Stephen Sondheim was a Broadway prodigy and today occupies a special place in the history of the American musical.
He was born into a middle class family on March 22nd 1930, in New York. He began by learning piano before taking organ lessons. He befriended the family of Oscar Hammerstein II, a librettist and producer who later became his mentor and advisor. Sondheim would later say, "Oscar Hammerstein taught me to think of songs as one-act plays, with beginnings, development, conclusion. "
After several failed projects, despite still harbouring an ambition to become a composer, Stephen Sondheim agreed to become a songwriter for the musical West Side Story. "I learned that Leonard Bernstein was looking for someone to work on a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, set in the West Side. I did an audition at his home, in the little room where he liked to work. I had mixed feelings: a desire to get the job, but also the fear that I would be defined as a librettist when I was really interested in writing music. But Hammerstein convinced me that the experience would be rewarding. I did not regret it, of course, even if I did not like some of the song lyrics. "
West Side Story was a triumph and propelled young Sondheim to the front of the American music scene at the age of just twenty-seven. Two years later, he worked on lyrics for Gypsy, starring actress Ethel Merman. He initially expected to compose both the music and lyrics, but the score was ultimately entrusted to Jule Styrne, who had written the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Sondheim preferred to write music and work at the piano because he felt that lyrics could be impossible and inflexible, unlike music.
In 1962, Sondheim finally had his first big hit with A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. For this work, as with all of Sondheim’s following work, a playwright crafted the structure and wrote the spoken parts while Sondheim created the music and the song lyrics. He argued that this gave real dramatic depth to his musicals because “the intrigues are those of real plays, the characters have a deep psychology".
In 1970, his work Company received public acclaim: the work deployed a surprising, innovative structure. It did not present a linear history but instead a main thread that replaced the traditional dramatic structure. A year later, he cemented his reputation with Follies before going on to claim universal acclaim with A Little Night Music – inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film. He went on to create Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979) and Merrily We Roll Along (1981), all produced by Hal Prince.
In 1984, Stephen Sondheim worked alongside James Lapine on Sunday in the Park with George, a work inspired by a Georges Seurat painting. It went on to be performed more than 600 times on Broadway, and received the Pulitzer Prize. In the 90s, Sondheim produced acclaimed works such as Assassins (1990) and Passion (1994). Though he has not produced much work in recent years, Stephen Sondheim’s reputation is such that his musicals – which some feel possess a similar aesthetics to opera – are still enormously popular on Broadway and around the world.
Key Musicals by Stephen Sondheim
1954 : Saturday Night Music (first produced in 1997)
1957 : West Side Story (lyricist)
1959 : Gypsy (Lyricist)
1962 : A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
1964 : Anyone can Whistle
1965 : Do I hear a Waltz ? (lyricist)
1970 : Company
1971 : Follies
1973 : A little Night Music
1974 : The Frogs
1976 : Pacific Overtures
1979 : Sweeney Todd
1981 : Merrily We Roll Along
1984 : Sunday in the Park With George
1987 : Into The Woods
1990 : Assassins (First premiered on Broadway in 2004)
1994 : Passion
1999 – 2008 : Wise Guys/Gold/Bounce/Road Show