Stephen Sondheim 1930-
(Full name Stephen Joshua Sondheim) American composer, lyricist, and scriptwriter.
The following entry presents an overview of Sondheim's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 30 and 39.
Widely considered to be one of the foremost composers and lyricists of modern musicals, Sondheim has revolutionized American musical theatre, although his work has been only moderately successful at the box office. His productions typically include themes of disillusionment, despair, and disappointment—elements that were rarely incorporated into musicals before his era. In his lyrics for plays ranging from West Side Story (1957) to Passion (1994) Sondheim has spurned such long-standing traditions of musical theatre as catchy melodies and linear plots, and instead, worked introspective and thematic material into his compositions. Some critics have characterized his lyrics as stylistically sophisticated, while others have deemed them cold and unromantic. However, most drama scholars agree that Sondheim's innovative stagings, alternative dramatic resolutions, and explicit commentary on prominent social issues have expanded the possibilities for musical theatre.
Born in 1930, Sondheim was the only child of an affluent New York City couple. His father was a successful clothing manufacturer and skilled pianist, and his mother was a talented dress designer. Sondheim's parents divorced when he was ten years old. Many critics consider Sondheim's dysfunctional relationship with his mother as a major source of dark themes regarding love and marriage apparent in much of his work. Sondheim and his mother moved from New York to a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, three miles from the family of Oscar Hammerstein II, a renowned Broadway composer and lyricist, with whom he eventually became acquainted. As their relationship deepened, Hammerstein became a surrogate father figure for Sondheim, encouraging the boy's developing musical ability and influencing his later work. After two years at the New York Military Academy, Sondheim completed his secondary education at a Quaker boarding school and entered Williams College. Upon graduation in 1950, he accepted a two-year fellowship that allowed him to study with composer Milton Babbitt, another major influence on his work, and later moved to live with his father in New York City. There, he met many influential artists who helped him to launch his career, including composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who hired him to write lyrics for West Side Story in 1957. After completing the lyrics for Gypsy in 1960, Sondheim composed his first original musical score and wrote the lyrics for the 1962 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. During the 1960s Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), two musicals which did not fare well at the box office. In 1970 Sondheim collaborated with George Furth and Harold Prince to produce Company, which garnered national attention and let him stage Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Candide (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979). Following the disappointing Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sondheim collaborated with James Lupine, producing Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987). In 1990, Sondheim accepted a visiting professorship at Oxford University, where he lectured on musical theatre. Since the, he has written Assassins (1990) and Passion (1994). In 1999, he premiered Saturday Night, a musical he first wrote in 1955 but never produced. In addition to working on his long-delayed musical Wise Guys, Sondheim has associated himself with the annual Young Playwrights' Festival, which gives aspiring talents under the age of nineteen an opportunity to produce their plays with professional guidance.
Sondheim's musicals typically explore disillusionment and frustration within the performing arts community, society, and personal relationships. These themes are influenced by the time period in which Sondheim wrote many of his works—the 1960s and 1970s—when many Americans re-evaluated their cultural ideals. A common theme of Sondheim's repertoire addresses a disillusionment with the arts. Follies directly confronts the disrespect encountered by theatre actors in American society. Set at a reunion of former showgirls, the work portrays the death of the musical genre, represented by the imminent demolition of a once-famous theatre. Sunday in the Park with George explores the nature of art, particularly the creative essence of George Seurat's painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte. A satire of the fantasy genre, Into the Woods not only recounts such fairy tales as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel,” and “The Baker and His Wife,” but the musical also depicts the negative repercussions of events ignored in the happy conclusions of the original stories. A number of Sondheim's works dramatize the disillusionment experienced by the individual in modern society. Anyone Can Whistle illustrates the persecution of nonconformists in a conformist world, suggesting that the insane are in fact sane, and the sane are insane. Pacific Overtures dramatizes the United States' cultural invasion and “modernization” of Japan, from the Japanese perspective. Using the conventions of Kabuki theatre, the musical expresses disappointment in America's cultural subjugation of Japan, despite U.S. claims that the nation is a promoter of freedom. Sweeney Todd, examines corruption in American society and the improprieties of the U.S. judicial system. When Sweeney Todd is unjustly sent to prison by a corrupt judge, who also is plotting to rape Todd's wife and abduct his daughter, Todd, turns to mass murder in order to exact revenge upon the judge and society as a whole. Assassins unites killers and would-be killers of American presidents from various time periods. He characterizes their motives as stemming from a deep political and personal discontent with society. Some of Sondheim's most famous works illuminate levels of discontent that exist within love and marriage relationships. In West Side Story, two lovers are kept apart by gang rivalry and the work concludes without the traditional “happy ending.” Do I Hear a Waltz? centers around an American tourist who goes to Venice looking for love, but ultimately fails in his quest and remains alone. Company vividly portrays disharmony within marriage, an institution that generally provided happy resolutions in the musical genre. In this play a bachelor contemplates the quality of several relationships at a birthday party thrown by his married friends, who appear in his thoughts, providing their own ambivalent feelings toward commitment and marriage. A Little Night Music, inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, is one of Sondheim's more traditional musicals that examines a multitude of relationships experienced by people of various ages. The winner of Tony awards for best musical and for best music and lyrics, the play features “Send in the Clowns,” Sondheim's best-known song. Although somewhat sardonic about love, the lyrics depart from the disillusionment toward romance that appears in Sondheim's other works. Merrily We Roll Along shows the callous nature that develops in relationships over time, tracing the lives of a group of friends backwards in time. Adapted from Passione d'Amore by Ettore Scola, Passion examines the idea of romance and the suffering inflicted by raw emotions such as love and passion. In the musical, Fosca, an irredeemably ugly woman, falls in love with a handsome soldier, who loves a beautiful married woman instead. By sheer will and unquenchable passion, Fosca eventually seduces the soldier.
Critics have generally praised Sondheim for his revolutionary ideas and his artistic sophistication—even those who find his work dark and depressing. Sondheim has been acknowledged for ushering modernism into the musical theater. Nevertheless, consistent critical responses to his work eluded him until Company, which was acclaimed for its honesty, realism, artistic maturity, and stylistic innovation. Since then, Sondheim has staged two major critical disappointments, Merrily We Roll Along and Assassins. Critics attacked the unlikable characters in Merrily We Roll Along, and reviewers faulted Assassins for its obscure structure and violently disrespectful content in light of the Persian Gulf War. Sondheim's most critically acclaimed works include West Side Story, A Little Night Music, and Sunday in the Park with George. There is considerable disagreement among critics over the strengths and flaws in Sondheim's work. Reviewers typically acknowledge that Sondheim's musical compositions lack melody, with some speculating that this is due to his creation of the accompaniment before the melody. Many commentators view the lack of melody as the means by which Sondheim gives his works a sense of depth, originality, and intensity. Other critics have called this technique uninteresting and incohesive. There are also vastly different opinions surrounding Sondheim's use of natural syntax and conversational lyrics in his plays. A majority of critics have hailed the technique as dramatically unifying, while a firm minority see it as inherently inferior to the synthetic style of the traditional Broadway musical. Most critics, however, agree that Sondheim is a major force in contemporary musical theater, confirming his technical, aesthetic, and stylistic talents.