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|Birth name||Stephen Joshua Sondheim|
|Born|| March 22, 1930 |
New York, New York
|Birth name||Stephen Joshua Sondheim|
|Born|| March 22, 1930 |
New York, New York
Stephen Joshua Sondheim (//; born March 22, 1930) is an American composer and lyricist known for his immense contributions to musical theatre for over 50 years. He is the winner of an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer) including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Laurence Olivier Award. Described by Frank Rich of The New York Times as "now the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater", his most famous works include (as composer and lyricist) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. He also wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy.
Sondheim has written material for movies, including the 1981 Warren Beatty film Reds, for which he contributed the song "Goodbye For Now". He also wrote five songs for the 1990 movie Dick Tracy, including "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" by Madonna which won the Academy Award for Best Song.
He was president of the Dramatists Guild from 1973 to 1981. In celebration of his 80th birthday, the former Henry Miller's Theatre was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on September 15, 2010, and the BBC Proms staged a concert in his honor. Cameron Mackintosh has described Sondheim as "possibly the greatest lyricist ever."
Sondheim was born to a Jewish family in New York City, Etta Janet "Foxy" (née Fox) and Herbert Sondheim. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and later, after his parents divorced, on a farm near Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Herbert was a dress manufacturer and Foxy, his mother, designed the dresses. As an only child of well-to-do parents living in the San Remo on Central Park West, he is described in Meryle Secrest's biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, as having had an isolated and emotionally neglected childhood. While living in New York, Sondheim attended the Ethical Culture affiliated Fieldston School. Later, Sondheim attended the New York Military Academy and George School, a private Quaker preparatory school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he wrote his first musical ("By George!"). He also spent several summers at Camp Androscoggin. He graduated from George School in 1946.
Sondheim traces his interest in theatre to Very Warm for May, a Broadway musical he saw at age nine. "The curtain went up and revealed a piano," Sondheim recalled. "A butler took a duster and brushed it up, tinkling the keys. I thought that was thrilling."
When Sondheim was ten, his father, a distant figure, abandoned him and his mother. His father sought custody of Stephen, but because he had left Foxy for another woman (Alicia), his efforts failed. Herbert and Alicia had two sons together. In his interview with Meryle Secrest, Sondheim explained that he was "what they call an institutionalized child, meaning one who has no contact with any kind of family. You're in, though it's luxurious, you're in an environment that supplies you with everything but human contact. No brothers and sisters, no parents, and yet plenty to eat, and friends to play with and a warm bed, you know?"
Sondheim hated his mother; who was allegedly psychologically abusive, projecting anger from her failed marriage onto him. Sondheim said, "When my father left her, she substituted me for him. And she used me the way she used him, to come on to and to berate, beat up on, you see. What she did for five years was treat me like dirt, but come on to me at the same time." At one point, she wrote him a letter saying that the "only regret [she] ever had was giving him birth." When she died in the spring of 1992, he did not attend her funeral.
At about the age of ten, around the time of his parents' divorce, Sondheim became friends with James Hammerstein, son of the lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. The elder Hammerstein became Sondheim's surrogate father, and had a profound influence on him, especially in developing a love for musical theatre. It was at the opening of South Pacific, the musical Hammerstein wrote with Richard Rodgers, that Sondheim met Harold Prince, who would later direct many of Sondheim's shows. While at George School, Sondheim wrote a comic musical based on the goings-on of his school, entitled By George. It was a major success among his peers, and it considerably buoyed the young songwriter's ego; he took it to Hammerstein, and asked him to evaluate it as though he had no knowledge of its author. Hammerstein said it was the worst thing he had ever seen. "But if you want to know why it's terrible," Hammerstein offered, "I'll tell you." The rest of the day was spent going over the musical, and Sondheim would later say that "in that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime."
Thus began one of the most famous apprenticeships in the musical theatre, as Hammerstein designed a kind of course for Sondheim on the construction of a musical. This training primarily involved having Sondheim write four musicals, each with one of the following preconditions:
None of these "assignment" musicals was ever produced professionally. High Tor and Mary Poppins have never been produced at all; the rights holder for the original High Tor refused permission and his musical Mary Poppins was not finished.
Attracted to the school's theatre program, Sondheim began attending Williams College, a prominent liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. While there, Sondheim wrote a musical adaption of Beggar on Horseback, a 1924 play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, with permission from Kaufman and it had three performances. He graduated magna cum laude in 1950, and was a member of Beta Theta Pi fraternity. His first teacher at Williams was Robert Barrow, and according to Sondheim
... everybody hated him because he was very dry, and I thought he was wonderful because he was very dry. And Barrow made me realize that all my romantic views of art were nonsense. I had always thought an angel came down and sat on your shoulder and whispered in your ear 'dah-dah-dah-DUM.' Never occurred to me that art was something worked out. And suddenly it was skies opening up. As soon as you find out what a leading tone is, you think, Oh my God. What a diatonic scale is—Oh my God! The logic of it. And, of course, what that meant to me was: Well, I can do that. Because you just don't know. You think it's a talent, you think you're born with this thing. What I've found out and what I believed is that everybody is talented. It's just that some people get it developed and some don't.
He went on to study composition with the composer Milton Babbitt. Sondheim told biographer Meryle Secrest, "I just wanted to study composition, theory, and harmony without the attendant musicology that comes in graduate school. But I knew I wanted to write for the theatre, so I wanted someone who did not disdain theatre music. Milton, who was a frustrated show composer, was a perfect combination." Babbitt and Sondheim were both fascinated with mathematics and together they studied songs by various composers, especially Jerome Kern. Sondheim told Secrest that Kern had the ability "to develop a single motif through tiny variations into a long and never boring line and his maximum development of the minimum of material." Sondheim then said of Babbitt, "I am his maverick, his one student who went into the popular arts with all his serious artillery."
"A few painful years of struggle" followed for Sondheim, during which he continually auditioned songs, living in his father's dining room to save money; he also spent time in Hollywood writing for the television series Topper. He devoured 1940s and '50s films and has called cinema his "basic language." (His film knowledge got him through The $64,000 Question contestant tryouts.) Sondheim has expressed his dislike of movie musicals, favoring classic dramas like Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath, and A Matter of Life and Death. He adds that "studio directors like Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh ... were heroes of mine. They went from movie to movie to movie, and every third movie was good and every fifth movie was great. There wasn't any cultural pressure to make art."
Around 1952, Sondheim was 22 and had finished the four shows that Hammerstein had requested. The play Front Porch in Flatbush, which was unproduced at that time, by Julius and Philip Epstein, was being shopped around by Lemuel "Lem "Ayers. Ayers approached Frank Loesser and another composer who turned them down. Ayers and Sondheim met while ushering a wedding together, and Ayers commissioned Sondheim for three songs for the show. Julias Epstein flew in from California, and hired Sondheim. Sondheim flew to California and worked with Epstein for four to five months. After eight backers auditions, the group had raised half the money. The show had been retitled Saturday Night, which was supposed to open in the 1954–55 Broadway season. The show would have been mounted, but sadly Ayers passed away (in his early forties) from leukemia. The rights were transferred to his widow, Shirley, but since she had no experience the show did not continue on as planned  (It would eventually open Off-Broadway in 2000). Sondheim said later of the show, "I don't have any emotional reaction to 'Saturday Night' at all – except fondness," Sondheim says. "It's not bad stuff for a 23-year-old. There are some things that embarrass me so much in the lyrics – the missed accents, the obvious jokes. But I decided, Leave it. It's my baby pictures. You don't touch up a baby picture – you're a baby!"
Burt Shevelove invited Sondheim to a party, but Sondheim accidentally got there before Shevelove, and unfortunately Sondheim knew no one else at the party. He saw a familiar face, Arthur Laurents, who had seen one of the auditions of Saturday Night, and began talking. Laurents told him he was working on a musicalization of Romeo & Juliet with Leonard Bernstein, but they were currently without a lyricist because Comden & Green were supposed to write the lyrics, but were being held to their Hollywood contract and were not being released. Laurents told him he wasn't a big fan of his music, but he loved the lyrics from Saturday Night and if wanted he could audition for Bernstein. Sondheim met Bernstein the next day, played for him, and Bernstein said he would let him know about Comden & Green. Sondheim did not want to write lyrics only, but the music as well. After consulting with Hammerstein, he told Sondheim that he would be working with talented people with experience, and that Sondheim could write music later.
In 1957, West Side Story opened and was directed by Jerome Robbins and ran for 732 performances. While this may be one of the best-known shows Sondheim ever worked on, he has expressed dissatisfaction with his lyrics, stating they do not always fit the characters and are sometimes too consciously poetic. It has been rumored that while Bernstein was off trying to fix the musical Candide, Sondheim wrote some of the music for West Side Story, and that Bernstein's co-lyricist billing credit mysteriously disappeared from the credits of West Side Story during the tryout, presumably as a trade-off. Sondheim himself insisted that Bernstein told the producers to list Sondheim as the sole lyricist. Sondheim described how the royalties were divided for the show, saying Bernstein getting three percent while Sondheim was getting one percent. Bernstein suggested evening the percentage, giving both two percent but Sondheim refused saying he only wanted the credit. Sondheim said later he wished "someone stuffed a handkerchief in my mouth because it would have been nice to get that extra percentage".
Some time after West Side Story opened, Burt Shevelove and Sondheim were gathered with other writers when Shevelove lamented that Broadway was missing "low brow comedy", and Shevelove had mentioned making a musical out of Plautus' Roman comedies. Sondheim was interested in the idea, and Shevelove called up his a friend of his, Larry Gelbart, to co-author the script with him. The show would go through many drafts, and was interrupted briefly by Sondheim's next project.
In 1959, Sondheim was approached by Laurents and Robbins to musicalize Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir after Irving Berlin and Cole Porter turned it down . Sondheim agreed, but the woman touted to play Mama Rose, Ethel Merman, had just finished the musical Happy Hunting, which featured an unknown composer Harold Karr and unknown lyricist Matt Dubey. Sondheim wanted to write both music and lyrics but Merman refused to let another first time composer write for her. She demanded that her friend Jule Styne write the music. Sondheim was hesitant that writing lyrics again would pigeonhole into being only a lyricist. He decided to call his mentor again and ask his advice. Hammerstein told him he should take the job because writing a star-vehicle would be another great learning experience. Sondheim again agreed to do what his mentor suggested. The result, Gypsy, opened on May 21, 1959 and ran for 702 performances.
Sadly, in 1960, Sondheim lost his mentor and father figure, Oscar Hammerstein II. Sondheim recalled that shortly before his death, he was at Hammerstein's house and he had given Sondheim a portrait of himself. Sondheim gave it back and asked him to inscribe it and said later of the request that it was "weird..it's like asking your father to inscribe something." Reading the inscription, "For Stevie, My Friend and Teacher", still chokes up the award-winning composer, who wistfully comments "that describes Oscar better than anything I could say."
Walking away from the house that evening, Sondheim recalled that he got the sinking feeling that this was probably going to be the final goodbye and a great sadness and gloom descended upon him. Sondheim never saw his mentor again. Three days later, Hammerstein would lose his battle with stomach cancer and his protegee would take the podium at the funeral and deliver a heartfelt eulogy.
The first musical for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It opened in 1962 and ran 964 performances. The book, based on the farces of Plautus, was written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Sondheim's score was not especially well received at the time. Even though the show won several Tony Awards, including best musical, Sondheim did not receive a nomination.
At this point, Sondheim had participated in three straight hits. His next show ended the streak. Anyone Can Whistle (1964) was a 9-performance flop, although it introduced Angela Lansbury to musical theatre and has developed a cult following.
Do I Hear a Waltz?, based on the 1952 Laurents play The Time of the Cuckoo, was originally intended to be another Rodgers & Hammerstein musical with Mary Martin as the lead, but was in need of a new lyricist. Laurents and Rodgers' daughter, Mary Rodgers, both asked Sondheim to fill in and Sondheim agreed. Even though Richard Rodgers and Sondheim agreed that the original play did not lend itself to musicalization., the team went ahead and began writing the musical. The musical was plagued with problems, partly due to Richard Rodgers alcoholism as a way to cope with his self-perceived diminishing ability to write and the loss of his partner, Oscar Hammerstein II. After this show, Sondheim decided that he would henceforth work only on projects where he could write both the music and lyrics himself. Sondheim has said that this is the one project he has regretted. He asked author and playwright James Goldman to join him as bookwriter for a new musical. Inspired by a New York Times article about a gathering of former showgirls from the Ziegfeld Follies, they decided upon a story about ex-showgirls. The show was titled The Girl Upstairs (which would later become Follies).
In 1966, Sondheim semi-anonymously provided the lyric for "The Boy From...", a parody of "The Girl from Ipanema", a highlight of the off-Broadway revue The Mad Show. (The official songwriting credit went to the linguistically minded pseudonym "Esteban Rio Nido", which translates from the Spanish to "Stephen River Nest". In the show's playbill, the lyrics are credited to "Nom De Plume".) In that same year, James Goldman and Sondheim hit a creative wall working on The Girls Upstairs. Goldman asked Sondheim about writing a TV musical. The result was Evening Primrose, starring Anthony Perkins and Charmian Carr. It was written for the television anthology series ABC Stage 67 and premiered on November 16, 1966. Both Sondheim and director Paul Bogart admitted that the musical was only written because Goldman needed rent money. Sondheim asked producer Hubbell Robinson to produce it, but the network was not a fan of the title or Sondheim's alternative title, A Little Night Music.
After completing Evening Primrose, Jerome Robbins had tried to convince Sondheim to adapt Bertolt Brecht's The Measures Taken, but Sondheim admitted that he did not like the play and did not like a lot of Brecht's work. Robbins wanted to adapt another Brecht play The Exception and the Rule and called John Guare to adapt the book. Bernstein had not written for the stage in a while, and his contract conducting the New York Philharmonic was ending. Sondheim was invited to Robbins' house, who unbeknownst to Sondheim, was trying to be convinced to write the lyrics to a musical adaption of The Exception and the Rule. Guare was asked to convince Sondheim to do the lyrics. According to Robbins, if Sondheim didn't do it, Bernstein wouldn't do it. After Guare told him about the show, Sondheim agreed to do it. Guare asked, "Why haven't you all worked together since 'West Side Story'?" to which Sondheim replied, "You'll see". Guare recalled a moment when Robbins had put him in a house Robbins had rented for Gold and Fizdale, and he put Guare in a locked room, saying he could not come out until he was finished. Any finished papers were slid under the door. Guare said working with Sondheim was like being with an old college roommate, they just talked and talked. Guare heavily depended on Sondheim to help him "decode and decipher their crazy way of working." Guare said that Bernstein only worked after midnight and Robbins only worked in the bright and early morning. Guare also commented that Bernstein's score, which was supposed to be light, was heavily influenced by Bernstein's feeling he needed to make a major musical statement. Stuart Ostrow, who had ties with Sondheim with The Girls Upstairs (later titled Follies), agreed to produce the musical, now entitled A Pray By Blecht (later titled The Race to Urga). An opening date was set and they were in the middle of auditions when Robbins asked to be excused for a moment. He did not come back and Guare asked where he went and the doorman said he got in a limousine and was headed to Kennedy Airport. This caused Bernstein to burst into tears and say "It's over". Sondheim said of the project, "I was ashamed of the whole project. It was arch and didactic in the worst way." He wrote one and half songs, and threw them both away (the only time he has ever done that). Eighteen years later, Bernstein and Robbins asked Sondheim to retry adapting the show, but Sondheim refused.
He has resided in an East Side brownstone in Manhattan since his fortunes swelled from writing Gypsy in 1959. While at his brownstone in 1969, Sondheim was playing music and he received a knock on the door. It was his neighbor, Katharine Hepburn, and she was in "bare feet – this angry, red-faced lady" and she told him "'You have been keeping me awake all night!". Hepburn had been practicing for her musical debut in Coco and was being distracted. Sondheim asked why she didn't ask him to play for her, which she stated she had lost his phone number. With a wry smile, Sondheim reflected back saying, "My guess is that she wanted to stand there in her bare feet, suffering for her art".
After the completion of Do I Hear a Waltz, Sondheim devoted himself to both composing and writing lyrics for a series of varied and adventurous musicals. Sondheim collaborated with producer/director Harold Prince on six musicals between 1970 and 1981, beginning with the innovative "concept musical" Company in 1970. Company (1970) centered on a set of characters and themes rather than a straightforward plot. With a book by George Furth, the show opened on April 26, 1970 at the Alvin Theatre, where it ran for 705 performances after seven previews. It would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Music, and Best Lyrics, among others.
Follies (1971), with a book by James Goldman, follows a night where. It opened on April 4, 1971 at the Winter Garden Theatre and it closed after 522 performances and 12 previews. The story concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre, scheduled for demolition, of the past performers of the "Weismann's Follies," a musical revue (based on the Ziegfeld Follies), that played in that theatre between the World Wars. It focuses on two couples, Buddy and Sally Durant Plummer and Benjamin and Phyllis Rogers Stone, who are attending the reunion.
After Follies was A Little Night Music (1973), a more traditionally plotted show based on the film Smiles of a Summer Night by Ingmar Bergman, was one of his greatest successes. Time magazine called it "Sondheim's most brilliant accomplishment to date." Notably, the score was mostly composed in waltz time (either ¾ time, or multiples thereof.) Further success was accorded to A Little Night Music when "Send in the Clowns" became a hit single for Judy Collins. Although it was Sondheim's only Top 40 hit, his songs are frequently performed and recorded by cabaret artists and theatre singers in their solo careers. A Little Night Music opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre on February 25, 1973, and closed on August 3, 1974 after 601 performances and 12 previews. It moved to the Majestic Theatre on September 17, 1973 where it completed its run.
By Bernstein premiered at the off-Broadway Westside Theatre on November 23, 1975 and closed on December 7, 1975. It ran for 40 previews and 17 performances. The lyrics and music were by Leonard Bernstein, with additional lyrics from other lyricists, including Sondheim. It was conceived and written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and Norman L. Berman. The production was directed by Michael Bawtree with a cast of Jack Bittner, Margery Cohen, Jim Corti, Ed Dixon, Patricia Elliott, Kurt Peterson, and Janie Sell. The two known songs that had Sondheim contributions are "In There" from the adaption of The Exception and the Rule (which would later be named The Race to Urga) and a cut song from West Side Story "Kids Ain't (Like Everybody Else)".
Pacific Overtures (1976) was the most non-traditional of the Sondheim—Prince collaborations, an intellectual exploration of the westernization of Japan.
Sweeney Todd (1979), Sondheim's most operatic score and libretto (which, along with A Little Night Music, has been seen in opera houses), once again explores an unlikely topic, this time murderous revenge and cannibalism. The book, by Hugh Wheeler, is based on Christopher Bond's 1973 stage version of the Victorian original.
Merrily We Roll Along (1981), with a book by George Furth, is one of Sondheim's more "traditional" scores and was thought to hold potential to generate some hit songs (Frank Sinatra and Carly Simon each recorded a different song from the show). Sondheim's music director, Paul Gemignani, said, "Part of Steve's ability is this extraordinary versatility." Merrily, however, was a 16-performance flop. "Merrily did not succeed, but its score endures thanks to subsequent productions and recordings. According to Martin Gottfried, "Sondheim had set out to write traditional songs ... But [despite] that there is nothing ordinary about the music." Sondheim and Furth have extensively revised the show since its initial opening. Sondheim later stated, "Did I feel betrayed? I'm not sure I would put it like that. What did surprise me was the feeling around the Broadway community – if you can call it that, though I guess I will for lack of a better word – that they wanted Hal and me to fail."
The failure of Merrily greatly affected Sondheim; he was ready to quit theatre and do movies or create video games or write mysteries. He was later quoted as saying, "I wanted to find something to satisfy myself that does not involve Broadway and dealing with all those people who hate me and hate Hal." The collaboration between Sondheim and Prince would largely end after Merrily – until the 2003 production of Bounce, another failure.
However, instead of quitting the theatre following the failure of Merrily, Sondheim decided "that there are better places to start a show", and found a new collaborator in the "artsy" James Lapine. Sondheim saw a show in 1981 that gave him hope again. The show was Twelve Dreams, and it was an Off-Broadway play at the Public Theatre. Sondheim recalled after Merrily, "I was discouraged, and I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't discovered Twelve Dreams at the Public Theatre". Lapine has a taste "for the avant-garde and for visually oriented theatre in particular." Their first collaboration was Sunday in the Park with George (1984), in which Sondheim's music evoked the pointillist painting technique of its subject, Georges Seurat. In 1985, he and Lapine won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Sunday in the Park with George. The show had its first revival on Broadway in 2008.
The Sondheim–Lapine collaboration also produced a musical reimagining classic fairy-tales, Into the Woods (1987). Their last work together was the rhapsodic Passion (1994), which was adapted from the Italian film Passione D'Amore by Ettore Scola. After a run of 280 performances, Passion became the shortest-running show to win the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Assassins (1990) with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by Weidman. The show opened off-Broadway at the Playwrights Horizons on December 18, 1990, and closed on February 16, 1991 after 73 performances. The idea came from when Sondheim was a panelist at producer Stuart Ostrow's Musical Theater Lab, and he read a script by playwright Charles Gilbert. Sondheim asked Gilbert for permission to use his idea. Gilbert consented and offered to write the book; but Sondheim declined, having already had collaborator John Weidman in mind.
Saturday Night was shelved until a 1997 production at London's Bridewell Theatre. In 1998 Saturday Night received a professional recording, followed by a revised version with two new songs and an Off-Broadway run at Second Stage Theatre in 2000 and a full British premiere with the new songs in 2009 at London's Jermyn Street Theatre.
In the late nineties, Sondheim and Weidman reunited with Hal Prince for the musical comedy Wise Guys, a project that took a long time to complete that follows brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner. Though a Broadway production starring Nathan Lane and Victor Garber and directed by Sam Mendes was announced for Spring 2000, the New York debut of the musical was delayed. Rechristened Bounce in 2003, the show was mounted at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.. Bounce received disappointing reviews and never reached Broadway. A revised version of Bounce premiered off-Broadway at The Public Theater under the new name Road Show from October 28, 2008 through December 28, 2008, under the direction of John Doyle.
Regarding his interest in writing new work, Sondheim was quoted in a 2006 Time Out: London interview as saying, "No ... It's age. It's a diminution of energy and the worry that there are no new ideas. It's also an increasing lack of confidence. I'm not the only one. I've checked with other people. People expect more of you and you're aware of it and you shouldn't be." In December 2007, however, Sondheim said that, along with continued work on Bounce, he was "nibbling at a couple of things with John Weidman and James Lapine."
Lapine created a "multimedia revue", formerly titled Sondheim: a Musical Revue, which had been scheduled to premiere in April 2009 at the Alliance Theatre, Atlanta, Georgia. However, that production was canceled, due to "difficulties encountered by the commercial producers attached to the project ... in raising the necessary funds". A revised version, Sondheim on Sondheim, was produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and premiered on Broadway at Studio 54 in a limited engagement from March 19, 2010 in previews, opening April 22 through June 13. The cast featured Barbara Cook, Vanessa L. Williams, Tom Wopat, Norm Lewis and Leslie Kritzer.
Sondheim collaborated with Wynton Marsalis in a musical "event", which was performed at New York City Center in an Encores! Special Event, titled "A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair", which took place November 13–17, 2013. The staged concert was directed by John Doyle, with choreography by Parker Esse, and consisted of "more than two-dozen Sondheim compositions, each piece newly re-imagined by Marsalis." The cast featured Bernadette Peters, Jeremy Jordan, Norm Lewis, and Cyrille Aimee with four dancers, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, conducted by David Loud. Steven Suskin described the concert in Playbill as "neither a new musical, a revival, nor a standard songbook revue; it is, rather, a staged-and-sung chamber jazz rendition of a string of songs." He further added that "Half of the songs come from 'Company' and 'Follies'; most of the other Sondheim musicals are represented, including the lesser-known 'Passion' and 'Road Show'".
It was announced in February 2012 that Sondheim will be collaborating on a new musical with David Ives. Sondheim has said that he has "about 20–30 minutes of the musical completed." The show is tentatively called All Together Now and is assumed to follow the format of Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim said of the project, "two people and what goes into their relationship ... We'll write for a couple of months, then have a workshop. It seemed experimental and fresh 20 years ago. I have a feeling it may not be experimental and fresh any more." Sondheim also wrote some new songs for a film adaptation of Into the Woods, including one entitled Rainbows, which Sondheim also included in his second book.
On April 28, 2002, during the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center, Sondheim and Frank Rich of the New York Times held a "conversation". In March 2008, Sondheim and Rich appeared in four interviews/conversations in California and Portland, Oregon titled "A Little Night Conversation with Stephen Sondheim". In September 2008, they appeared at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. The Cleveland Jewish News reported on the Oberlin event, writing: "Sondheim said: 'Movies are photographs; the stage is larger than life.' What musicals does Sondheim admire the most? Porgy and Bess tops a list which includes Carousel, She Loves Me, and The Wiz, which he saw six times. Sondheim took a dim view of today's musicals. What works now, he said, are musicals that are easy to take; audiences don't want to be challenged." Sondheim and Rich had more conversations on January 18, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall, on February 2, 2009 at the Landmark Theatre, Richmond, Virginia, on February 21, 2009 at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and on April 20, 2009 at the University of Akron College of Fine and Applied Arts, EJ Thomas Hall, Akron, Ohio. The conversations were reprised at Tufts and Brown Universities in February 2010 and the University of Tulsa in April 2010. They spoke again at Lafayette College on March 8, 2011.
Sondheim had an additional "conversation with" Sean Patrick Flahaven (associate editor of The Sondheim Review) at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, on February 4, 2009, during which he spoke of many of his songs and shows. "On the perennial struggles of Broadway: 'I don't see any solution for Broadway's problems except subsidized theatre, as in most civilized countries of the world.'"
He was visibly taken by the university choir, who sang two songs during the evening, 'Children Will Listen' and 'Sunday', and then returned to reprise 'Sunday'. During that final moment, Sondheim and I were standing, facing the choir of students from the University of Utah's opera program, our backs to the audience, and I could see tears welling in his eyes as the voices rang out. Then, all of a sudden, he raised his arms and began conducting, urging the student singers to go full out, which they did, the crescendo building, their eyes locked with his, until the final 'on an ordinary Sunday' was sung. It was thrilling, and a perfect conclusion to a remarkable evening—nothing ordinary about it.
Sondheim's career has been varied, encompassing much beyond the composition of musicals.
An avid fan of games, in 1968 and 1969 Sondheim published a series of cryptic crossword puzzles in New York magazine. In 1987, Time referred to his love of puzzlemaking as "legendary in theater circles," adding that the central character in Anthony Shaffer's hit play Sleuth was inspired by Sondheim. (There was a rumor that Sleuth was given the working title Who's Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?, but in a New York Times interview on March 10, 1996, Shaffer denied ever using the title.) Sondheim's love of puzzles and mysteries can also be seen in the intricate "whodunit" he co-wrote with longtime friend Anthony Perkins, The Last of Sheila. This 1973 film, directed by Herbert Ross, starred Dyan Cannon, Raquel Welch, James Mason, James Coburn and Richard Benjamin.
He tried his hand at playwriting one more time – in 1996 he collaborated with Company librettist George Furth on a play called Getting Away with Murder. It was not a success, and the Broadway production closed after 29 previews and 17 performances.
His compositional efforts have included a number of film scores, notably a set of songs written for Warren Beatty's 1990 film version of Dick Tracy; one song, "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" (as performed by Madonna), won Sondheim an Academy Award.
Sondheim was asked to translate Mahagonny-Songspiel, although he did not state the time. He said, "But, I'm not a Brecht/Weill fan and that's really all there is to it. I'm an apostate: I like Weill's music when he came to America better than I do his stuff before ... I love The Threepenny Opera but, outside of The Threepenny Opera, the music of his I like is the stuff he wrote in America – when he was not writing with Brecht, when he was writing for Broadway." He was also asked to musicalize Nathanael West's A Cool Million with James Lapine around 1982, but he refused.
Sondheim worked with William Goldman on Singing Out Loud, a movie musical, in 1992. Sondheim stated that Goldman wrote one or two drafts of the script and Sondheim wrote six and a half songs, only to have director Rob Reiner lose interest in the project. The songs "Dawn" and "Sand" from the project were recorded for the albums Sondheim at the Movies and Unsung Sondheim. Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein wrote The Race to Urga, scheduled to play at the Lincoln Center in 1969, but when Jerome Robbins left the project, it went unproduced.
Sondheim, in 1991, was working with Terrence McNally on a musical entitled All Together Now. McNally said, "Steve was interested in telling the story of a relationship from the present back to the moment when the couple first met. We worked together a while, but we were both involved with so many other projects that this one fell through". The script, with concept notes by McNally and Sondheim, is archived in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The story follows Arden Scott, a 30-something female sculptor, and Daniel Nevin, a slightly younger, sexually charismatic restaurateur.
Sondheim wrote a book of annotations of his lyrics titled Finishing the Hat (2010), a collection of his lyrics "from productions dating 1954–1981. In addition to published and unpublished lyrics from West Side Story, Follies and Company, the tome finds Sondheim discussing his relationship with Oscar Hammerstein II and his collaborations with composers, actors and directors throughout his lengthy career." This book, part one of a two-part series, is named after a song he wrote for Sunday in the Park With George. Sondheim said "It's going to be long. I'm not, by nature, a prose writer, but I'm literate, and I have a couple of people who are vetting it for me, whom I trust, who are excellent prose writers." Finishing the Hat was published in October 2010. The review of the book in The New York Times stated that "The lyrics under consideration here, written during a 27-year period, aren't presented as fixed and sacred paradigms, carefully removed from tissue paper for our reverent inspection. They're living, evolving, flawed organisms, still being shaped and poked and talked to by the man who created them." The book was number 11 on The New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction list for November 5, 2010.
The follow-up book, Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981–2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany was released on November 22, 2011. The book begins with Sunday in the Park With George, where Finishing the Hat stopped, and includes sections on his work in movies and television.
Sondheim was mentored at a young age by Oscar Hammerstein II, and he too has returned the favor to young theatre lovers, exclaiming he loves "passing on what Oscar passed on to me". In 1979, when Adam Guettel (son of Mary Rodgers and grandson of Richard Rodgers, both composers) was 14, he showed Sondheim his work, much like Sondheim did with Hammerstein. Guettel said he left "crestfallen", and Sondheim wrote him a letter apologizing that he didn't mean to be "not very encouraging", but more that Sondheim was trying to be "constructive".
The second was to a fledgling composer named Jonathan Larson. Larson, who had musicalized Nineteen Eighty-Four and called his work Superbia, had a workshop set up for the musical, of which Sondheim attended. In the musical Tick, Tick... Boom!, the actual phone message left by Sondheim is played, in which he apologizes for leaving after the show but wants to meet with him sometime, and that he was impressed with his work. After Larson's death, Sondheim said Larson was one of the few composers "attempting to blend contemporary pop music with theater music, which doesn't work very well; he was on his way to finding a real synthesis. A good deal of pop music has interesting lyrics, but they are not theater lyrics." Sondheim explained that a musical theatre composer "must have a sense of what is theatrical, of how you use music to tell a story, as opposed to writing a song. Jonathan understood that instinctively."
Unless otherwise noted, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Side By Side By Sondheim (1976), Marry Me A Little (1980), You're Gonna Love Tomorrow (1983) Putting It Together (1993), and Sondheim on Sondheim (2010) are anthologies or revues of Sondheim's work as composer and lyricist, featuring both songs performed and cut from productions. Jerome Robbins' Broadway features "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" from Gypsy, "Suite of Dances" from West Side Story, and "Comedy Tonight" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. A new revue, Secret Sondheim ... a celebration of his lesser known work, conceived and directed by Tim McArthur, plays the Jermyn Street Theatre, London, in July 2010.
In 1976 Sondheim appeared, together with theatre critic Frank Rich, John Weidman (book for Pacific Overtures) and members of the original cast of Pacific Overtures in a television program titled "Anatomy of a Song." Sondheim plays piano as cast sings the song "Someone in a Tree". Sondheim discusses his working methods, the genesis of the show, and names "Someone in a Tree" his favorite song to date.
Several benefits and concerts were performed to celebrate Sondheim's 80th birthday in 2010. Among them were the New York Philharmonic's Sondheim: The Birthday Concert, which was held March 15 and 16, 2010 at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall and hosted by David Hyde Pierce. The concert included Sondheim music and songs performed, in some cases, by the original performers. Lonny Price directed, with Paul Gemignani conducting. The performers included: Laura Benanti, Matt Cavenaugh, Michael Cerveris, Victoria Clark, Jenn Colella, Jason Danieley, Alexander Gemignani, Joanna Gleason, Nathan Gunn, George Hearn, Patti LuPone, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, John McMartin, Donna Murphy, Karen Olivo, Laura Osnes, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Bobby Steggert, Elaine Stritch, Jim Walton, Chip Zien, the 2009 Broadway revival cast of West Side Story and a ballet performed by Blaine Hoven and Maria Riccetto set to Stephen Sondheim's score of Warren Beatty's Reds. Jonathan Tunick also made a special appearance to pay tribute to his longtime collaborator. The concert was telecast on the PBS "Great Performances" show during November 2010, and the DVD of the performance was released on November 16, 2010.
The Roundabout Theatre Company benefit Sondheim 80 was held on March 22, 2010. The evening included a performance of Sondheim on Sondheim, plus dinner and a show at the New York Sheraton. There was "a very personal star-studded musical tribute" with new songs by contemporary musical theatre writers. The composers, who sang their own songs, included Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, Michael John LaChiusa, Andrew Lippa, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Lin-Manuel Miranda (accompanied by Rita Moreno), Duncan Sheik, and Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire. Bernadette Peters performed a song (unnamed) that was dropped from a Sondheim show.
The New York City Center birthday celebration and benefit concert on April 26, 2010 featured (in order of appearance): Michael Cerveris, Alexander Gemignani, Donna Murphy, Debra Monk, Joanna Gleason, Maria Friedman, Mark Jacoby, Len Cariou, B.D. Wong, Claybourne Elder, Alexander Hanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Raul Esparza, Sutton Foster, Nathan Lane, Michele Pawk, the original cast of Into the Woods; Kim Crosby, Chip Zien, Danielle Ferland, & Ben Wright, Angela Lansbury, and Jim Walton. This concert was directed by John Doyle and co-hosted by Mia Farrow. During the concert, greetings were read. These greetings were written by: Sheila Hancock, Julia McKenzie, Milton Babbitt, Judi Dench, and Glynis Johns. After Catherine Zeta-Jones performed "Send in the Clowns," a recorded greeting from Julie Andrews was played. During her greeting, she sang a little of "Not a Day Goes By." Patti LuPone, Barbara Cook, Bernadette Peters, Tom Aldredge and Victor Garber were originally scheduled to perform, but withdrew from the concert. One of the beneficiaries of the concert was Young Playwrights Inc.
On July 31, 2010, a BBC Proms concert was held to celebrate Sondheim's 80th Birthday at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It featured songs from many of his musicals, including a performance of "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music by Judi Dench (reprising her role as Desirée from the 1995 production of that musical), and performances from many other stars of opera, Broadway, stage and screen, including Bryn Terfel and Maria Friedman.
On November 19, 2010, The New York Pops performed at Carnegie Hall to celebrate Sondheim's 80th birthday, led by Steven Reineke. Kate Baldwin, Aaron Lazar, Christiane Noll, Paul Betz, Renee Rakelle, Marilyn Maye (singing "I'm Still Here"), and Alexander Gemignani were all on hand to sing songs including "I Remember", "Another Hundred People", "Children Will Listen", and "Getting Married Today". Sondheim made an on-stage appearance during the concert's encore of his song "Old Friends".
Sondheim has received the following honors:
He has won these awards:
This organization, founded by Sondheim in 1981, is intended to introduce young people to writing for the theatre. He is the Executive Vice President.
The Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts opened December 7–9, 2007, and is located at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center in Fairfield, Iowa. The Center opened with performances from seven Broadway performers, including Len Cariou, Liz Callaway, and Richard Kind, all of whom had taken part in the musicals of Sondheim. The center is the first one in the world named after him, with a Broadway theatre the second.
In 1993 the Stephen Sondheim Society was set up to promote and provide information about the works of Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim - the Magazine is the Society magazine devoted to Sondheim's work, and is sent to every member of the Society. The Society aims to create a greater interest and appreciation of them by means of circulating information and providing a focal point where those interested can share such interests. It issues news, provides education, maintains a database of information, organizes productions, meetings, outings, and other events, assists with publicity and promotion, publishes articles, and performs other tasks. It runs a website at www.sondheim.org.
An annual event, the competition gives 12 young musical theatre students from top UK drama schools and universities the opportunity to compete for a prize of £1,000. Per Sondheim's request, a prize is also offered for a new song by a young composer, judged by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Each contestant performs one Sondheim song and one new song.
Most of the episode titles from the television series Desperate Housewives reference his work in some way, through the use of either song titles or lyrics. The final episode in the series is titled "Finishing the Hat" (airing May 13, 2012).
In 1990, Sondheim took the Cameron Mackintosh chair in musical theatre at Oxford, and in this capacity ran workshops with promising writers of musicals, such as George Stiles, Anthony Drewe, Andrew Peggie, Paul James, Stephen Keeling and others. These writers jointly set up the Mercury Workshop in 1992, which eventually merged with the New Musicals Alliance to become MMD, a UK-based organisation developing new musical theatre, of which Sondheim continues to be patron.
The Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia, established a new award, "The Sondheim Award", "as a tribute to America's most influential contemporary musical theatre composer." The first award was presented at a gala fund-raiser on April 27, 2009, with help from performers Bernadette Peters, Michael Cerveris, Will Gartshore and Eleasha Gamble. Sondheim himself was the first recipient of the award, which also includes a $5000 honorarium for the recipients' choice of a nonprofit organization. The 2010 honoree was Angela Lansbury, with Peters and Catherine Zeta-Jones as honorary hosts for the Gala Benefit held on April 12, 2010. The 2011 honoree was Bernadette Peters. Other awardees have been Patti LuPone (2012), Hal Prince (2013) and Jonathan Tunick (2014).
A Broadway theatre at West 43rd Street in New York City, The Henry Miller's Theatre, was renamed The Stephen Sondheim Theatre on September 15, 2010, in honor of his 80th birthday. In attendance were Nathan Lane, Patti LuPone, and John Weidman. Sondheim said of the naming, "I'm deeply embarrassed. Thrilled, but deeply embarrassed. I've always hated my last name. It just doesn't sing. I mean, it's not Belasco. And it's not Rodgers and it's not Simon. And it's not Wilson. It just doesn't sing. It sings better than Schoenfeld and Jacobs. But it just doesn't sing." Lane said of the day, "We love our corporate sponsors and we love their money, but there's something sacred about naming a theatre, and there's something about this that is right and just."
According to the Daily Telegraph, Sondheim is "almost certainly" the only living composer to have a quarterly journal published in his name. The Sondheim Review, founded in 1994, exists to chronicle and promote the works of Stephen Sondheim.
Sondheim says that when he asked Babbitt if he could study atonality, Babbitt replied "You haven't exhausted tonal resources for yourself yet, so I'm not going to teach you atonal." Sondheim agreed, and despite frequent dissonance and a highly chromatic style, his music remains resolutely tonal.
Sondheim's work is notable for his use of complex polyphony in the vocal parts, such as the chorus of five minor characters who function as a sort of Greek chorus in 1973's A Little Night Music. He also displays a penchant for angular harmonies and intricate melodies. His musical influences are varied; Sondheim has claimed that he "loves Bach" but his favorite period is Brahms to Stravinsky. To fans, Sondheim's musical sophistication is considered to be greater than that of many of his musical theatre peers, and his lyrics are likewise renowned for their ambiguity, wit, and urbanity.
Sondheim has been described as being extremely introverted, a largely solitary figure. In an interview with Frank Rich, Sondheim said that "the outsider feeling – somebody who people want to both kiss and kill – occurred quite early in my life." He lives with his partner, Jeff Romley. Sondheim lived with Peter Jones, a dramatist, for several years until 1999.
|Awards and achievements|
|Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre|