Stephen Sondheim life and biography

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Stephen Sondheim biography

Date of birth : 1930-03-22
Date of death : -
Birthplace : New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-08-27
Credited as : Composer and lyricist, wrote West Side Story, won Pulitzer Prize

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Studied Music at an Early Age.

Stephen Joshua Sondheim, considered by many the most innovative voice in American musical theater in the late 20th century, was born 22 March 1930, in New York City. He was born into a wealthy New York family. His father, Herbert, was a successful and prominent dress manufacturer in the city; his mother, Janet, was an interior decorator and a fashion designer. At an early age, the young Sondheim began studying the piano and organ. His parents divorced when he was about 10 years old, and he went with his mother to live in rural Pennsylvania. Attending the prestigious George School in Pennsylvania's idyllic Bucks County, he early on showed an interest in both music and the theater. At the age of 15, he wrote his first musical, which was called By George, a humorous look at his school's students and teachers.

Mentored by Oscar Hammerstein.

One of Sondheim's neighbors in Pennsylvania was the family of noted lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein quickly became something of a surrogate father to the boy. Sondheim himself has acknowledged that he so admired the lyricist that "he would have become a geologist if Oscar had been a geologist." The 15 year-old Sondheim proudly showed the script for By George to Hammerstein and asked him for an objective critique of his work. Hammerstein promptly pronounced it the worst thing he had ever read. It was not without talent, Hammerstein said, just bad. He went through the script line by line with the young Sondheim, who has said he learned more about how to write a musical in that one afternoon than most people learn in a lifetime.

Attended Williams College.

From that point on, Hammerstein took Sondheim under his wing, outlining a course of study for the boy. Hammerstein suggested that the young man write four musicals in order to learn the art of writing for the musical theater. Sondheim happily complied, continuing work on the Hammerstein-assigned project throughout his years at Williams College, where he majored in music. Graduating from Williams in 1950, Sondheim was awarded the Hutchinson Prize for Musical Composition, a two-year fellowship that gave him the opportunity to study musical composition in New York with Milton Babbitt, an innovative composer of the day.

Composed for Television and Theatre.

While in New York pursuing his studies, Sondheim wrote some scripts for television shows such as Topper. His first professional work for the theater came in 1955 when he wrote the songs for a proposed show called Saturday Night. Unfortunately the show was never produced after its producer, Lemuel Ayres, died. In 1956, Sondheim composed incidental music for a play called Girls of Summer.

West Side Story.

His work on Saturday Night was not wasted, however. It led to his first major break on Broadway, when Leonard Bernstein listened to his score for the unproduced show and hired him to write the lyrics for a contemporary retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story called West Side Story. Although West Side Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957, was a popular success, Sondheim's contribution got little attention from the critics.

Wrote Lyrics for Gypsy.

Sondheim followed his work on West Side Story with another job as lyricist--this time writing the words for songs composed by veteran Jule Styne for the enormously successful musical Gypsy in 1959. When first approached to work on Gypsy, Sondheim was being considered to write both the music and lyrics. The legendary Ethel Merman, who was to star in Gypsy as Mama Rose, reportedly felt uncomfortable going into a project of this magnitude with a newcomer, so the producers brought in Styne to handle the music. Again, Sondheim, who was anxious to compose both words and music for a Broadway show, had to settle for credit only as a lyricist.

Finally, Both Words and Music.

Sondheim's first big Broadway production for which he wrote both words and music was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was produced in 1962. A Funny Thing, which is based on the works of Plautus, has been variously described as "a burlesque comedy," "a vaudeville-based Roman spoof," and a humorous takeoff on the traditional musical comedy. Although the show was a huge popular success and won a number of Tony Awards, including best producer and best musical, Sondheim did not receive a Tony for his score, which included such memorable songs as "Comedy Tonight" and "Everyone Ought to Have a Maid."

Collaborated on Broadway Dud.

Anyone Can Whistle, a short-lived and critically panned collaboration between writer Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original book, and Sondheim, who wrote both words and music, lasted only nine performances in April 1964. An original-cast album, recorded after the show had closed, has since become something of a cult favorite.

Worked with Richard Rodgers.

The next year, Sondheim paired with Richard Rodgers, for many years the musical partner of his lyric-writing mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. The two collaborated on Do I Hear a Waltz?, with Sondheim returning once again to the role of lyricist alone, while Rodgers supplied the melodies. Do I Hear a Waltz? was adapted by Laurents from his play, The Time of the Cuckoo, the story of an American vacationing in Venice. The Rodgers-Sondheim collaboration was not particularly well received by critics, but featured a number of memorable tunes including the title song, "Here We Are Again," "Moon in My Window," "Perfectly Lovely Couple," and "We're Gonna Be All Right."

Created a Concept Musical.

There followed for Sondheim a relatively unproductive period during the latter half of the 1960s, at the conclusion of which the composer successfully entered previously uncharted territory for the musical theater. In 1970, Company, a rather unusual offering that some have dubbed "a concept musical," opened to both critical and popular acclaim. With no real plot, Company was essentially a cleverly stitched-together series of observations about marriage, looking at the lives of five Manhattan couples united in their concern for the welfare of a bachelor friend. Sondheim's music was innovative, and his lyrics were sophisticated and clever, sometimes savagely so. Though the show produced no hits, the score is memorable for its acerbic sense of irony. Running for 690 performances, Company won six Tony Awards, including best musical and best music and lyrics, as well as capturing the New York Drama Critics Award for best musical. These awards for Company were the first that directly recognized Sondheim's contribution to musical theater. Company was the first of several Sondheim musicals to be directed by Hal Prince. Michael Bennett handled the choreography and staged the production numbers for the show. It is difficult to single out one or two tunes from the score of Company as standouts, which testifies to how well all the songs are woven into the body of the musical. However, it is worth sampling some of the witty and sophisticated lyrics that made Company so unique. In "The Little Things You Do Together," the cast sings "The concerts you enjoy together/Neighbors you annoy together/Children you destroy together. . . ." In the savagely cynical "The Ladies Who Lunch," the female members of the cast toast "Another chance to disapprove, another brilliant zinger/Another reason to move, another vodka stinger/I'll drink to that!"

Follies Wins Awards.

Hard on the heels of his smashing success with Company, Sondheim returned to Broadway in 1971 in another collaboration with Prince and Bennett. Follies, the story of two former chorines from the fictional Weismann Follies and the men they married, received a number of awards, including seven Tony Awards and the Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical, but failed to achieve the financial success of Company. Follies closed after 522 performances, losing its entire $800,000 investment.

A Little Night Music Brings Alot of Success.

Drawing upon Smiles of a Summer Night, the film by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, for its inspiration, Sondheim's next Broadway vehicle was A Little Night Music. A change of pace for Sondheim, this 1973 production was an operetta, all the music of which was set in three-quarter time or variations thereof. Set in turn-of-the-century Sweden, A Little Night Music produced Sondheim's first big song hit, the unforgettable "Send in the Clowns." Night Music was also directed by Harold Prince, and unlike Follies it was a resounding financial success, running for 601 performances. The show and Sondheim were again showered with awards, winning five Tony Awards, including one for best music and lyrics, as well as another New York Drama Critics Award for best musical. In addition to "Send in the Clowns," memorable songs from A Little Night Music included "Night Waltz," "A Weekend in the Country," "In Praise of Women," and "The Glamorous Life." A film version of Night Music was released in 1978, starring Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Desiree. A London production of the musical starred Jean Simmons.

Honored with Benefit Concert.

Shortly after A Little Night Music made its successful bow on Broadway, a benefit concert honoring Sondheim and his work up to that time was staged at New York's Shubert Theatre. For Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, the producers tried to round up every available performer who had worked in Sondheim shows or in any way been associated with the composer's work. Next in line for Sondheim was a return to the role of lyricist when he again collaborated with Bernstein on a revival of Candide in 1974. Sondheim contributed a brand new set of words for Bernstein's score.

Pacific Overtures Receives Mixed Reviews.

Sondheim's next Broadway outing produced his most unusual score and left critics divided over the value of his work. In Pacific Overtures, Sondheim set to music John Weidman's book relating the history of Japan from the time of Commodore Perry's arrival in the mid-19th century to the present. The critics' reaction to Pacific Overtures varied wildly. In the middle of that range, critic Clive Barnes described the show as "very, very different." A critic for the New Yorker remarked that Pacific Overtures "has long passages of tedium." Women's Wear Daily critic Martin Gottfried waxed ecstatic about Sondheim's work, however. He wrote: "In one of his most intriguing and inventive scores to date, Sondheim has made use of Japanese instruments, tonal colors, and rhythms to produce viable, native authenticity, without alienating the hungry show-tune ear. The score places him at the very pinnacle of American stage composers and entirely apart from conventional theater songwriters." The Asian influences on Pacific Overtures were many. The production was patterned after Japanese Kabuki theater; Sondheim utilized many Asian instruments to achieve the sound he was looking for; and the entire cast was Asian. Though the show closed short of 200 performances and lost most, if not all, of its investment, it garnered the Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical.

Side by Side Opens Successfully.

Side by Side by Sondheim, an anthology of the composer's words and music, was the next of Sondheim's creations to reach Broadway, opening in 1977 to almost universal critical acclaim. The review had been born the previous year at London's Mermaid Theatre and came to New York with the original London cast of David Kernan, Julia McKenzie, Millicent Martin, and Ned Sherrin. The strong popular response to Side by Side provided further testimony to the responsive chord Sondheim's work struck with the theater-going public.

Sweeney Todd Becomes Major HIt.

In 1979, Sondheim rocked Broadway on its heels with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The story line for Sweeney Todd hardly seemed the stuff of which great musical theater is made: A London barber does in his unsuspecting customers as they relax in his barber chair, after which he delivers their remains to Mrs. Lovett, his pie-baking partner in crime, who incorporates them into her pastries. Both a critical and popular success, Sweeney Todd ran for more than 500 performances and featured one of the most spectacular sets that had ever been built for a musical. The recipient of eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score, Sweeney Todd had a successful run in London in 1980 and was revived there in 1993 by the Royal National Theatre. Notable among the songs from Sweeney Todd are "Not While I'm Around," "My Friends," "Epiphany," "Pretty Women," and "A Little Priest." Angela Lansbury was a great success as Mrs. Lovett in the original Broadway production.

Shaken by Failure.

There followed for Sondheim a particularly stinging defeat when Merrily We Roll Along, a musical comedy with book by George Furth, closed after less than 20 performances in 1981. The composer was so depressed by the show's failure that he considered for a time abandoning the theater altogether. In time, Sondheim shook off the blue funk that had followed the swift demise of Merrily We Roll Along, and in 1982 he began a collaboration with director James Lepine. In 1984, the two brought to Broadway, after a brief stop off-Broadway, Sunday in the Park With George, starring Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. The musical opened to mostly positive reviews, ran for about 18 months, and garnered the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Won Additional Awards.

Sondheim teamed again with Lepine to produce Into the Woods in 1987. This fairy tale-like musical earned another Tony Award for the composer, as well as the best musical awards of both the New York Drama Critics Circle and the New York Drama Desk. New York critics were far less hospitable to Assassins, an attempt to examine the common thread that connected notorious American assassins down through the ages. The musical ran off-Broadway for a relatively brief time in 1991, though it was staged in London the following year. In his third collaboration with Lepine, Sondheim brought to Broadway in 1994 Passion, a musical based on the Italian film Passione d'Amore about a tragic love triangle. The show ran for almost 300 performances and won for Sondheim yet another Tony Award for Best Musical.

Renewed Success for Old Favorites.

Although Sondheim had no new offerings during the 1996-1997 Broadway season, revivals of two shows in which he had played a major role were enjoying successful runs: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the music and lyrics of which he wrote, and Candide, for which Sondheim wrote the words for Bernstein's music.


Born March 22, 1930, in New York, NY; son of Herbert (a dress manufacturer) and Janet (a fashion designer and interior decorator; maiden name, Fox; present name, Leshin) Sondheim.


Hutchinson Prize, Williams College, 1950; Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award nominations, 1958 (with Leonard Bernstein), for West Side Story, 1960 (with Jule Styne), for Gypsy, 1965 (with Richard Rodgers), for Do I Hear a Waltz?, 1976, for Pacific Overtures, 1982, for Merrily We Roll Along, and 1984, for Sunday in the Park with George; Evening Standard Drama Awards for best musical, 1959, for Gypsy, 1973, for A Little Night Music, 1987, for Follies, and 1989, for Into the Woods; Tony Awards, 1963, for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1971, for best music and best lyrics in Company, 1972, for best score in Follies, 1979, for best score in A Little Night Music, 1979, for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 1988, for best score in Into the Woods, 1994, for best score in Passion, and 2002, for best revival of a musical for Into the Woods; New York Drama Critics' polls conducted by Variety, 1969-70, named best composer for Company, and 1970-71, named best composer and lyricist for Follies; Drama Desk Awards, 1969-70, for music and lyrics in Company, 1970-71, for music and lyrics in Follies, 1972-73, for music and lyrics in A Little Night Music, 1978-79, for music and lyrics in Sweeney Todd, 1981-82, for lyrics in Merrily We Roll Along, 1983-84, for lyrics in Sunday in the Park with George, and 1987-88, for lyrics and outstanding musical, for Into the Woods; New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards for best new musical, 1970, for Company, 1971, for Follies, 1973, for A Little Night Music, 1976, for Pacific Overtures, 1979, for Sweeney Todd, 1984, for Sunday in the Park with George, and 1988, for Into the Woods; Grammy Awards, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1970, for best musical-cast album Company, 1973, for musical-cast album A Little Night Music, 1975, for song of the year "Send in the Clowns," 1979, for musical-cast album Sweeney Todd, 1984, for musical-cast album Sunday in the Park with George, 1986, for musical-cast album Follies in Concert, and 1988, for musical-cast album Into the Woods; honorary doctorate, Williams College, 1971; Edgar Allan Poe Award (with Anthony Perkins), Mystery Writers of America, 1973, for best motion-picture screenplay, for The Last of Sheila; musical salute given by American Musical and Dramatic Academy and National Hemophilia Foundation at Shubert Theatre, 1973; Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle Awards, 1974-75, for music and lyrics in A Little Night Music, and 1989, for original musical score in Into the Woods; Elizabeth Hull-Kate Warriner Award, Dramatists Guild, 1979, for Sweeney Todd; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in theater arts, 1982; Unique Contribution Award, Drama League of New York, 1983, for initiating American Young Playwrights Festival; Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service in dramatic arts, Bank of Delaware, 1984; Pulitzer Prize for drama, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1985, for Sunday in the Park with George; Laurence Olivier Award for musical of the year, Society of West End Theatre (England), 1988, for Follies, and 1991, for Sunday in the Park with George; named Lion of the Performing Arts, New York Public Library, 1989; Academy Award, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1990, for best original song "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" from Dick Tracy; Golden Globe Award nominations, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, 1990, for original songs "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" and "What Can You Lose?" from Dick Tracy; National Medal of Arts Award, National Endowment for the Arts, 1992 (declined), and 1997; Kennedy Center Honor for Lifetime Achievement, 1993; Praemium Imperiale, Japan Art Association, 2000, for work in film and theater.


Composer and lyricist, 1956--. St. Catherine's College, Oxford, visiting professor of drama and musical theater and fellow, 1990. Appeared in television specials, including June Moon, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS-TV), 1974; Putting It Together--The Making of the Broadway Album, Home Box Office, 1986; and Broadway: The American Musical, 2004. Appeared in episodes of television series Great Performances, including "Broadway Sings: The Music of Jule Styne," PBS-TV, 1987, and "Bernstein at 70," PBS-TV, 1989.




* (Composer of incidental music) The Girls of Summer, produced at Longacre Theatre, New York, NY, 1956.
* (Lyricist) West Side Story (produced in New York, NY, 1957), music by Leonard Bernstein, Random House (New York, NY), 1958, published in Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, Dell (New York, NY), 1965.
* (Lyricist) Gypsy (produced on Broadway, 1959), music by Jule Styne, Random House (New York, NY), 1960.
* (Composer of incidental music) Invitation to a March, produced in New York, NY, 1960.
* (Composer and lyricist) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (produced in New York, NY, 1962), Dodd (New York, NY), 1963, reprinted, Applause Theatre (Diamond Bar, CA), 1991.
* (Composer and lyricist) Anyone Can Whistle (produced in New York, NY, 1964), Dodd (New York, NY), 1965.
* (Lyricist) Do I Hear a Waltz? (produced in New York, NY, 1965), music by Richard Rodgers, Random House (New York, NY), 1966.
* (Lyricist, with others) Leonard Bernstein's Theatre Songs, produced in New York, NY, 1965.
* (Composer and lyricist) Company (produced in New York, NY, 1970), Random House (New York, NY), 1970, reprinted, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1995.
* (Composer and lyricist) Follies (produced in New York, NY, 1971), Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
* (Composer) The Enclave, produced in New York, NY, 1973.
* (Composer and lyricist) A Little Night Music (produced in New York, NY, 1973), Dodd (New York, NY), 1974, reprinted, Applause Theater (New York, NY), 1991.
* (Author of additional lyrics, with John LaTouche) Candide (revival), original lyrics by Richard Wilbur, music by Leonard Bernstein, produced in Brooklyn, NY, 1973-1974, produced on Broadway, 1974.
* (Composer and lyricist) The Frogs, produced at Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, CT, 1974, produced in Los Angeles, CA, 1983.
* (Composer, with John Kander and Giuseppe Verdi) Once in a Lifetime, produced in New York, NY, 1975.
* (Lyricist, with others) By Bernstein, produced in New York, NY, 1975.
* (Composer and lyricist) Pacific Overtures (produced in New York, NY, 1976), Dodd (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1991.
* (Composer and lyricist) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (produced in New York, NY, 1979, produced as an opera, 1984), Dodd (New York, NY), 1979, reprinted, Applause Theater (New York, NY), 1991.
* (Composer and lyricist, with others) The Madwoman of Central Park West, produced in New York, NY, 1979.
* (Composer and lyricist) Merrily We Roll Along (produced in New York, NY, 1981), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1998.
* (Composer and lyricist) Sunday in the Park with George (produced in workshop, 1983, produced in New York, NY, 1984-1985), Dodd (New York, NY), 1986, reprinted, Applause Theater (New York, NY), 1991.
* (Composer and lyricist) Into the Woods (produced in San Diego, CA, 1986, produced in New York, NY, 1987-1989), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1989.
* (Composer and lyricist, with others) Jerome Robbins' Broadway, produced in New York, NY, 1989-1990.
* (Composer and lyricist; with John Weidman) Assassins (produced off-Broadway, 1991, produced at Studio 54, New York, NY, 2004), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1991.
* (With James Lapine) Passion (portions adapted from 1869 novel Fosca by Igino Tarchetti and 1981 film Passione d'amore, by Ettore Scola), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1994.
* (With George Furth) Getting Away with Murder: A Comedy Thriller, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1997.
* (Composer and lyricist, with others) Four by Sondheim, Wheeler, Lapine, Shevelove and Gelbart, produced at Applause Theatre (New York, NY), 2000.
* (Composer and lyricist) Bounce, produced at Goodman Theater (Chicago, IL), 2003.
* (Adapter; with Nathan Lane and Burt Shevelove) Aristophanes, The Frogs, produced at Lincoln Center (New York, NY), 2004.
* Composer, with Mary Rodgers, of song "The Boy from ..." for The Mad Show, produced in New York, NY, 1966. Also provided music for Twins, produced in Detroit, MI, c. 1972. Sondheim's compositions have been included in numerous stage anthologies, including Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, 1973; Side by Side by Sondheim, 1976; Marry Me a Little, 1980; Follies in Concert with New York Philharmonic, 1985; Julie Wilson: From Weill to Sondheim--A Concert, 1987; You're Gonna Love Tomorrow: A Stephen Sondheim Evening, 1987; Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, 1992; Putting It Together, 1993; Opening Doors, 2004; Children and Art: A Tribute to Stephen Sondheim on the Eve of his Seventy-fifth Birthday, 2005.


* (Lyricist) West Side Story, United Artists (UA), 1961.
* (Lyricist) Gypsy, Warner Bros., 1962.
* (Composer and lyricist) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, United Artists, 1966.
* Stavisky, Cinemation, 1974.
* (Composer and lyricist) A Little Night Music, New World, 1977.
* (With Dave Grusin) Reds, Paramount, 1981.
* (With others) Dick Tracy, Touchstone-Buena Vista, 1990.
* Also author of music and lyrics for "The Madam's Song," in The Seven-Percent Solution, Universal, 1977.


* (With others) Topper (television series), National Broadcasting Co. (NBC-TV), 1953.

* The Last Word (television series), CBS-TV, 1957-1959.
* (Composer and lyricist, with Burt Shevelove) The Fabulous '50s (special), Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS-TV), 1960.
* (Composer and lyricist) Evening Primrose (special), American Broadcasting Co. (ABC-TV), 1966.
* (Composer and lyricist) Annie, the Woman in the Life of a Man (special), CBS-TV, 1970.
* (Lyricist) Candide, for "Great Performances," PBS-TV, 1986.
* (Composer) Time Warner Presents the Earth Day Special, ABC-TV, 1990.
* Also author of lyrics to "Somewhere," included in Putting It Together: The Making of the Broadway Album (special), HBO, 1986, and song "The Saga of Lenny," included in "Bernstein at 70," "Great Performances," PBS-TV, 1989.


* (With Anthony Perkins) The Last of Sheila (screenplay), Warner Bros., 1973.
* Stephen Sondheim's Crossword Puzzles, Harper (New York, NY), 1980.
* (Editor) Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, revised edition, Hal Leonard Publishing, 1985.
* Also author of The Hansen Treasury of Stephen Sondheim Songs, 1977; The Stephen Sondheim Songbook, 1979; All Sondheim, 1980. Contributor to Playwrights, Lyricists, Composers on Theatre, edited by Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., Dodd (New York, NY), 1974. Contributor of crossword puzzles to New York magazine, 1968-69.

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