With a celebrated career spanning more than 60 years, Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) raised the status of the Broadway musical, which had often been considered comforting, if unadventurous family entertainment, and he used it to explore adult relationships in all their complexity. He wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy in the late 1950s. While many musical theatre creators specialize as either a composer or lyricist, Sondheim was the master of both. He wrote his first words and lyrics combo to for the comedy A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962) which won the Tony Award for Best Musical and ran for more than two years. After that, he did the music and lyrics for all his shows.
Sondheim was born on 22 March 1930 in New York City. His parents, who both worked in the fashion industry, divorced when he was 10 years old. He was mentored by one of the greatest lyricist and librettists, Oscar Hammerstein II. His first musical, written when he was 15 years old.
Hammerstein, said Sondheim, taught him that in writing lyrics “the whole point is to underwrite not overwrite because music is so rich an art itself”. When Sondheim published his two-volume set of memoirs, he identified three principles for a lyric writer to turn out a “respectable lyric”:
“Less is more, content dictates form and God is in the details”.
Early on, I was somehow aware that Sondheim was gay. It did give me some solace when I was grappling with coming out of the closet. Sondheim waited to come out as gay until he was 40 years old, and he did not live with a partner until he was 61. He shared his life with writer, Peter Jones, until 1999, living at Sondheim’s Turtle Bay house that has been his home and writing place since the early 1960s. The legendary Katharine Hepburn used to be his next door neighbor. Sondheim writes:
“… up one night at about 3, pounding on the piano, writing The Ladies Who Lunch, when I heard this banging on the door. There was Hepburn, in a babushka and no shoes, saying, ‘Young man, I cannot sleep with the noise you’re making’.
A decade ago, Sondheim wrote:
“If I had to live my life over again, I would have children. That’s the great mistake I made. It’s too late now. The idea of being a homosexual and raising children was one that was just not acceptable until, my goodness, I’d say the 1980s or 1990s. You want to live long enough to see your children grow up, they’re not puppies. The joy is not just to have them, but to watch them change and grow. So, yes, that is a great regret. But as Bach proved to a great degree, you can have both. It would be nice to have both. But to have any outlet for creative energy is indeed a very good emotional substitute for not being able to put that energy into the raising of a family.“
There is common thought on Sondheim: he can do LOVE in a theatre piece, but he struggled with it in in his own life. Even people who follow him closely assumed that he was single. It came as a surprise when in 2006 he announced:
“I have someone else now, his name is Jeff. Jeff is a great joy in my life and once I had tasted the joys of living with someone, I wanted to live with someone else when it broke up.“
Jeff is Jeff Romley, a cute, youngish photographer, who later married Sondheim.
Sondheim was awarded the 2017 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award, making him the first composer/lyricist to win it. The prize is given annually to a critically acclaimed writer whose body of work helps us understand and interpret the human condition. The prize has mostly gone to novelists, but PEN stated that Sondheim made an undeniable impact on the last 60 years of culture by writing his musicals. The precedent for giving a Literary award to a musical artist gained some traction in 2016, when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Andrew Solomon, president of PEN America, said:
“Sondheim has really given voice to complex aspects of the human spirit: to nuance, to psychology, to inner voices. His work points to the significance of living a moral life, and that’s never felt more urgent than right now.“
Meryl Streep presented his prize. She starred in the film adaptation of Sondheim’s Into The Woods (2014) and received an Academy Award nomination for her role.
There are the over 20 major stage shows with both Sondheim music and lyrics available on OBC albums or playing at a school, community or regional theatre near you:
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Form (1962)
Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
A Little Night Music (1973)
The Frogs (1974)
Pacific Overtures (1976)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (1979)
Merrily We Roll Along (1981)
Sunday In The Park With George (1984)
Into The Woods (1987)
Bounce (2003), which later became Road Show (2008)
Plus, Sondheim provided the lyrics for West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), Do I Hear A Waltz? (1965), and Candide (1973).
For films, he composed the scores of Stavisky (1974) and Reds (1981), plus he contributed songs for The Seven Percent Solution (1976) and Dick Tracy (1990). He also wrote the songs for the television production Evening Primrose (1966), co-authored the terrific film The Last Of Sheila (1973) and the play Getting Away With Murder (1996). In total, his works have accumulated more than 70 individual and collaborative Tony Awards and an Oscar.
Sondheim created cryptic crosswords for New York magazine in the late 1960s.
During the Company/Follies era, Sondheim appeared on the cover of Time with the caption: “The Boy Wonder Of The Theatre“. That boy went on to win more Tony Awards than any other composer, including his Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, multiple Grammy Awards including Song Of The Year for Send In The Clowns in 1974, plus that Pulitzer Prize. He received the Kennedy Center Honor in 1993. In 2015, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
In March 2008, Sondheim and writer Frank Rich, then of the New York Times, appeared in an interview/conversation here in Portland, titled A Little Night Conversation With Stephen Sondheim. I was fortunate enough to attend. One of my revered revelations from that evening was that Sondheim and I share a favorite non-Sondheim musical in She Loves Me. He was very funny and charming that evening.
“I chose and my world was shaken. So what? The choice may have been mistaken; the choosing was not. You have to move on.“
Sondheim and I have some history together. In the spring of 1973, I saw A Little Night Music in its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston. I was in my late teens and 2500 miles from home. I sat in the darkened, half-filled theatre and let the magic and enchantment wash over me. This was not my first Sondheim musical. By this time in my life I had seen, of course, West Side Story and Gypsy on screen and stage. When I was just 17 years old, I had talked the parental units into letting me fly to San Francisco all by myself to see the original cast (minus Dean Jones) of Company (I had more than just a little fun freely footloose in San Francisco in 1971). I had worn out the Original Cast Album of Follies earlier that year.
Just five years after seeing it in Boston, I played Henrik in A Little Night Music. It’s a terrific role and the closest I ever came to playing an ingénue. This character plays the cello. Traditionally, the pit orchestra’s cello plays the music while the actor mimes the cello. Because I actually can play the cello, I was able to do my own playing. I thought this gave my performance a bit more authenticity, although I had to practice for hours and hours to be able to play the cello and sing at the same time… in character. I played Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum on two occasions, including a long, extended run at Seattle Civic Light Opera in the late 1980s.
Sondheim might be gone, but he’s not done yet. His much gossiped about collaboration with David Ives, Square One, will premiere in September at the Shed’s Griffin Theater. Now titled Here We Are, the show is inspired by two Luis Buñuel’s films. Also in September, moving from Off-Broadway to Broadway, is the well-received revival of his problematic, but tuneful, Merrily We Roll Along. This version stars cutie-pies Daniel Radcliffe and Jonathan Groff.