Stephen Sondheim

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Stephen Joshua Sondheim (SOND-him) extended the art of theater beyond the class of sentimental musicals that dominated the stage during the mid-twentieth century. Sondheim’s honors include a Grammy Award for “Sooner or Later” from the 1990 film Dick Tracy, Tony Awards for several Broadway productions, and a Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park with George, an artistic examination of pointillist painter George Seurat. Sondheim was born in New York City. His family resided in a Manhattan high-rise overlooking Central Park. His father, Herbert Sondheim, owned a successful clothing business, and his mother, Janet (Fox) Sondheim, was a fashion designer.

Sondheim was precocious, learning to read well before his classmates and advancing from sixth grade to eighth grade in one year. He studied piano during his elementary school years but did not pursue music as a vocation until college. Sondheim’s father often played show tunes on the family piano and frequently took his son along with business clients to Broadway productions. When Sondheim was ten, his parents divorced. His mother, Janet (nicknamed “Foxy”), retained custody of her son. She sent him to the New York Military Academy for two years (1940-1942), where he learned to play the academy pipe organ. Sondheim later recalled that the orderly regimen at the academy was a welcome contrast to the disorder brought by his parents’ separation. Family acquaintances often described him as a child of affluence and neglect. After the divorce, he experienced troubled relationships with family members, especially his mother.

In 1942, Janet Sondheim moved to Pennsylvania and enrolled her son in the George School. They lived near Mrs. Sondheim’s friend Dorothy Hammerstein, whose husband, Oscar, was the notable Broadway lyricist. The Hammersteins’ home became a refuge for Sondheim, providing an escape from his stormy relationship with his mother. This family connection profoundly influenced his musical training when Oscar Hammerstein II began tutoring him in the art of musical theater.

At Williams College in Massachusetts, Sondheim studied music with Robert Barrow, learning composition as craft. The theoretical study appealed to his mathematical aptitudes and confirmed his pursuit of a musical career. After graduating magna cum laude in 1950, he received a graduate fellowship to study composition with Milton Babbitt, an avant-garde composer and music professor at Princeton and Columbia Universities.

Sondheim wrote and performed in theater productions during high school and college and continually sought Hammerstein’s instruction. His early professional opportunities included television scriptwriting, but he gained early success when he wrote lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. By the 1960’s, he was writing both lyrics and music for productions such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Anyone Can Whistle.

During the second stage of his career in the 1970’s, Sondheim collaborated with Hal Prince to develop five major productions with diverse themes such as marriage and divorce in the “plotless” show Company, age and life choices in Follies, and love and sex in A Little Night Music. After 1981, once the Prince-Sondheim collaboration ended, Sondheim coproduced experimental works with various theater artists. Sunday in the Park with George, inspired by the George Seurat painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, examines the relationship between art and the alienated artist. In contrast, Into the Woods intertwines various fairy tales into a complex plot, illustrating that fulfilled wishes may bring unwelcome consequences. Later 1990’s works such as Assassins and Getting Away with Murder explored issues of moral responsibility,

In 1990, Oxford University appointed Sondheim as its first visiting professor of contemporary theater, and his...

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musicals enjoyed successful revivals in England, reflecting his British appeal. In 2000, the music division of the Library of Congress honored Sondheim on his seventieth birthday. The celebratory concert acknowledged his contribution to American musical theater by presentingThe Frogs (an adaptation of Aristophanes’ play Batrachoi, 405 b.c.e.; The Frogs, 1780) and included performances of popular Sondheim tunes, along with his favorite songs by composers such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and DuBose Heyward.

Sondheim’s works reflect the influence of literary and musical masters. The themes arising in Company and Assassins, in which human beings seem unable to connect with one another, are reminiscent of the works of Anton Chekhov. The complexity of his rhyme schemes resembles the poetic forms of William Shakespeare or Alexander Pope. His use of internal rhyme and alliteration advance the verbal intricacy of his lyrics. The complex chords that infuse his musical scores are influenced by impressionistic composer Maurice Ravel and mirror the twentieth-century modes of Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten, and George Gershwin.

“Send in the Clowns” has endured as one of Sondheim’s best-known songs from A Little Night Music. He has earned a place in the tradition of popular composers and lyricists such as George Gershwin and Lorenz Hart. His art is often experimental, hinging on a central metaphor rather than a structured plot. The elements of his productions—lyrics, music, dialogue, and dance—present idea rather than story, creating timeless portraits that artfully communicate human experience.


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