More from Mr. Sondheim.
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 couldn’t participate. 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.
Original Cast Recording
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.