Stephen Sondheim was born to a Jewish family in New York City and grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and later on a farm in Pennsylvania. An only child of well-to-do parents living in a high-rise apartment on Central Park West, Sondheim's childhood has been described as isolated and emotionally neglected. His parents, Herbert and Janet "Foxy" Sondheim, were non-religious Jews.
While Foxy had grown up in an Orthodox family, Sondheim had no formal religious education or association, did not have a Bar Mitzvah, and reportedly did not set foot in a synagogue until he was 19. In 1950, he graduated magna cum laude from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
When Stephen was 10 years old, his father Herbert, always a somewhat distant figure, abandoned Stephen and his mother. This traumatic event had major repercussions on Sondheim's private life and was later reflected in Into The Woods. Under the laws of the day, Sondheim's mother retained full custody, which was perhaps unfortunate for her son; Foxy Sondheim was narcissistic, emotionally abusive, and a hypochondriac. After the departure of her husband, she became sexually predatory towards her son as a substitute for his absent father—she would suggestively lower her blouse or spread her legs in front of him, she would lounge about and absently ask him to make her drinks and she would hold his hand and stare at him through the entirety of a Broadway show.
Many have speculated that it was this early intense love/hate relationship with his monstrous mother that would re-emerge in many of Sondheim's later works, which often treat love and commitment as claustrophobic and smothering, most notably in his musical Company.
Perhaps also as a result of his relationship with his mother, Sondheim would become known for giving words and music to a series of strong, manipulative, somewhat unstable female characters, including Mama Rose in Gypsy, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and the Witch in Into the Woods, all of whom are obsessive about keeping a hold on their child or lover.
At about the age of ten, around the time of his parents' divorce, Sondheim became friends with Jimmy Hammerstein, son of the well-known lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein became a surrogate father to Sondheim, as the young man attempted to stay away from home as much as possible. Hammerstein had a profound influence on the young Sondheim, especially in his development of love for musical theater. Indeed, it was at the opening of Hammerstein's hit show "South Pacific" that Sondheim met Harold Prince, who would later direct many of Sondheim's most famous shows. During high school, Sondheim attended George School, a private Quaker preparatory school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He had the chance to write a farcical musical based on the goings-on of his school, entitled By George. It was a major success among his peers, and it inflated the young songwriter's ego considerably; he took it to Hammerstein, and asked him to evaluate it as though he had no knowledge of its author. The next day Sondheim came back. Hammerstein hated it. "But if you want to know why it's terrible," Hammerstein consoled the young man, "I'll tell you." The rest of the day was spent going over the musical, and Sondheim would later say that "in that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime."
Thus began one of the most famous apprenticeships in the musical theatre, as Hammerstein designed a kind of course for Sondheim to take on the construction of a musical. This training centered around four assignments, which Sondheim was to write. These were:
A musical based on a play he admired (which became All That Glitters)
A musical based on a play he thought was flawed (which became High Tor)
A musical based on an existing novel or short story not previously dramatized (which became his unfinished Mary Poppins)
An original musical (which became Climb High)
None of these "assignment" musicals were produced professionally. High Tor and Mary Poppins have never been produced at all, because the rights holders for the original works refused to grant permission for a musical to be made -- besides, Mary Poppins was never even finished and the rights were eventually granted to Walt Disney who famously assigned the Sherman Brothers to write what became their Oscar and Grammy winning song score.
Sondheim went on to study composition with the composer Milton Babbitt. Popular lore says that Sondheim would not allow Babbitt to teach him the Twelve-tone technique, but it was in fact the opposite. In Mark Eden Horowitz's Sondheim on Music, Sondheim says that when he asked Babbitt if he could study atonality, Babbitt replied "No, I don't think you've exhausted your tonal resources yet." Sondheim agreed, and despite charges made by some of his critics, his music is consistently tonal.
In 1954, he wrote both music and lyrics for Saturday Night, which was never produced on Broadway and was shelved until a 1997 production at London's Bridewell Theatre. In 1998 Saturday Night received a professional recording, followed by an Off-Broadway run in 2000. His big break came at the age of 25 when Sondheim wrote the lyrics to West Side Story, accompanying Leonard Bernstein's music and Arthur Laurents's book. In 1959 he wrote the lyrics to the musical Gypsy, with music by Jule Styne and a book again by Laurents.
Finally in 1962 Sondheim participated in a musical for which he wrote both the music and lyrics, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, open on Broadway. His next musical, Anyone Can Whistle (1964), was a 9-performance flop, although it introduced Angela Lansbury to musical theatre and has developed a cult following. In 1965 he donned his lyricist-for-hire hat for one last show, Do I Hear a Waltz?, with music by Richard Rodgers - the one project he claims he regrets doing. In 1966, he semi-anonymously provided the lyric for The Boy from..., a parody of The Girl from Ipanema that was a highlight of the off-Broadway revue The Mad Show. ( The official songwriting credit went to the linguistically-minded pseudonym "Esteban Ria Nido," which translates from the Spanish to "Stephen River Nest." In German, "Sond" means sound, or body of water, and "heim" means home, or nest. In the show's Playbill, the lyric was credited to "Nom De Plume").
Since then Sondheim has devoted himself to both composing and writing lyrics for a series of highly varied and adventuresome musicals, beginning with the innovative concept musical Company in 1970.
Sondheim's work is notable for his use of complex polyphony in the vocal parts, such as the chorus of five minor characters who function as a sort of "Greek Chorus" in 1973's A Little Night Music. He also displays a penchant for angular harmonies and intricate melodies reminiscent of his hero, Bach (he once claimed that he listens to no one else). To aficionados, Sondheim's musical sophistication is considered to be greater than that of many of his musical theater peers, and his lyrics are likewise renowned for their ambiguity ("Send in the Clowns"), wit ("Buddy's Blues") and urbanity ("The Little Things You Do Together"); he employs various literary techniques and devices that make his writing more akin to poetry than Tin Pan Alley. His lyrics are often intricately crafted, like a puzzle where every piece has a precise placement. An avid fan of games, in 1968 and 1969 Sondheim published an astonishingly inventive series of word puzzles in New York magazine. These crossword puzzles were models of form and creativity, and started the rise of cryptic crosswords in the United States.
Unlike composers of the Broadway's Golden Age, Sondheim doesn't write songs that that are designed to stand alone, apart for the show, with the potential to become Top 40 hits. He writes what is necessary for the character who's singing, usually to advance the plot and/or reveal more about the character. Thus, it was somewhat of a surprise when "Send in the Clowns," a song whose lyric is cryptic apart from the context of A Little Night Music, became a hit for Judy Collins. Although it was Sondheim's only Top 40 hit, his songs are frequently performed and recorded by cabaret artists and theatre singers in their solo careers.
Sondheim collaborated with producer/director Harold Prince on six distinctive musicals between 1970 and 1981. Company (1970) was a concept musical featuring a series of scenes rather than a traditional plot. Follies (1971) was an extravagant production filled with pastiche songs echoing styles of composers from earlier decades, and book songs in Sondheim's voice. A Little Night Music (1973) was one of his greatest successes, with each song composed in a variation of waltz time. Pacific Overtures (1976) was the most non-traditional of the Sondheim-Prince collaborations, an intellectual exploration of the westernization of Japan. Sweeney Todd (1979), arguably Sondheim's greatest score, once again explores an unlikely topic, this time murderous revenge and cannibalism.
Merrily We Roll Along (1981) is Sondheim's most traditional score and held potential to generate some hit songs (Frank Sinatra and Carly Simon each recorded a different song from the show). Sondheim's music director, Paul Gemignani, said, “Part of Steve’s ability is this extraordinary versatility.” Merrily, however, was a 16-performance flop. "Merrily did not work, but its score endures. Sondheim had set out to write traditional songs… But after that there is nothing ordinary about the music." The failure of Merrily greatly affected Sondheim. He was ready to quit theater and do movies or create video games or write mysteries. He was later quoted as saying, "I wanted to find something to satisfy myself that does not involve Broadway and dealing with all those people who hate me and hate Hal." With the demise of Merrily, the Sondheim-Prince collaboration came to an end until the two reunited for Bounce (2003), which was mounted in Chicago and Washington, DC. Unfortunately, Bounce proved disappointing and never reached Broadway.
Instead of quitting the theater following the failure of Merrily, Sondheim decided "that there are better places to start a show", and found a new collaborator in the "artsy" James Lapine. Lapine has a taste "for the avant-garde and for visually oriented theater in particular." Sunday in the Park with George (1985), their first collaboration, was very much the avant-garde, but they had blended it together with the professionalism of the commercial theater to make a different kind of musical. Sondheim again was able to show his versatility and his adaptability. His music took on the style of the artist Georges Seurat's painting techniques. In doing so, Sondheim was able to bring his work to another level. "Sondheim’s work has such reach, there is so much emotional resonance, that many observers take it personally and become as fascinated with the artist as with the art; they see him in his work." The Sondheim-Lapine collabration also produced the popular fairy-tale show Into the Woods (1987) and the rhapsodic Passion (1994).
His best-known song, "Send in the Clowns", has become a modern standard, covered by such artists as Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, and Van Morrison. In 1985, he won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Sunday in the Park with George. It is one of the only six musicals that have taken this prestigious award. Although Sunday took the Pulitzer, Jerry Herman's more traditional La Cage Aux Folles beat out Sunday to win Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Score. Evaluating his own work, Sondheim asserts that Gypsy is one of the greatest musicals written in the Rodgers & Hammerstein mode. As for his songs, Sondheim cites "Someone in a Tree", from Pacific Overtures as his favorite with "The Miller's Son" from A Little Night Music a close second.
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