Happy Birthday Stephen Sondheim!
American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim turns 89 years old today! As everyone at Lyric is poised to start rehearsal for West Side Story (onstage May 3 - June 2), today offers the perfect chance to reflect upon the career and contributions of one of the artists who created this ground-breaking work.
With an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards — including a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater — seven Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Laurence Olivier Award, a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a Broadway theatre named after him, it’s easy to see why Stephen Sondheim is hailed as a Broadway legend. Born on March 22, 1930, Sondheim’s career as a composer and lyricist has spanned more than a half-century. Known for his acerbic wit as much as the conversational style of his lyrics, Sondheim broke new ground for musical theatre on Broadway. By turning away from the traditional musical theater format, a new lyrical style was created which prioritized plot and character development over sentimental musicality.
Stephen Sondheim was the only child of an affluent New York couple. After his parents’ divorce in 1942, he moved to Doylestown Pennsylvania with his mother. His neighbor was none other than Oscar Hammerstein II. Sondheim soon became close friends with Hammerstein’s son and due to a strained relationship with his own parents, began to look at the famous librettist as a surrogate figure. Sondheim wrote his first stage work at age 15—a high school production titled “By George.” When he asked his famous neighbor to take a look at the work, it kicked off a four-year mentorship that would ultimately lead to Sondheim becoming Oscar Hammerstein II’s personal assistant. It was through this connection that he gained entry into the world of professional theater, assisting with the productions of South Pacific, and The King and I. They remained close until Hammerstein’s death in 1960.
I love the theater as much as music, and the whole idea of getting across to an audience and making them laugh,
making them cry — just making them feel — is paramount to me.
Stephen Sondheim’s first Broadway credit was as lyricist for West Side Story. Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the show was conceived by director and choreographer Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein and a book by Arthur Laurents. With its racially-charged narrative and explosive dance sequences, West Side Story was the antithesis of traditional American musicals. It opened on September 26, 1957 to mixed critical response, running for 732 performances before being made into a film in 1961. While the musical would only win two Tony Awards, the film went on to win ten Academy Awards (although none for the original creative team). For Sondheim, West Side Storywas the first of many successful collaborations with producer and director Harold Prince (six musicals from 1970 to 1981).
West Side Story is often regarded as Bernstein’s greatest achievement as a composer. Sondheim, then only 25-years-old, came on board fairly late in the process as lyricist for Bernstein’s melodies. Bernstein wrote about Sondheim: “What a talent! I think he’s ideal for this project, as do we all.” In a 2010 interview with ABC News, Sondheim was famously quoted calling his lyrics “embarrassing;” saying "Bernstein wanted the songs to be ... heavy, what he called 'poetic,' and my idea of poetry and his idea of poetry are polar opposites. I don't mean that they are terrible, I just mean they're so self-conscious." While he may view his contribution as “embarrassing” years later, West Side Story left a lasting impact on Broadway and set the stage for his future success.
West Side Story is onstage at Lyric Opera May 3-June 2 with Corey Cott and Mikaela Bennett as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria. Hear Bernstein and Sondheim’s work performed live by a 42-piece orchestra with Jerome Robbins’ original choreography revived by Julio Monge.
If you’re a fan of musical theatre or looking to learn more about Stephen Sondheim’s work, here is a short list of some of his greatest hits:
Just as West Side Story was closing out its initial Broadway run, Sondheim was approached by Laurents and Robbins to write the lyrics for a musical version of Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir. The show’s star, Ethel Merman -- cast as Mama Rose-- demanded an established composer write the music; and although Sondheim was concerned that he’d be pigeonholed as a lyricist, his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II encouraged him to take the job. The show was written in three months and opened on May 21, 1959 and ran for 702 performances before being turned into a film in 1962.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
In May of 1962, the first Broadway production opened with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart) was based on comedies by the Roman playwright Plautus ran for 964 performances and won the Tony Award for best musical.
After contributing lyrics to Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965; music by Richard Rodgers), Sondheim decided to focus solely on shows in which he wrote both music and lyrics. One of his best known musicals--Company--premiered on April 26, 1970 running for 705 performances. The musical was unusual in that it did not feature a linear plot. With a story focused on contemporary marriage, friendship, and bachelorhood, Company won six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Lyrics, and Best Book for Sondheim’s collaborator George Furth.
A Little Night Music
Time magazine called A Little Night Music “Sondheim’s most brilliant accomplishment to date.” The musical was based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film Smiles of a Summer Night. The score, set primarily in waltz time, features one of Sondheim’s most well-known songs: “Send in the Clowns,” which won the 1978 Grammy Award for Song of the Year. The show ran for 601 performances from February-September, 1973.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
This story of a vengeful barber turned serial killer, is viewed by many as a modern American opera. More than eighty percent of the production is set to music, either sung or orchestrated underneath dialogue. The musical was based on a 1973 play of the same name by Christopher Bond. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street opened on Broadway in 1979 and in the West End one year later, winning 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score as well as the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. It was turned into a film in 2007, winning the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy.
In 1984, Sondheim collaborated with playwright-director James Lapine to create Sunday in the Park with George, a musical inspired by the painting “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by pointillist Georges Seurat. The musical the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning two for design. While it opened to mixed critical reviews, Sunday in the Park with George was considered a brilliant artistic achievement for Sondheim, running for 604 performances.
Into the Woods
Sondheim and Lapine paired up once again for Into the Woods, a 1987 musical that deconstructs and interweaves the plots of popular Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales. It would run for 765 performances on Broadway, winning the 1988 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical. Into the Woods was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning three, including Best Score for Stephen Sondheim. The original cast album won a Grammy Award and the musical was made into a film in 2014.