Born Stephen Joshua Sondheim, March 22, 1930, in New York, NY; son of Herbert Sondheim (a dress manufacturer) and Janet Sondheim Leshin (a fashion designer and interior decorator; maiden name, Fox). Education: Williams College, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1950; graduate study in music composition and theory with Milton Babbitt for two years; studied privately with Oscar Hammerstein II. Addresses: Home-- 246 East 49th St., New York, NY 10017. Office-- c/o Flora Roberts, 65 East 55th St., New York, NY 10022.

"If you told me to write a love song tonight," Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim told Samuel G. Freedman in the New York Times Magazine, "I'd have a lot of trouble. But if you tell me to write a love song about a girl with a red dress who goes into a bar and is on her fifth martini and is falling off her chair, that's a lot easier and it makes me free to say anything I want." Redefining the concept of American musicals, the composer is known for peopling his productions with complex characters, including murderous barbers, lascivious fairy-tale figures, and presidential assassins. While Sondheim has garnered numerous prestigious honors throughout his career, his works are sometimes considered controversial for their serious subject matter and have often elicited mixed response from reviewers. A writer for Opera News, though, stated that "the richest, most complex voice in American music history ... does not serve up happy endings. [Sondheim] makes you think and feel and quite often, admit unpleasant truths. His songs are at once simple and multi-textured, easily grasped and elusive; the deeper you mine, the richer the lode."

Born March 22, 1930, in New York City, Sondheim grew up in the affluent atmosphere of Central Park West in Manhattan. His father was a dress manufacturer, and his mother was the firm's fashion designer and an interior decorator. Although Sondheim played piano at four years old, his interest in theater began five years later when his father took him to a production of the Broadway musical Very Warm for May in 1939. "The curtain went up and revealed a piano. A butler took a duster and brushed it up, tinkling the keys," Sondheim divulged to William A. Henry III in Time. "I thought that was thrilling." The event was one of the happier moments in Sondheim's childhood before his parent's divorce. After his mother won custody of Sondheim, she denied the boy any contact with his father. "She would have members of her family follow me to see if I met him in secret," Sondheim disclosed later in Time. "She would telephone his apartment to see if I answered, then hang up. I was a substitute for him, and she took out all her anger and craziness on me.... It was not a great relationship."

A few years after his parents divorced, Sondheim found a close friend in a boy his age named Jamie Hammerstein. Jamie's father was lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the songs for Very Warm for May as well as for many other Broadway hits, including South Pacific and Oklahoma! Invited to the Hammerstein's family farm in Doyleston, Pennsylvania, when he was 12 years old, Sondheim remained for the summer. He found a family substitute in the Hammersteins when his mother, who had bought a house in Doyleston that autumn, commuted to her job in Manhattan. Jamie Hammerstein told Time that "by Christmas, Stephen was more a Hammerstein than a Sondheim." Surrogate father to the adolescent Sondheim, Oscar Hammerstein was also his musical mentor in the years that followed. After he wrote a musical entitled By George at boarding school, the 15-year-old Sondheim requested the elder Hammerstein's opinion. "I was never allowed to be self-indulgent, because I was brought up by a taskmaster from an early age," Sondheim related to Freedman. "The first influence I had was a highly professional, highly rule-conscious man. He didn't say obey the rules, he just pointed them out." Sondheim revealed in Time that Hammerstein told him his novice musical was "the worst thing I have ever read--but I didn't say it was untalented."

One of the most successful American lyricists, Hammerstein influenced Sondheim's musical development over the intervening years until the young man graduated from Williams College. In 1950 Sondheim won the Hutchinson Prize, which enabled him to study structure and theory with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt. During his fellowship with Babbitt, Sondheim told Freedman, he discovered his former and present mentor "represented two different fields. One was theater, the other music. What I was learning from Milton was basic grammar--sophisticated grammar, but grammar. It was a language, whereas what I learned from Oscar was what to do with language." Sondheim sought a career in show business after finishing his education. Off to a slow start, he went on audition after audition, and one stage show he wrote was called off upon the producer's death. At one point in his early career, Sondheim found himself in Hollywood writing scripts for the television situation comedy Topper. The turning point in his career came when he was offered the opportunity to write the lyrics for the musical West Side Story in 1957.

Considered one of the masterpieces of the American theater, West Side Story established Sondheim as a prominent Broadway lyricist at the age of twenty-seven. He followed the successful show with Gypsy in 1959. Calling Gypsy "the most perfectly achieved dance musical" in the New York Times Magazine, Frank Rich postulated that Sondheim "made his reputation with the dance musical." While 1962 marked the success of the burlesque comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sondheim was composer and lyricist for plays with varying degrees of acceptance over the next decades. His movement away from the traditional musical format of snappy tunes and happy endings toward a darker design offended critical sensibilities. "While praising Sondheim's brilliance," wrote Steven Holden in Atlantic, "theater critics have routinely complained that his work is cold and decadent and called his music tuneless." Offbeat and experimental productions such as Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), the operatic Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), and Merrily We Roll Along (1981) brought Sondheim an intellectual cult following.

"The world has finally caught up with Stephen Sondheim. After 20 years of wary regard as, variously, the savior of the American musical, a heartless antimelodist or a closet opera composer, Sondheim--who is all the above and much more--is currently on a roll on the New York musical scene," wrote Allan Rich in Newsweek with the appearance of Sondheim's 1984 musical Sunday in the Park With George. A lyricist and composer who has been known to find inspiration in unlikely sources, Sondheim based Sunday in the Park With George on pointillist art. Portraying painter George Seurat and the characters from Seurat's neo-impressionist work A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the unusual musical was a commercial success as well as a prize winner. A writer for Time reported: "From his big-time debut in 1957 as the lyricist of West Side Story to his 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park With George ..., Sondheim ... has steadily pushed toward--or beyond--the limits of what the score, the narrative, the very premise of a musical can be."

"A new show by Stephen Sondheim is still the most exciting event in the American theater," wrote Jack Kroll in Newsweek in 1987 with the advent of Sondheim's musical Into the Woods. Sondheim found the impetus for Into the Woods from child psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim's discussion of fairy tales in The Uses of Enchantment. Reviewers were divided in their opinion of the show, but advance ticket sales netting $2.3 million illustrated that Sondheim had found his audience. One of the songs, "No One Is Alone," entered the ranks of standard Sondheim ballads. Throughout his career Sondheim has battled unfavorable comparisons with his mentor Hammerstein in many reviews. Into the Woods was an exception. Ash De Lorenzo noted in Vogue that "the score of Into the Woods accomplishes what the score of Oklahoma! and Carousel did: it makes the whole piece come together. A circle has been completed."

Sondheim followed Into the Woods with the musical Assassins. Reviewing the play in 1991, a writer for Newsweek cited the Sondheim collage of persons, including John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and "Squeaky" Fromme, who murdered, or attempted to murder, U.S. presidents, "the most audacious, far out and grotesque work of his career." A reviewer for Time reported that "even fans of [Sondheim's] acerbic wit and nonpareil invention wondered how such a show could be put together. The work ... amply, at times brilliantly, demonstrates how. The question that lingers is why." Robert Sandla in Theatre Crafts offered the challenge of the project as explanation for why Sondheim would produce the play. "Put aside, for a moment, the queasiness you might feel when you learn that presidential assassins are the subject of a brand new musical.... And consider, instead, the purely technical imperatives confronted by the designers of Assassins ."

Dubbed "Broadway's brightest hope," Sondheim "may yet become the giant he saw his teacher [Hammerstein] to be--one who leaves our theater profoundly and permanently changed," New York Times Magazine reviewer Frank Rich prophesied in 1984. The subject of a book by Craig Zadan titled Sondheim & Company, which delves more into the composer's career accomplishments than his life story, Sondheim is required reading in musical theater history. Not always praised but generally acknowledged for expanding the limits of the American musical, Sondheim alternately irritates and moves his audiences with songs and subject matter. "Of course," Kroll proposed, "Sondheim would write a musical about amoebas, or aardvarks."

by Marjorie Burgess

Stephen Sondheim's Career

Lyricist and composer of American musicals, including West Side Story, 1957, Gypsy, 1959, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1962, Anyone Can Whistle, 1964, Do I Hear a Waltz?, 1965, Company, 1970, Follies, 1971, A Little Night Music (includes "Send in the Clowns"), 1973, Pacific Overtures, 1976, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 1979, Merrily We Roll Along, 1981, Sunday in the Park With George, 1984, Into the Woods (includes "No One Is Alone"), 1989, and Assassins, 1991. Lyricist and composer for Leonard Bernstein's Broadway production Candide, 1973, and for music for television and movies, including Evening Primrose, 1966, Reds, 1981, and Dick Tracy, 1990. Contributed to Barbra Streisand's LP Broadway Album, 1985.

Stephen Sondheim's Awards

Numerous citations, including Grammy awards, Tony awards, and New York Drama Critics awards for best musical; Pulitzer Prize, 1985, for Sunday in the Park With George.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

June 30, 2003: Sondheim's new musical, Bounce, premieres in June at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. The production, with book by John Weidman, is directed by Hal Prince. Source: Associated Press, http://customwire.ap.org, June 30, 2003.

March 5, 2004: A new production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opened at the New York City Opera on March 5. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, March 5, 2004.

April 22, 2004: Sondheim's musical Assassins, which he co-wrote with John Weidman, opened on Broadway at Studio 54. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, April 22, 2004.

July 22, 2004: An adaptation of Aristophanes's The Frogs, by Sondheim, Nathan Lane, and Burt Shevelove, opened at the Lincoln Center after three weeks of previews. Source: Variety, July 19-25, 2004.

October 6, 2004: Opening Doors, a revue of Sondheim's rare works, conceived and directed by David Kernan, opened at Carnegie Hall in New York. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, October 7, 2004.

May 12, 2005: Sondheim Sings, Volume I: (1962-72), a CD containing 19 rare demo tracks, was released by PS Classics. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, May 12, 2005.

Further Reading

Books

Periodicals

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 6 years ago

Stephen is brilliant which goes without saying. His work with Tim Burton was just sensational. I believe he is just getting started and the best is yet to come. I rate him at the top along with the world greatest composers. Stephen if you need a valet or an assistant I would like to apply for the job. An American treasure. Thank you, thank you, thank you....