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.
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.
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.
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 fairy 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.
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.
For nearly half a century, Stephen Sondheim has extended the expressive possibilities of the musical theater with music and lyrics of unprecedented complexity and sophistication. He made his Broadway debut as a lyricist, writing words for Leonard Bernstein’s music in West Side Story, and enjoyed his first success as a composer with the songs for A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.
Sondheim dominated Broadway in the early 1970s, winning Tony Awards for Best Score in three consecutive years for Company, Follies and A Little Night Music. In these works, he deployed an exhaustive array of musical styles, while breaking with the musical’s traditional sentimentality to explore the disillusionment of maturity. His songs, including “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, have entered the repertoire of singers around the world.
While the Broadway musical becomes increasingly cautious, Sondheim has only become more daring. Pacific Overtures recounted the history of U.S.- Japanese relations; Sweeney Todd told a ghoulishly humorous story in a continuously sung score of operatic intensity. He shared the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with playwright James Lapine for their musical Sunday in the Park with George. Sondheim continues to break new ground for the theater in more recent works, including Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion and his latest, Bounce.
We understand you began writing songs at the George School in Pennsylvania. Can you tell us how that came about?
Stephen Sondheim: That was the prep school. I was writing songs there, but by that time I had already met Oscar Hammerstein.
My parents got divorced when I was ten, and I went to live in Pennsylvania with my mother, who got custody of me, and she cultivated the Hammersteins, and they had a son my age, and so by the time I went to George School, when I was 13, I was already interested in imitating Oscar. He was a surrogate father. I liked my father a lot, he was a swell fellow, but I didn’t see him very often because my mother was bitter about him and did everything she could to prevent me from seeing him. He remarried, and I used to have to sneak off to see them. I didn’t know it, but my mother was lying to me about how often I could see him. It was very unpleasant. So Oscar was a surrogate father during all those many days, and weeks and months when I didn’t see my own father.
Did you show any of your work to Mr. Hammerstein?
Stephen Sondheim: Yes.
I wrote a show at George School called By George, and it was all about local campus activities. I was 15. I thought it was so terrific I was sure that Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were producers as well as writers, would want to produce it immediately, and I would be the youngest songwriter on Broadway. I asked him (Oscar Hammerstein) if he would read it and he said sure, and so he called me the next day and I went over, and I said, “Now, you know, I want you to really treat this like a professional, as if you didn’t know me, as if it just crossed your desk.” And he said, “All right, in that case it’s the worst thing that ever crossed my desk.” And I was shocked, and he knew how disappointed I was, to put it mildly. He said, “Now I didn’t say it wasn’t talented,” he said, “but if you want to go through it, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.” And he started right from the first stage direction, and he treated me like an adult. He treated me as if I were a professional, and by the end of the afternoon I was on my way to being a professional.
It must have been a long afternoon.
Stephen Sondheim: It was a long afternoon. Well, it was probably two and a half hours, but the packed information I got in makes it seem longer. And you know, at that age you’re a sponge, you just absorb everything. And he (Oscar Hammerstein) gave me the distillation of 30 years of experience. Now, not all in that afternoon, because then he set up a course for me, so to speak. He said, “If you want to learn to write musicals, why don’t you take a good play, one that you like, and make it into a musical? And then, after you’ve done that, then take a play that you like but you think is flawed, and see if you can improve it and turn it into a musical. Then take a story, not one that you’ve written, but that is not in the dramatic form, like a novel or something like that, make it into a musical. And then make up your own story and make it into a musical.” He said, “By the time you get all those four done, you’ll know something.” And that’s exactly what I did.
That’s quite an assignment for a 15-year-old.
Stephen Sondheim: Well, it went on for six years, but nevertheless.
Didn’t you do some work backstage on some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shows?
Stephen Sondheim: On Allegro I did.
When I was 17, it was their third show. They’d written Oklahoma! and Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Oscar asked me if I’d like to work on it, because they were rehearsing over the summer, which was between college terms for me. So that’s exactly what I did. I was a gopher. You know, fetched coffee and typed script. And he just wanted me to inculcate myself. And I learned a great deal watching because, particularly, the show was highly experimental and it was a failure. And both those things were very important to me, because one of the things I learned was to be brave, and the other thing, not to expect that everything’s going to come out perfectly. Also, the show was very much hurt by the director, Agnes de Mille, and I learned something about that. Gotta watch out for directors.
Your first show on Broadway was West Side Story. You wrote the lyrics. Tell us about the opening night. Was it an instant hit?
Stephen Sondheim: No. No.
The audience sat there in dead silence for the first half hour, because the reviews from out of town had made it sound like some kind of masterpiece. And so the audience was awestruck when they came in, instead of remembering that they were at a musical. And so there was virtually no response. They just sat there as at a temple. And then “America” came on, and Chita Rivera lifted her skirts and danced all over the stage, and the audience suddenly were reminded they were at a musical, and from then on they had a very good time.
The song of yours that’s achieved the greatest success ouside of the theater is probably “Send In The Clowns” from A Little Night Music. But you added that to the show quite late in the process. Can you tell us how that came about?
Stephen Sondheim: We hired Glynis Johns to play the lead, though she had a nice little silvery voice. But I’d put all the vocal weight of the show on the other characters because we needed somebody who was glamorous, charming and could play light comedy, and pretty, and to find that in combination with a good voice is very unlikely, but she had all the right qualities and a nice little voice. So I didn’t write much for her and I didn’t write anything in the second act. And the big scene between her and her ex-lover, I had started on a song for him because it’s his scene, and Hal Prince, who directed it, said he thought that the second act needed a song for her. And this was the scene to do it in. And so he directed the scene in such a way that even though the dramatic thrust comes from the man’s monologue, and she just sits there and reacts, he directed it so you could feel the weight going to her reaction rather than his action. And I went down and saw it and it seemed very clear what was needed, and so that made it very easy to write. And then I wrote it for her voice, because she couldn’t sustain notes. Wasn’t that kind of singing voice. So I knew I had to write things in short phrases, and that led to questions, and so again, I wouldn’t have written a song so quickly if I hadn’t known the actress.