘Together, Wherever We Go’, ‘You Gotta Have A Gimmick’ and ‘Rose’s Turn’. Merman apparently refused to embark on a long London run, so the show was not mounted there until 1973. Angela Lansbury scored a personal triumph then as the domineering mother, Rose, and repeated her success in the Broadway revival in 1974.

In 1989, both the show and its star, Tyne Daly (well known for television’s Cagney And Lacey), won Tony Awards in the 30th anniversary revival, which ran through until 1991. Rosalind Russell played Rose in the 1962 movie version, which received lukewarm reviews. For Gypsy, Sondheim had interrupted work on A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962), to which he contributed both music and lyrics. Based on the plays of Plautus, it has been variously called ‘a fast moving farce’, ‘a vaudeville-based Roman spoof’ and ‘a musical madhouse’. Sondheim’s songs, which included the prologue, ‘Comedy Tonight’ (‘Something appealing, something appalling/Something for everyone, a comedy tonight!’) and ‘Everybody Ought To Have A Maid’, celebrated moments of joy or desire and punctuated the thematic action. The show won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Producer but nothing for Sondheim’s score. The show was revived on Broadway in 1972 with Phil Silvers in the leading role, and had two London productions (1963 and 1986), both starring British comedian Frankie Howerd. A film version, starring Zero Mostel and Silvers, dropped several of the original songs. Anyone Can Whistle (1964), ‘a daft moral fable about corrupt city officials’, with an original book by Arthur Laurents, and songs by Sondheim, lasted just a week. The critics were unanimous in their condemnation of the musical with a theme that ‘madness is the only hope for world sanity’. The original cast recording, which included ‘Simple’, ‘I’ve Got You To Lean On’, ‘A Parade In Town’, ‘Me And My Town’ and the appealing title song, was recorded after the show closed, and became a cult item.

Sondheim was back to ‘lyrics only’ for Do I Hear A Waltz? (1965). The durable Broadway composer Richard Rodgers, supplied the music for the show that he described as ‘not a satisfying experience’. In retrospect, it was perhaps underrated. Adapted by Laurents from his play, The Time Of The Cuckoo, the show revolved around an American tourist in Venice, and included ‘Moon In My Window’, ‘This Week’s Americans’, ‘Perfectly Lovely Couple’, ‘We’re Gonna Be All Right’, and ‘Here We Are Again’. Broadway had to wait until 1970 for the next Sondheim musical, the first to be directed by Harold Prince. Company had no plot, but concerned ‘the lives of five Manhattan couples held together by their rather excessively protective feelings about a ‘bachelor friend’. Its ironic, acerbic score included ‘The Little Things You Do Together’ (‘The concerts you enjoy together/Neighbours you annoy together/Children you destroy together’), ‘Sorry-Grateful’, ‘You Could Drive A Person Crazy’, ‘Have I Got A Girl For You?’, ‘Someone Is Waiting’, ‘Another Hundred People’, ‘Getting Married Today’, ‘Side By Side By Side’, ‘What Would We Do Without You?’, ‘Poor Baby’, ‘Tick Tock’, ‘Barcelona’, ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ (‘Another chance to disapprove, another brilliant zinger/Another reason not to move, another vodka stinger/I’ll drink to that!’) and ‘Being Alive’. With a book by George Furth, produced and directed by Prince, the musical numbers staged by Michael Bennett, and starring Elaine Stritch and Larry Kert (for most of the run), Company ran for 690 performances. It gained the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical, and six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and Best Music and Lyrics for Sondheim, the first awards of his Broadway career. The marathon recording session for the original cast album, produced by Thomas Z. Shepard, was the subject of a highly-acclaimed television documentary.

The next Prince-Bennett-Sondheim project, with a book by James Goldman, was the mammoth Follies (1971), ‘the story of four people in their early 50s: two ex-show girls from the Weismann Follies, and two stage-door-Johnnies whom they married 30 years ago, who attend a reunion, and start looking backwards...’ It was a lavish, spectacular production, with a cast of 50, and a Sondheim score which contained 22 ‘book’ songs, including ‘Who’s That Woman?’ (sometimes referred to as the ‘the mirror number’), ‘Ah Paris!’, ‘Could I Leave You?’, ‘I’m Still Here’ (‘Then you career from career, to career/I’m almost through my memoirs/And I’m here!’); and several ‘pastiche’ numbers in the style of the ‘great’ songwriters such as George Gershwin and Dorothy Fields (‘Losing My Mind’); Cole Porter (‘The Story Of Lucy And Jessie’); Sigmund Romberg and Rudolph Friml (‘One More Kiss’); Jerome Kern (‘Loveland’); Irving Berlin (the prologue, ‘Beautiful Girls’) and De Sylva, Brown, And Henderson (‘Broadway Baby’). Although the show received a great deal of publicity and gained the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, plus seven Tony Awards, it closed after 522 performances with the loss of its entire $800, 000 investment. A spokesperson commented: ‘We sold more posters than tickets’.

Follies In Concert, with the New York Philharmonic, played two performances in September 1985 at the Lincoln Center, and featured several legendary Broadway names such as Carol Burnett, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Lee Remick, and Barbara Cook. The show was taped for television, and generated a much-acclaimed RCA Records album, which compensated for the disappointingly truncated recording of the original show. The show did not reach London until 1987, when the young Cameron Mackintosh produced a ‘new conception’ with Goldman’s revised book, and several new songs replacing some of the originals. It closed after 600 performances, because of high running costs. A Little Night Music (1973), was the first Sondheim-Prince project to be based on an earlier source; in this instance, Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles Of A Summer Night. Set at the turn of the century, in Sweden it was an operetta, with all the music in three quarter time, or multiples thereof. The critics saw in it echoes of Mahler, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Brahms, and even Johann Strauss. The score contained Sondheims’ first song hit for which he wrote both words and music, ‘Send In The Clowns’. Other songs included ‘Liaisons’, ‘A Weekend In The Country’, ‘The Glamorous Life’, ‘In Praise Of Women’, ‘Remember’ and ‘Night Waltz’. The show ran for 601 performances, and was a healthy financial success. It gained the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Musical, and five Tony Awards, including Sondheim’s music and lyrics for a record third time in a row. The London run starred Jean Simmons, while Elizabeth Taylor played Desiree in the 1978 movie version.

On the back of the show’s 1973 Broadway success, and the composer’s increasing popularity, a benefit concert, Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, was mounted at the Shubert Theatre, featuring every available performer who had been associated with his shows, singing familiar, and not so familiar, material. Pacific Overtures (1976), was, perhaps, Sondheim’s most daring and ambitious musical to date. John Weidman’s book purported to relate the entire 120 years history of Japan, from Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1856, to its emergence as the powerful industrial force of the 20th century. The production was heavily influenced by the Japanese Kabuki Theatre. The entire cast were Asian, and Sondheim used many Oriental instruments to obtain his effects. Musical numbers included ‘Chrysanthemum Tea’, ‘Please Hello’, ‘Welcome To Kanagawa’, ‘Next’, ‘Someone In A Tree’ and ‘The Advantages Of Floating In The Middle Of The Sea’. The show closed after 193 performances, losing its entire budget of over half-a-million dollars, but it still won the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. It was revived off-Broadway in 1984.

The next Broadway project bearing Sondheim’s name was much more successful, and far more conventional. Side By Side By Sondheim (1977), an anthology of some of his songs, started out at London’s Mermaid Theatre the year before. Starring the original London cast of Millicent Martin, Julia McKenzie, David Kernan and Ned Sherrin, the New York production received almost unanimously favourable notices, and proved that many of Sondheim’s songs, when presented in this revue form and removed from the sometimes bewildering librettos, could be popular items in their own right. In complete contrast, was Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (1979), Hugh Wheeler’s version of the grisly tale of a 19th century barber who slits the throats of his clients, and turns the bodies over to Mrs Lovett (Angela Lansbury), who bakes them into pies. Sondheim’s ‘endlessly inventive, highly expressive score’, considered to be near-opera, included the gruesome, ‘Not While I’m Around’, ‘Epiphany’, ‘A Little Priest’, the more gentle ‘Pretty Women’ and ‘My Friends’. Generally accepted as one of the most ambitious Broadway musicals ever staged (‘a staggering theatrical spectacle’; ‘one giant step forward for vegetarianism’), Sweeney Todd ran for over 500 performances, and gained eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Score and Book. In 1980, it played in London for four months, and starred Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock, and was successfully revived by the Royal National Theatre in 1993.

According to Sondheim himself, Merrily We Roll Along (1981), with a book by George Furth, was deliberately written in ‘a consistent musical comedy style’. It was based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and despite a run of only 16 performances, the pastiche score contained some ‘insinuatingly catchy numbers’. It also marked the end, for the time being, of Sondheim’s association with Harold Prince, who had produced and directed nearly all of his shows. Depressed and dejected, Sondheim threatened to give up writing for the theatre. However, in 1982, he began working with James Lapine, who had attracted some attention for his direction of the off-Broadway musical, March Of The Falsettos (1981).

The first fruits of the Sondheim-Lapine association, Sunday In The Park With George also started off-Broadway, as a Playwrights Horizon workshop production, before opening on Broadway in 1984. Inspired by George Seurat’s nineteenth-century painting, Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte, with book and direction by Lapine, the two-act show starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, and an ‘intriguingly intricate’ Sondheim score that included ‘Finishing The Hat’, ‘Lesson No.8’, and ‘Move On’. The run of a year-and-a-half was owing in no small part to energetic promotion by the New York Times, which caused the theatrical competition to dub the show, Sunday In The Times With George. In 1985, it was awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and in 1990 became one of the rare musicals to be staged at London’s Royal National Theatre. In 1987, Sondheim again received a Tony Award for Into the Woods, a musical fairytale of a baker and his wife, who live under the curse of a wicked witch, played by Bernadette Peters. The critics called it Sondheim’s most accessible show for many years, with a score that included ‘Cinderella At The Grave’, ‘Hello, Little Girl’ and ‘Children Will Listen’. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle, and Drama Desk Awards, for Best Musical, and a Grammy for Best Original Cast album.

‘Angry’, rather than accessible, was the critics’ verdict of Assassins, with a book by John Weidman, which opened for a limited run off-Broadway early in 1991, and played the Donmar Warehouse in London a year later. Dubbed by Newsweek : ‘Sondheim’s most audacious, far out and grotesque work of his career’, it ‘attempted to examine the common thread of killers and would-be killers from John Wilkes Booth, the murderer of Lincoln, through Lee Harvey Oswald to John Hinckley Jnr, who shot Ronald Reagan’. The pastiche score included ‘Everybody’s Got The Right’, ‘The Ballad Of Booth’ and ‘The Ballad Of Czolgosz’. In 1993, a one-night tribute Sondheim: A Celebration At Carnegie Hall, was transmitted on US network television in the ‘Great Performers’ series, and, on a rather smaller scale, the off-Broadway revue Putting It Together, which was packed with Sondheim songs, brought Julie Andrews back to the New York musical stage for the first time since Camelot. In May 1994, Passion, the result of Sondheim’s third collaboration with James Lapine, opened on Broadway and ran for 280 performances. Meanwhile, in April of that year, Sondheim’s first non-musical play, Getting Away With Murder (previously known as The Doctor Is Out), was withdrawn from the Broadhurst Theatre in April after only 17 performances, while a revival of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, starring Nathan Lane, began a highly successful run, just across West 44th Street at the St. James Theatre. In December 1998, Saturday Night, for which Sondheim wrote the score more than 40 years earlier - it would have marked his Broadway debut - had its world premiere at the tiny, but important, Bridewell Theatre in London.

Besides his main Broadway works over the years, Sondheim provided material for many other stage projects, such as the music and lyrics for The Frogs (1974), songs for the revue Marry Me A Little and a song for the play A Mighty Man Is He. He also contributed the incidental music to The Girls Of Summer, ‘Come Over Here’ and ‘Home Is the Place’ for Tony Bennett. In addition, Sondheim wrote the incidental music for the play Invitation To A March, the score for the mini-musical Passionella, the lyrics (with Mary Rodgers’ music) for The Mad Show and new lyrics for composer Leonard Bernstein’s 1974 revival of Candide. Sondheim’s film work has included the music for Stravinsky, Reds, and Dick Tracy. He received an Oscar for his ‘Sooner Or Later (I Always Get My Man)’, from the latter film. Sondheim also wrote the screenplay, with Anthony Perkins, for The Last Of Sheila, a film ‘full of impossible situations, demented logic and indecipherable clues’, inspired by his penchant for board games and puzzles of every description. For television, Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for Evening Primrose, which starred Perkins, and made his own acting debut in 1974, with Jack Cassidy, in a revival of the George S. Kaufman-Ring Lardner play June Moon.

While never pretending to write ‘hit songs’ (apparently the term ‘hummable’ makes him bristle), Sondheim has nevertheless had his moments in the charts with songs such as ‘Small World’ (Johnny Mathis); ‘Tonight’ (Ferrante And Teicher); ‘Maria’ and ‘Somewhere’ (P.J. Proby); ‘Send In The Clowns’ (Judy Collins), and ‘Losing My Mind’ (Liza Minnelli). Probably Sondheim’s greatest impact on records, apart from the Original Cast albums which have won several Grammys, was Barbra Streisand’s The Broadway Album in 1985. Seven tracks, involving eight songs, were Sondheim’s (two in collaboration with Bernstein), and he re-wrote three of them for Streisand, including ‘Send In The Clowns’. The Broadway Album stayed at number 1 in the US charts for three weeks, and sold over three million copies. Other gratifying moments for Sondheim occurred in 1983 when he was voted a member of the American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters, and again in 1990, when he became Oxford University’s first Professor of Drama. As for his contribution to the musical theatre, opinions are sharply divided. John Podhoretz in the Washington Times said that ‘with West Side Story, the musical took a crucial, and in retrospect, suicidal step into the realm of social commentary, and created a self-destructive form in which characters were taken to task and made fun of, for doing things like bursting into song’. Others, like Harold Prince, have said that Stephen Sondheim is simply the best in the world.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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