Stephen Sondheim Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 835 words.)