Stephen Sondheim is arguably the leading musical theatre composer and lyricist of his era. Over the past fifty years and more his musicals have been classed as masterpieces and he has created some of the most notable scores and songs in musical theatre history.
Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on 22nd March 1930 in New York City. His mother, Janet Fox, was fashhion designer whilst his father, Herbert Sondheim, was a successful dress manufacturer. At the age of 10 his father abandoned the family home to move in with another woman, leaving Stephen with his abusive mother. He was an isolated child but when his mother moved them to Pennsylvania Sondheim became friends with James Hammerstein, son of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, whose collaboration with Richard Rogers is one of the most notable in musical theatre history. Sondheim was heavily influenced by Oscar Hammerstein and spent his teenage years studying under the mentorship of Hammerstein. Whilst attending George School Stephen created a comic-musical based on things happening within the school. He took it to Hammerstein (without naming the writer). Hammerstein told him it was the worst thing he had ever seen, but followed it up by explaining why this was the case. Sondheim states that he learned more in this afternoon about songwriting and musical theatre than most people learn in a lifetime. During his mentorship under Hammerstein Stephen was challenged by Hammerstein to write four musicals, each with preconditions : 1. Based on a play he admired, 2. Based on a play he liked but thought was flawed, 3. Based on an existing novel or short story but not previously dramatised and 4. An original. For the third of these challenges Sondheim created Bad Tuesday which was based on 'Mary Poppins'. This preceeded the unrelated Disney film (music by the Sheerman Brothers). None of Sondheim's four projects has ever seen a professional production. Over the next few years Stephen attended Williams College and composed and learned his trade, he wrote for Television on the series Topper. In 1952 Sondheim created three songs for the play Sataurday Night which was due to open on Broadway in the 1954-55 season. It did not happen because of the unfortunate passing of Lemuel Ayers, the man pushing the work.
During a chance meeting at a party Sondheim chatted to Arthur Laurents who was currently working on a new adaptation of 'Romeo & Juliet' with composer Leonard Bernstein. At the time Comden & Green were to be the lyricists on the new production but after a meeting with Bernstein he was asked to write the lyrics for the production. At first Stephen was reticent as he wished to write music and lyrics but after words of advice from his mentor, Hammerstein, he accepted the position as he would be working with talented people and Sondheim could write music later. West Side Story opened in 1957 and ran for 732 performances. At the time Bernstein was on a 3% royalty whilst Sondheim on a 1% royalty. Bernstein did offer to even the percentages but Sondheim declined saying that he only wanted the credit, something that in later years he would rue a little. After West Side Story opened Sondheim became interested in the idea of writing a 'low-brow-comedy' musical out of Plautus' Roman comedies. But before he could start work in earnest on this he was offered the opportunity to lyricise the musical based on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy. Although Sondheim was again hesitant about purely writing lyrics (rather than the music as well) he accepted after consulting with mentor Hammerstein as this was a star-vehicle musical, as Ethel Merman had been given the leading role. The production of Gypsy ran for 702 perfoemances when it opened in 1959. Sadly in 1960 Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim's friend and mentor passed away, something that hit Stephen hard, Sondheim gave the eulogy at his funeral.
In 1962 the first musical to feature both music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim opened. His A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum ran for 964 performances. The show won serveral Tonies including Best Musical. His next show though, Anyone Can Whistle, was his first 'flop' running for only 9 performances, although it did introduce a young lady to the Broadway audience for the first time, Angela Lansbury. Sondheim again went back to writing lyrics only for the production Do I Hear A Waltz? as it was collaborating with composer Richard Rogers who had been Stephen's mentor Oscar Hammerstein's collaborator until Hammerstein's death in 1960. After Do I Hear a Waltz Sondheim collaborated with producer and director Harold Prince on 6 musicals between 1970 and 1981, Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1975), Sweeney Todd (1979) and Merrily We Roll Along (1981). Sondheim was now established as the great musical theatre creator, composing the music and lyrics for all these productions. In 1984 Sondheim began a new collaboration this time with James Lapine. Over the next ten years Sondheim would create Sunday in the Park With George (1984), Into The Woods (1987) and Passion in 1994. 1990 saw one of Sondheim's most successful years with the opening of Assassins and also the winning of the Oscar for Best Song with one of the five songs he created for the movie Dick Tracy, 'Sooner or Later (I Always get my man)'. In later years Stephen has created Bounce (2003) with book by John Weidman who had collaborated with him on Assassins, which was renamed Road Show for its 2008 production. Over the past fifty years Stephen Sondheim has established himself as the foremost theatre composer/lyricist, his music and ideas always challenging and has developed the art-form to a completely different level. He has also established many aspects to his legacy including 'Young Playwrights', which he founded in 1981, 'Mercury Workshop' in 1992 which developed into the Mercury Musical Developments, a British organisation for new musical theatre writers, and in September 2010 the Henry Miller's Theatre at West 43rd Street in New York was renamed 'The Stephen Sondheim Theatre'. Stephen resides in New York City.
Selected list of Musicals and Movies for which Stephen Sondheim has created songs;
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