Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, in New York City, the only child of Herbert and Janet Fox Sondheim. His parents owned a clothing company and were both very involved in the business. The Sondheims separated when Stephen was ten, and he attended military school for two years and then attended the George School, a prep school. He was an exceptional student who had skipped two grades and who showed an early talent for music.
In the early 1940’s, Sondheim and his mother became close friends with the family of Oscar Hammerstein II, one of the leading figures in musical theater at the time. Sondheim and the Hammersteins’ son were close in age, and Sondheim even spent a summer with the family at their home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Janet Sondheim bought a house near the Hammersteins’ home where her son lived during his adolescence. Stephen Sondheim asked Hammerstein to read a musical he wrote as a teenager at the George School; Hammerstein critiqued the piece, giving Sondheim valuable training in writing for musical theater. He also hired Sondheim to work on the set of one of his plays.
Sondheim attended Williams College; initially, he majored in English but changed to music. During his college years, he pursued a training program devised by Hammerstein to learn musical theater; the plan involved writing four plays. The first step was to set a play he liked to music, the second was to fix the flaws in a play and set it to music, the third was to write a musical based upon a nondramatic source, and the fourth was to write an original work. After graduation, Sondheim studied music in New York City with Milton Babbitt, an avant-garde composer. As part of his studies, he performed in-depth analyses of classical works; his seriousness about music would be apparent in the complexity of his later compositions.
Sondheim’s first big break was as a lyricist for West Side Story; he followed by writing lyrics for Gypsy. He finally got to write both music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which opened in 1962. Sondheim’s reputation and success continued to grow such that he became a central figure in musical theater.
Sondheim’s most serious romantic involvement has been with Peter Jones, with whom he exchanged wedding rings in 1994.