Stephen Sondheim was the most highly regarded composer/lyricist for the musical theater in his generation. Having his first musical produced on Broadway in 1957 and his 14th in 1994, he straddled two eras. The broadly popular musical theater of his early years gradually became a more insular art form, addressing a smaller, more dedicated, more serious audience. This jibed perfectly with the composer's own tendencies. In a sense, he was to the world of show tunes what Bob Dylan was to that of pop songs, a songwriter who turned the genre to more mature and intelligent concerns and away from mere entertainment. Of those 14 musicals, nine had runs of between 500 and 1,000 performances in their initial productions, and, as of 2010, ten had had at least one Broadway revival since. All 14 have been recorded for cast albums at least twice. Sondheim won Tony Awards for his music and lyrics for six of the 11 musicals for which he wrote both. He also won an Academy Award for best song, a Pulitzer Prize, and numerous Grammy Awards including one for Song of the Year. Such recognition suggests the esteem in which he was held. Even when musicals turned toward more grandiose and broadly entertaining approaches in the 1980s and ‘90s, his works remained the standard by which musical theater aficionados and fans of sophisticated popular music measured competing fare.
Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, in Manhattan. He was the only child of Herbert Sondheim, the proprietor of a dress manufacturing company, and Etta Janet (Fox) Sondheim, the chief designer for the company. He exhibited an early interest in music and first took piano lessons at approximately age seven. As he approached adolescence, he made the acquaintance of lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, who became his mentor. In high school, he began writing amateur musicals, continuing his apprenticeship while attending Williams College. Upon graduation, he won the Hutchinson Prize, a fellowship that he spent studying composition with Milton Babbitt. The show that should have marked his Broadway debut as a composer/lyricist was Saturday Night, but financing for it fell apart when its producer suddenly died.
The score for Saturday Night served as Sondheim's audition piece, and it got him a job writing lyrics to the music of Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, which opened September 26, 1957, and ran 981 performances. But the lasting popularity of the show must be ascribed to the film version, which opened in 1961. The soundtrack album spent over a year at number one, selling over three million copies. Among the many re-recordings of the entire score, notable are a Grammy-winning studio cast version conducted by Bernstein that was released in 1985 and the various-artists album The Songs of West Side Story, which went gold in 1996. West Side Story was revived on Broadway in 1964, 1968, 1980, and 2009.
Sondheim next agreed to write lyrics to Jule Styne's music for Gypsy, based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and starring Ethel Merman. It opened May 21, 1959, and ran 702 performances. The cast recording reached the Top Ten and won the Grammy for Best Show Album. When a movie version appeared in 1962, the soundtrack album made the Top Ten. Gypsy was revived on Broadway in 1974, 1989, 2003, and 2008.
Sondheim finally got his chance to write both words and music for Broadway with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, based on the comic plays of Plautus and starring Zero Mostel. Forum opened on May 8, 1962, and ran 964 performances. A movie version appeared in 1966. Forum was revived on Broadway in 1972 and 1996. Sondheim's next show, Anyone Can Whistle, was a quick flop when it opened on April 4, 1964, running only nine performances. He returned to writing only lyrics when he collaborated with Richard Rodgers on Do I Hear a Waltz?, which opened on March 18, 1965, and ran 220 performances.
Sondheim went nearly five years without being represented on Broadway with another show. During this period, he worked on Follies, a musical about a reunion of women who had appeared in a Ziegfeld Follies-style revue. But it was preceded by Company, based on a series of short plays about affluent middle-aged couples. Called the first "concept" musical, Company was organized around the character of a bachelor celebrating his 35th birthday and pondering marital commitment. It was called a "concept" musical because there was no linear plot, but rather a series of scenes and songs organized around the subject of marriage. When it opened on April 26, 1970, Company enjoyed a profitable run of 690 performances. It was recorded for a cast album that won the Grammy Award for Best Show Album. Company also garnered Sondheim his first Tony Awards for Best Music and Best Lyrics. The show was revived on Broadway in 1995 and 2006. Follies followed, opening on April 4, 1971. Although it failed to turn a profit, it ran 522 performances and gave Sondheim his second consecutive win for Best Score at the Tonys. The cast album provided only an abbreviated sense of the 22 songs the composer wrote, and in 1985 producer Thomas Z. Shepard organized a concert performance of Follies to give the score a more complete recording. When Follies in Concert was released, it won the Grammy for Best Show Album. Follies was revived on Broadway in 2001.
Sondheim followed the experimental Company and Follies with a more conventional musical, based on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film comedy Smiles of a Summer Night. As A Little Night Music, it opened on February 25, 1973, and became a hit, running 601 performances and winning Sondheim the Best Score Tony for the third consecutive year. The cast LP won the Grammy for Best Show Album. After Judy Collins scored a Top 40 hit with the show's melancholy ballad "Send in the Clowns," it won the Song of the Year Grammy for 1975. A Little Night Music was adapted into a movie that opened in 1978. In 2009, it was given its first Broadway revival.
Having succeeded with a conventional show, Sondheim turned to his most experimental effort yet, Pacific Overtures. It was another concept musical, this time about the opening of Japan in the 1850s. Pacific Overtures opened on January 11, 1976, and closed after 193 performances. In 2004, a production that had originated in Japan transferred to Broadway. Sweeney Todd, based on the old Grand Guignol story of "the demon barber of Fleet Street," a serial killer in Dickensian London who sliced the throats of his customers, was Sondheim's next unexpected inspiration for a musical. It opened on March 1, 1979, and ran 557 performances. Sondheim won another Tony for Best Score and another Grammy for the Best Show Album. The show was revived on Broadway in 1989 and 2005. A movie version was released in 2007.
The musical Sondheim moved to next was an adaptation of the play Merrily We Roll Along, which examines the decline of an idealistic young man into a sellout, using the unusual structure of moving backward in time. It became Sondheim's biggest commercial failure since Anyone Can Whistle when it opened on November 16, 1981, running only 16 performances. Nevertheless, he became no less experimental with his next musical, Sunday in the Park with George, a show based on a painting, Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It opened on May 2, 1984, and ran 604 performances, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The cast album won the Grammy for Best Show Album. A 2005 London revival transferred to Broadway in 2008. Into the Woods, the next Sondheim musical, was based on a series of fairy tales. It opened on November 5, 1987, and ran 764 performances. Yet again, Sondheim won the Tony Award for Best Score and the Grammy for Best Show Album. The show was revived on Broadway in 2002.
Sondheim wrote three songs that were sung in the 1990 film Dick Tracy by Madonna, among them "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)," which won the Academy Award for Best Song. He next worked up a one-act musical with another unusual subject, the assassins and would-be assassins of American presidents. Assassins premiered off-Broadway in January 1991. It finally ran on Broadway in 2004. Next came Passion, based on the film Passion d'Amour. It opened on May 9, 1994, and ran 280 performances, winning Sondheim another Tony for Best Score and another Grammy for Best Show Album.
By 1995, Sondheim was at work on a musical about the brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner, the former a con man and playwright, the latter an architect. It progressed slowly. As Bounce, the show finally appeared in regional productions in 2003. As Road Show, it ran off-Broadway in 2008. ~ William Ruhlmann