Stephen Sondheim

(born 22 march 1930, New York)


Stephen Joshua Sondheim is an American composer and lyricist whose brilliance in matching words and music in dramatic situations broke new ground for Broadway musical theater. As a child he was provided for, even after his parents divorced. After his father failed to win custody of Stephen, he became an institutionalized child. This meant that he didn't lack the comfort of a home, food, or friendship but instead didn't have any contact with any kind of family.

Around the time his parents divorced, Stephen became friends with James Hammerstein, son of a lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. The elder Hammerstein became Sondheim's surrogate father, influencing him profoundly and developing his love of musical theater. Precocious as a child, Sondheim showed an early musical aptitude among other wide-ranging interests. He studied piano and organ, and at age 15 he wrote a musical at George School in Bucks county, Pennsylvania. The comic musical he had wrote, By George, was a success among his peers and buoyed the young songwriter's ego. After spending several hours with Hammerstein evaluating his work and highlighting his mistakes, Sondheim later said: "In that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime."

And so, he deepened his musical theater studies under Oscar Hammerstein II who designed a course of sorts for Sondheim on constructing a musical. After this period, Sondheim began attending Williams College, a liberal arts college in Williamstown Massachusetts, where he studied music and wrote college shows. Here he studied under Robert Barrow and composer Milton Babbitt. While studying with Babbitt he wrote a musical adaptation of Beggar on Horseback (a 1924 play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, with permission from Kaufman) which had 3 performances. After graduating in 1950, he received the Hutchinson Prize for composition, and continued to study with Babbitt.

In the early 1950s Sondheim wrote scripts in Hollywood for the television series Topper. After returning to New York City, he wrote incidental music for the play The Girls of Summer (1956). He made his first significant mark on Broadway, though, as the lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, which opened in 1957, and ran for 732 performances. He then wrote the lyrics for Gypsy (1959; music by Jule Styne) which ran for 702 performances. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—based on comedies by the Roman playwright Plautus—opened on Broadway in 1962, with music and lyrics by Sondheim. It ran for 964 performances and won the Tony Award for best musical. Two years later, however, his Anyone Can Whistle closed after only 9 performances.

He won Tony Awards for best score for Company (1970), on contemporary marriage and bachelorhood; Follies (1971), a tribute to early 20th-century Broadway that includes many pastiche songs; A Little Night Music (1973; film 1977), based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night (1955); and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979; film 2007), a macabre tale set in Victorian-era London. All were either produced or directed by Harold Prince, as were Pacific Overtures (1976), in which Sondheim looked to Japanese Kabuki theater for stylized effects, and Merrily We Roll Along (1981), adapted from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Sondheim's next collaboration was with playwright-director James Lapine to create Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and teamed up again for Into the Woods (1987) and Passion (1994). Both shows won the Tony Award for best score. Sondheim’s acerbic lyrics hit responsive chords with many theatergoers. Most critics agree that his work marked a break from more traditional and sentimental musical comedies of the earlier decades of the century. Several revues of his work were staged, among them Side by Side by Sondheim (1976), Putting It Together (1992), and Sondheim on Sondheim (2010). In 2000 he received the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for theater/film, and in 2008 he was honored with a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement in the theater. The book Finishing the Hat (2010) is a collection of Sondheim’s lyrics, with his own commentaries on them.

Sondheim, an enthusiast for games and puzzles, co-wrote two non-musical mysteries: the film The Last of Sheila (1973), with Anthony Perkins, and the play Getting Away with Murder (1996), with George Furth. He also notably wrote five songs for the movie Dick Tracy (1990), winning an Academy Award for Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man). The HBO documentary Six by Sondheim (2013) chronicled his life and artistic process. Over the course of his life Sondheim received an Academy Award; 8 Tony Awards (more than any other composer, and a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater); 8 Grammy Awards; a Pulitzer Price, and the Laurence Olivier Award.

Described by Frank Rich of The New York Times as "now the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater," His best-known works as composer and lyricist include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods.

Here  you can find a list of musicals by Stephen Sondheim.