The composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is the most important artist to work in the American musical theater over the past half-century. He has not only collaborated on more than a dozen landmark shows from which have come many standard songs but has also been the single most influential force in bringing the Broadway musical into the modern age.
That journey began when Sondheim was still in his 20’s and contributed the lyrics to two classic collaborations with the playwright Arthur Laurents and the director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, West Side Story (1957; music by Leonard Bernstein) and Gypsy (1959; music by Jule Styne). Both shows have been repeatedly revived on Broadway and throughout the world. Daring and unorthodox for their time, both shows have had several revivals and are now universally seen as twin pinnacles of the post-war Broadway musical.
Sondheim’s first produced Broadway show as both composer and lyricist, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), had an even longer Broadway run than its predecessors. His next musical, Anyone Can Whistle (1964), an experimental piece that lasted only a week on Broadway, lives on through its inventive songs, some of which have since become staples in the American pop and cabaret repertoire. He next collaborated with Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965). In 1966, Sondheim wrote a made-for-TV musical, Evening Primrose, for the ABC network.
With such collaborators as playwrights Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, George Furth, James Goldman, Hugh Wheeler, John Weidman and James Lapine, Sondheim would go on to create a remarkable succession of groundbreaking musicals: Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973),The Frogs (1974), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1991), and Passion (1994). His show, Bounce (2003), was produced in a revised version, titled Road Show, at the New York Shakespeare Festival in late 2008. A revival of A Little Night Music premiered in New York City in December 2009. The Broadway revue entitled Sondheim on Sondheim, conceived and directed by James Lapine, previewed at Studio 54 in March 2010.
As Sondheim’s lyrics have entered the American language – from “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” to “The Ladies Who Lunch” – so his music liberated Broadway from traditional songwriting conventions. It is impossible to find a new musical of artistic ambition today that hasn’t been influenced by his breakthroughs in remaking the rules that once governed the traditional Broadway musical.
Sondheim learned those rules from a master, Oscar Hammerstein II, a family friend who started mentoring him when he was in his teens. Sondheim’s first Broadway job was as a gofer on Allegro (1947), an experimental work that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote between Carousel and South Pacific. Though Allegro was a Broadway failure, its impact on Sondheim’s iconoclastic vision for the theater was large.
Sondheim’s first musical for Broadway, Saturday Night, written in 1954, remained unproduced until a successful off-Broadway premiere in 1997. He also wrote the scores for the Alain Resnais film Stavisky (1974) and Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) as well as songs for Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990), among other movies.
Sondheim was born in 1930 in New York and is a graduate of Williams College. He studied musical composition with the composer Milton Babbitt. His works, even those that initially had brief Broadway runs, are in constant revival in New York, London, throughout America and around the world. His songs have been anthologized in Broadway and West End revues, including Side by Side by Sondheim and Putting It Together. Many of his musicals have been made into movies, including Sweeney Todd, directed by Tim Burton.
Sondheim has been a major force in the Dramatists Guild and Young Playwrights. Inc., two organizations that champion writers in the theater. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, eight Grammys, an Academy Award and nine Tonys, including a special award in 2008 for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. His screenplay for the movie mystery The Last of Sheila, co-written with Anthony Perkins, won the Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay from the Mystery Writers of America in 1974. Sondheim was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983 and was awarded the Gold Medal in Music, an honor given only every four years. In 2010, the Broadway theater formerly known as Henry Miller's Theatre was renamed in his honor. His collected lyrics with attendant essays have been published in two volumes: Finishing the Hat (2010) and Look, I Made A Hat (2011). In 2019 both books were included in Slate’s 50 Best Nonfiction Books of the Past 25 Years.
Sondheim has been awarded The Kennedy Center Honors, the MacDowell Medal, the President’s Medal for the Arts and an Olivier Special Award from the Society of London Theatres, as well as the Praemium Imperiale, often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of the Arts.” In 2015 he received America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2017 he was awarded the 2017 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award, the first composer-lyricist to win the award. Stephen Sondheim is also the subject of a documentary titled Six By Sondheim produced by Frank Rich for HBO. He is currently collaborating with the playwright David Ives on a new musical based on two Luis Buñuel films, “The Exterminating Angel” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.”
Mr. Sondheim serves on the Council of the Dramatists Guild, the national organization of playwrights, composers and lyricists, and served as its President from 1973 to 1981.
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Photo Roman Iwasiwka