Stephen (Joshua) Sondheim 1930–
American composer, lyricist, and scriptwriter.
Sondheim is generally acknowledged to be the best composer-lyricist currently working on Broadway. In collaboration with producer-director Harold Prince, he created a series of innovative and ambitious musicals which have earned enthusiastic acclaim from critics, although most have been only moderately successful at the box office. His work has won numerous Tony Awards, the most recent being for Sweeney Todd (1979).
Sondheim's mentor was the renowned lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who was a neighbor and family friend. It was Hammerstein who urged him to accept the job of lyricist for West Side Story (1957), although his training had been in musical composition and he was reluctant to accept a job which did not allow him to write both music and lyrics. Although Sondheim received little mention in reviews of this musical, the show itself was very popular and led to his being asked to write the lyrics for Gypsy (1959). Following these two early successes, Sondheim began to write both music and lyrics for all of his shows, beginning with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). A spoof of traditional musical comedy and based on the plays of Plautus, a classical Roman dramatist, Forum is Sondheim's most purely comedic work to date and also his most financially successful. His next two works, Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), were not well received either by critics or by the public, although the earlier work has since engaged a cult following.
Sondheim entered into a long and fruitful period of collaboration with Harold Prince beginning with Company in 1970. The musicals that Sondheim and Prince created are considered outstanding for their stylistic and thematic sophistication. They tend to be less optimistic than the typical Broadway musical, and critics use words such as desolation, despair, and disillusion in describing the tone of their productions. Termed "concept musicals" by various critics, some of these shows rely on theme rather than plot for unity. For instance, Company explores, in an episodic plot, the benefits and disappointments of marriage in contemporary urban America. Although the lyrics are entertaining and the ending affirms the institution of marriage, Sondheim's songs for this show display a vision of love which is unromantic and unsentimental. Critics enjoyed both Company and its successor, Follies (1971), but thought that they did not provide the cheerful escapism which Broadway's musical theater audiences were seeking.
This was not the case with A Little Night Music (1973). Critics agreed that in this show Prince and Sondheim had conceived a musical which was in line with public taste while maintaining their usual high standards of sophistication and innovation. Night Music is a romantic operetta based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. Set in a Swedish forest, the musical dramatizes and sometimes satirizes love and flirtation among people of various ages, and all of the music is written in variations of triple time. The score includes romantic love songs, demonstrating that Sondheim can successfully depart from the irreverent songs which are usually regarded as his forte. One of them, "Send in the Clowns," is the only Sondheim song which has achieved fame and popularity outside of the theater.
Pacific Overtures (1976) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) are also Prince-Sondheim collaborations. The former deals with the Westernization and exploitation of Japan by the United States. Such Japanese art-forms as Kabuki theater and haiku poetry are effectively utilized. Sweeney Todd originated in a nineteenth-century tale about a barber who murders his clients; Sondheim based his version on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond which added elements of class struggle and oppression to the legend and invited comparison with the works of German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. The political nature of these two musicals is further evidence of the daring of their creators, who risked blending politics and entertainment on Broadway. Pacific Overtures impressed critics but was largely ignored by the theater-going public; however, Sweeney Todd had a long Broadway run despite its political content and gruesomeness. Sondheim has continued to take advantage of unconventional sources in his recent collaborative effort with James Lapine, Sunday in the Park with George (1984). Inspired by a Georges Seurat painting, this musical is a fanciful exploration of the famous painter and his grandson.
Critic Peter Reilly has described Sondheim's career as "parallel to without being a part of the mainstream of the American musical theater." Although some of his work is complex and not readily accessible, Sondheim has set a high standard for Broadway musicals. His songs express ideas which directly relate to the themes and action of the plays; therefore, they often work only when sung by the character for whom they were written. For this reason, his songs usually do not translate well off the stage, but critics feel that this is a significant improvement over musicals which are little more than showcases for various disparate songs. Although many critics have pointed to a lack of warmth and an emotional detachment in his songs, they agree that Sondheim has greatly raised the artistic level of American musical theater.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 103.)