Stephen Sondheim, an American lyricist and composer, is one of the most influential figures worldwide; when it comes to musicals, he worked on a remarkable number of them, from West Side Story to Company, from Sweeney Todd to Into the Woods.
Sondheim: the epitome of American musical
Stephen Sondheim was born in 1930, in New York City. At an early age he began studying piano, and he started getting into songwriting as a student at the George School in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where he had moved with his mother after his parents got divorced.
In Pennsylvania, he met his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, son of Broadway lyricist and producer. The first attempt to a musical came in his teens, with ‘By George!‘, a satire about his school. Hammerstein offered what Sondheim later described as invaluable criticism.
After graduating from Williams College with a major in music, Sondheim studied further with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt and then moved to New York City.
Beginning of a career
After a brief period in Los Angeles, where Sondheim worked on the television series Topper and The Last Word, he returned to New York, where he had his big break: director Arthur Laurents was working at a new version of Romeo and Juliet but the two lyricists who were supposed to work on it (Betty Comden and Adolph Green) were under contract in Hollywood. Laurents introduced Sondheim to Leonard Bernstein and after an audition Bernstein agreed on Sondheim writing the lyrics. Little he knew that he would be part of one of Broadway’s most successful productions of all time: West Side Story. After the opening in 1957, the show ran for 732 performances. Later on he also wrote some additional lyrics for another Bernstein’s work: Candide.
Laurents produced also Sondheim’s next project, Gypsy. After that came A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for which Sondheim wrote both lyrics and music: it opened in 1962 and ran for almost 1000 performances, winning a Tony Award for best musical.
A lifetime on Broadway with Harold Prince and James Lapine
The 1970s saw several more Tony awards and numerous fruitful collaborations especially with director and producer Harold Prince. One of his most brilliant works, Sweeney Todd (1979), was turned into a movie by Tim Burton in 2007.
In the 1980s, collaborations continued on different works with playwright and director James Lapine. Sunday in the Park with George got both Sondheim and Lapine a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1985.
Their last collaboration was in 1994 with Passion, an adaptation of Passione d’amore, a movie by Italian director Ettore Scola. Despite it running for only 280 performances, it won a Tony Award for Best Musical.
Sunday in the Park with George (inspired by Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”) and Into the Woods (a collage of plots from classic fairy tales) had great success and keep being performed today at various venues around the world.
In the 1990s Sondheim continued to mix different genres with witty and sharp lyrics; not all of his works received the same audience acclaim: Assassins, based on the tales of nine presidential assassins in American history, closed after 73 performances. Some productions, like Bounce, got delayed and never reached Broadway.
However, he continued to work relentlessly and had numerous fruitful collaborations: with Wynton Marsalis he worked on A bed and a chair: a New York love affair, consisting of more than two dozen Sondheim compositions, each piece newly re-imagined by Marsalis.
To celebrate his 80th birthday, the former Henry Miller’s Theatre was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in 2010 and the BBC Proms held a concert in his honor. Cameron Mackintosh, the British producers of many successful musicals such as Les miserables and Cats, has called him “possibly the greatest lyricist ever.”
New York City at night picture by Unknown photographer or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons