Stephen Sondheim is one of musical theatre's most renowned composers and lyricists. He wrote the music and lyrics for many critically acclaimed shows including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures, Sunday in the Park with George and Assassins. He has been honored with awards such as the Tony Award, Grammy Award, Academy Award and the Pullitzer Prize for Drama.
With a childhood interest in theater, Sondheim was mentored by Broadway lyricist celebrity Oscar Hammerstein and - in college - wrote successful school musicals including Finney's Rainbow and By George.
In 1953, Sondheim worked as a writer in Hollywood, writing several episodes of the television series Topper: a light drama about two ghosts who haunted a detective. In 1954, he returned to New York to write for Broadway. His first musical, Saturday Night, entered rehearsal but was quickly scrapped, and never reached its premiere.
In 1957, Sondheim was given the chance to write lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's musical, West Side Story. The show was an incredible success - although its progressive use of dance and adult themes confronted some audiences - and allowed Sondheim to write lyrics for another big musical, Jule Styne's Gypsy. (Sondheim was originally to write music and lyrics, but Ethel Merman had already been hired as the show's star and she did not want an inexperienced composer to write her music.) Sondheim would later regard both of these projects as youthful work, particularly his lyrics for West Side Story, many of which he disliked in retrospect.
For Sondheim's next show, he wrote both music and lyrics - always seeing himself more as a composer than a lyricist. The musical was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a revolving-door farce about a slave in Ancient Rome and his antics in trying to free himself. The score was designed as breaks from the frantic action of Burt Shevelove and Lary Gelbart's script, and was barely noted by critics or awards. The show, however, was a rousing success.
In 1964, Sondheim penned his next musical, Anyone Can Whistle. In it, a small town mental asylum's inmates are unleashed, and the comedic results ensnare nurse Fay Apple (Lee Remick) and the evil Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper (Angela Lansbury. It was Lansbury's first musical show, but was plagued with disaster. After two deaths - one cast member and one orchestra member - in the last weeks of rehearsal, the show opened to largely negative reviews, and closed after 9 performances. Due to strong supporters inside Columbia Records, a recording was made - even though it didn't meet the minimum performances for a mandatory recording - and this has become a cult hit.
After Hammerstein's death, Sondheim agreed to work with Hammerstein's long-time writing partner, Richard Rodgers, on a musical. Do I Hear A Waltz? premiered in 1965 and received average reviews and average responses from audience members. Sondheim and Rodgers notoriously did not get on: Sondheim was quoted as saying "[Hammerstein] was a man of limited talent and infinite heart; [Rodgers] is the opposite".
Sondheim expanded his work in the 1960s. He wrote the television musical Evening Primrose, about a secret society of people living inside a department store, whose songs would go on to become standards. He also helped to engender the success of cryptic crosswords, writing for New York magazine. His lifelong love affair with games compelled him to write puzzles of all types.
In the 1970s, Sondheim developed a reputation as one of America's most critically adored composers and lyricists. With director Hal Prince, he wrote music and lyrics for: Company (1970), a non-linear examination of love and marriage in modern Manhattan; Follies (1971), a dark look at the reunion of a Ziegfield Follies-esque group of performers, now as old and decrepit as the abandoned theatre they reunite in; A Little Night Music (1973), a light comedy about several mismatched European couples; and Pacific Overtures' (1976), his most experimental work up to that point: an examination of the West's influence over Japanese culture over the centuries. Unlike the previous three, Pacific Overtures was not a resounding success.
While Sondheim's lyrics more often received critical praise than his music, he became well known for using complex harmonies, and mimicking of musical styles. (All the music in A Little Night Music is in variations of 3/4 time, and several of the songs in Follies mimic those of the 1920s and 30s).
During the 1970s, he wrote additional lyrics for a reworking of Leonard Bernstein's musical Candide, and wrote several songs for a musical version of the Ancient Greek comedy The Frogs. This show had its premiere in the Yale swimming pool, with Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver in minor chorus roles.
After winning several Tony awards, and a Grammy award for Send in the Clowns, a song from A Little Night Music, Sondheim was highly regarded. His next musical Sweeney Todd, again directed by Hal Prince, cemented this fact. Its subject matter was challenging: the story of a vicious murderer and his accomplice, who grinds the victims into gourmet meat pies, set in Victorian London again showed how 'different' Sondheim was willing to be.
In 1981, Sondheim and Prince had their first big failure. Merrily We Roll Along tells the story of three talented artists who go from naive and optimistic to jaded and commercial. The story is told in reverse, and the score is one of the most 'traditional' of Sondheim's oeuvre. However, Merrily failed after only 16 performances and largely negative reviews. Critics, and Sondheim himself, blamed the failure on the inexperienced actors and the relatively "lowbrow" production values of the show, during a time when Broadway was beginning to think big again after the innovative 1970s. The show's failure ended with Sondheim wanting to leave musical theatre, and with Sondheim and Prince going their separate ways.
In 1984, Sondheim decided to continue his work, but with a different outlook. Working at Playwrights' Horizons, Sondheim and director James Lapine began looking at avant-garde aspects, and stayed away from Broadway. Their first show was Sunday in the Park with George, a musical about the life of artist Georges Seurat and - in Act II - the struggle his 1980s descendant goes through to get his art accepted in the commercial world. The original production, starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in dual roles was critically revered, winning a Pullitzer Prize for Drama.
Lapine and Sondheim subsequently produced Into the Woods in 1987, a retelling of several fairytales, and later worked together on Passion in 1994: a multi-award winning romance about three lovers in Italy which failed to attract big audiences.
In 1991, Sondheim premiered one of his most controversial musicals, Assassins: an examination of the lives of several people who had killed, or attempted to kill, U.S. Presidents. The work, coinciding with the Gulf War, was decried as unpatriotic but achieved cult success. A revival ten years later was more successful.
In 2008, his latest musical, Road Show premiered. The show had been in various stages of production for ten years, and had previously been seen off Broadway as Bounce.
Films and LegacyEdit
Sondheim's work has left a lasting legacy on musical theatre. Six of his shows received Tony Awards for Best Score (Company, Follies, Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Passion) and he himself received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. He has worked to encourage young musical theatre composers, and has had an impact in the now common use of non-linear storytelling and challenging themes in the musical theatre.
Many of his works have had successful revivals all over the world, particularly from 2001 to 2006 at the Ravinia Festival where Patti LuPone starred in a series of revivals including Sunday, Anyone Can Whistle, Gypsy and Passion.
His songs have been recorded by many well-known singers and four revues using his work - Side by Side by Sondheim, Marry Me A Little, You're Gonna Love Tomorrow and Putting it Together - have been produced, and are regular features in regional musical seasons.
Several of his works have been filmed:
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Gypsy, West Side Story and Sweeney Todd' have all been turned into films. Aaron Sorkin and Sam Mendes - a regular interpreter of Sondheim's work - are currently in talks to produce a film of Follies.
- Filmed versions of stage productions that are commonly available include Company, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods.
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