This week, we will enjoy the talent that is Stephen Sondheim.
Stephen Joshua Sondheim (/ˈsɒnd.haɪm/; 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.”
Mentorship by Oscar Hammerstein II
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:
Based on a play he admired (which became All That Glitters);
Based on a play he liked but thought was flawed, choosing the Maxwell Anderson play High Tor;
Based on an existing novel or short story not previously dramatized (which became his unfinished Mary Poppins entitled Bad Tuesday, not connected to the musical film and stage play scored by the Sherman Brothers);
An original (which became Climb High).
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.
College and early career
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!”
Mr. Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story.