Stephen Sondheim has been the heart and soul of American musical theater since the mid-1950s and he’s been responsible for a lot of Broadway tickets sales over the years.
Sondheim & The Tony Awards*
1971 – Best Score for Company
1971 – Best Lyrics for Company+
1972 – Best Score for Follies
1973 – Best Score for A Little Night Music
1979 – Best Score for Sweeney Todd
1988 – Best Score for Into the Woods
1994 – Best Score for Passion
*Sondheim’s six wins as a composer is more than doubled that of the next closest contender.
+In 1971, separate awards were given to lyrics and music. Otherwise, the award goes to both composer and lyricist.
Sondheim is the “Bob Dylan of musical theatre.” He can, if he wants to, write songs you’ll be humming on your way out of the theatre after the show is over (i.e. “Send in the Clowns” and ‘Comedy Tonight”).
Instead, Sondheim chooses to write musicals that challenge the average Broadway tickets holder. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s the beauty of Sondheim.
While others tell stories that just so happen to contain musical numbers. Sondheim uses music to tell a story.
He brings art to Broadway.
Sondheim was born March 22, 1930 in New York City. He grew up not wanting for anything but affection.
His father, who was distant to begin with, abandon Stephen and his mother when Stephen was young.
Sondheim’s mother then took the pain of the abandonment out on her son. She was an awful person. Sondheim disliked her so much that he didn’t even attend her funeral.
Sondheim was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein is best known for writing the lyrics to the Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, and South Pacific.
Sondheim showed Hammerstein a musical he had written in school that had been well-received by classmates. Hammerstein ripped the work to shreds but in the process taught Sondheim more about musical theatre then he could have ever learned in school.
Then, Hammerstein gave Sondheim one of the most famous assignments in the history of the arts. He told his pupil to write four musicals…
… One based on a play he likes…
… One based on a play he likes but believes is flawed…
… One based on a novel or short story that has never before been dramatized…
… and one based on an original idea…
None of the four musicals have ever been professionally produced.
Other major figures in Sondheim’s musical education are Robert Barrow of Williams College and composer Milton Babbitt.
Still, when Sondheim needed guidance or advice, the first person he reached out to was Hammerstein.
Hammerstein died in 1960.
After a few years of struggling to find work in the theatre, Sondheim’s big break came in the form of an invitation to a party.
By attending that party Sondheim landed a meeting, which led to an audition, which resulted in him writing lyrics to one of the greatest musicals of all-time, West Side Story (1957).
West Side Story is a retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s set in New York City in the 1950s and contains the classics “Maria,” “Somewhere,” and “America.”
In 1959, Sondheim wrote the lyrics to another historic musical, Gypsy.
Gypsy is based on the memoirs of famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. The main character of Rose was originated by the legendary Ethel Merman.
Famous songs from Gypsy include “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” “Let Me Entertain You,” and “Together (Wherever We Go).”
Broadway Music and Lyrics
The first musical that Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics to was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
The show opened on Broadway in 1962 and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It’s been successfully revived many times since.
The musical opens with the rousing number “Comedy Tonight.”
Sondheim struggled throughout the rest of the 1960s as collaborations fell through and projects failed to materialize.
In the 1970s, Sondheim had a string of hits with producer and director Hal Prince…
This concept musical is comprised of short vignettes and tells the story of Bobby and his inability to commit to a steady relationship.
– One of the first Broadway musicals to deal with adult themes
– Musical was originally called “Threes”
– Nominated for 14 Tony Awards and won six including Best Musical
– Most famous song: “The Ladies Who Lunch”
The musical revolves around two couples reuniting to say goodbye to a crumbling Broadway Theatre.
– The musical’s “Weismann’s Follies” is based on the real “Ziegfeld Follies”
– Follies was a financial failure
– Nominated for eleven Tony Awards and won seven
– Most famous song: “Broadway Baby”
A Little Night Music (1973)
A Little Night Music, the English translation of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major), concerns itself with the amorous adventures of several pairs of lovers.
– Based on the film Smiles of a Summer Night by Ingmar Bergman
– Almost of all the show’s music is written in ¾ time or “waltz time”
– Nominated for eleven Tony Awards and won six including Best Musical
– Most famous song: “Send in the Clowns”
Pacific Overtures (1976)
Set in the mid-19th century, Pacific Overtures is about two friends dealing with the Westernization of Japan.
– The score is built on the pentatonic scale
– Original production was done in Kabuki style
– Nominated for ten Tony Awards and won two
– Most famous song: “Someone in a Tree” (Sondheim’s favorite song that he’s ever written)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979)
Sweeney Todd returns to London after 15 years to take revenge on the judge who wronged him.
– Based on the play of the same name by Christopher Bond
– Sondheim employs heavy doses of counterpoint and leitmotif in the score
– Nominated for nine Tony Awards and won eight including Best Musical
– Show is frequently produced by opera houses
After his 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along fizzled, Sondheim threatened to leave the stage and write mystery novels. He was persuaded to stay in show business by writer, and his future partner, James Lapine.
Together they collaborated on three amazing Broadway musicals…
Sunday in the Park with George (1984)
The plot centers on Seurat and his single-mindedness while painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
– The painting and painter are real but the musical is highly fictionalized
– The musical opened Off-Broadway with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters
– Nominated for ten Tony Awards and won two
– Most famous song: “Putting it Together”
Into the Woods (1987)
The musical blends together several story elements from Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales.
– In the original, as well as most revivals, certain parts were played by the same actor
– Many believe the show is about AIDS
– Nominated for ten Tony Awards and won three
– During the middle of the show’s 765-performance run, the song “No One Is Alone” was added.
Passions is about a soldier and his obsessive love of his colonel’s sick cousin. The musical is set in Italy in the 19th century.
– The story is originally from the novel Fosca by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti
– Patti Lupone turned down the lead role to star in Sunset Boulevard in the West End
– With just 280 performances before closing, it’s the shortest running-musical to ever win the Tony Award for Best Musical (overall, it was nominated for ten awards and won four)
– There are no song titles
In between Into the Woods and Passions, Sondheim opened a musical Off-Broadway called Assassins. The musical, with book by John Wiedman, finally made it to The Great White Way in 2004.
Assassins is about the men and women who assassinated (or tried to assassinate) Presidents of the United States.
– The original Off-Broadway production starred Victor Garber, Terrence Mann, and Debra Monk
– The musical is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.
– The revival was nominated for six Tony Awards and won five including Best Revival of a Musical
– The show opens and closes with the anthem “Everybody’s Got the Right”
Sondheim’s Recent Works
After Passions, and until 2014, just three major Sondheim works saw the stage.
Bounce was produced in Chicago and Washington D.C. in 2003. Then a re-tooled, renamed version opened Off-Broadway in 2008. The 2008 version was called Road Show.
The Frogs ran for 90-plus performances on Broadway in 2004. The musical is based on Aristophanes’ The Frogs and was first performed at Yale University in 1974.
Sondheim wrote new songs for the 2004 revival while Nathan Lane expanded the book.
Proof to his immense contributions to musical theatre, several high profile concerts/events were thrown to celebrate Sondheim’s 80th birthday including those hosted by the New York Philharmonic, Roundabout Theatre Company, New York City Center, BBC Proms, and the New York Pops.
On Sept. 15, 2010, the Henry Miller’s Theatre, located in Manhattan’s theater district, was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
Sondheim Awards & Honors
>>Pulitzer Prize in Drama (1985)
>>Academy Award for Best Song (1990)
>>Kennedy Center Honors (1993)
>>Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre (2008)
>>Presidential Medal of Freedom (2014)
>>Sondheim has won eight Grammy Awards
>>Since 1994, Sondheim has been the subject of a quarterly journal—a rare feat for a living composer
The reason for Sondheim’s low output from the mid-1990s onward is quite simple…
…his old age.
Sondheim has publically stated that his energy and confidence levels have both decreased while expectations have increased.
Sondheim’s work in the musical theatre is enough for two or three careers, but the artist also found time and energy to work in other fields…
>>In the early 1950s, he co-wrote eleven episodes of the television show Topper.
>>Wrote the screenplay to Last of Shelia (1973) with Anthony Perkins.
>>Wrote music and songs for Warren Beatty’s films Reds (1981) and Dick Tracy (1990).
>>Wrote songs for the movie The Birdcage (1996).
>>Appeared as himself in an episode of The Simpsons.
>>Worked on film adaptations of his musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), A Little Night Music (1977), Sweeney Todd (2007), and Into the Woods (2014).