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.
Broadway failures and other projects
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”.