Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim books and biography


Stephen Sondheim

Sondheim Sings, Vol. 1: 1962-1972
Sondheim Sings, Vol. 1: 1962-1972
Background information
Birth name Stephen Joshua Sondheim
Born March 22, 1930
Origin New York City, New York,United States
Genre(s) musical theater, lyricist, composer
Years active 1946–present


Stephen Joshua Sondheim (b. March 22, 1930) is a composer and lyricist for stage and screen. He is one of the few people to win an Academy Award, multiple Tony Awards (nine, more than any other composer), multiple Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize.

 Early life

Stephen Sondheim was born to non-practicing Jewish parents, Herbert and Janet "Foxy" Sondheim, in in New York City, New York, 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 portrayed as isolated and emotionally neglected in Meryl Secrest's bio Sondheim: A Life. The truth of this is difficult to determine.

When Stephen was 10 years old, his father Herbert, always a distant figure in Stephen's life, abandoned him and his mother. Under the laws of the day, Sondheim's mother retained full custody, unfortunately for young Stephen; Foxy Sondheim was narcissistic, emotionally abusive, and a hypochondriac.[citation needed]

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, where he was a member of Beta Theta Pi fraternity.


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. 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." [citation needed]

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. [citation needed]

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.

Sondheim's big break came when he wrote the lyrics to West Side Story, accompanying Leonard Bernstein's music and Arthur Laurents's book. The 1957 show, memorably directed by Jerome Robbins, ran for 732 performances. A return engagement opened in 1960 and ran another 249 performances. While this may be the best-known show Sondheim ever worked on, he has expressed some dissatisfaction with his lyrics, stating they don't always fit the characters and are sometimes too consciously poetic.

Meanwhile, in 1959, he wrote the lyrics for another hit musical, Gypsy. Sondheim would have liked to write the music as well, but Ethel Merman, the star, insisted on a composer with a track record--thus Jule Styne was hired. Sondheim questioned if he should write only the lyrics for yet another show, but mentor Oscar Hammerstein told him it would be valuable experience to write for a star. Sondheim worked closely with book writer Arthur Laurents to create the show. It ran 702 performances.

Finally, Sondheim participated in a musical for which he wrote both the music and lyrics, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It opened in 1962 and ran 964 performances. The book, based on the farces of Plautus, was by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Sondheim's score was not especially well-received at the time--the show won several Tony Awards, including best musical, but Sondheim did not even receive a nomination. In addition, some critics felt the songs were not properly integrated into the farcical action.

At this point, Sondheim had participated in three straight hits--he'd yet to taste failure on Broadway. His next show ended the streak. 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 has since openly regretted working on. [citation needed] 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; Sondheim 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 a 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.

It was something of a surprise [citation needed] 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 a 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 [citation needed] 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." [citation needed] 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." [citation needed] 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 (1984), 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 collaboration also produced the popular fairy-tale show Into the Woods (1987) and the rhapsodic Passion (1994).

Arguably his best-known song, "Send in the Clowns", has become a modern standard, recorded 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. In an unusual tribute, Mr. Sondheim is perhaps the only living composer to have a regularly published periodical following his work (The Sondheim Review). 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 coming in a close second.

Major works

Unless otherwise noted, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

  • Girls of Summer (1956) (incidental music by Sondheim; play by N. Richard Nash)
  • West Side Story (1957) (lyrics by Sondheim; music by Leonard Bernstein; book by Arthur Laurents)
  • Gypsy (1959) (lyrics by Sondheim; music by Jule Styne; book by Arthur Laurents)
  • Invitation to a March (1960) (incidental music by Sondheim; play by Arthur Laurents)
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) (book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart)
  • The World of Jules Feiffer (1962) (sketches by Jules Feiffer)
  • Hot Spot (musical) (1963) (music mostly by Mary Rodgers; lyrics mostly by Martin Charnin)
  • Anyone Can Whistle (1964) (book by Arthur Laurents)
  • Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965) (lyrics by Sondheim; music by Richard Rodgers; book by Arthur Laurents)
  • Company (1970) (book by George Furth)
  • Follies (1971) (book by James Goldman)
  • A Little Night Music (1973) (book by Hugh Wheeler)
  • Pacific Overtures (1976) (book by John Weidman)
  • Sweeney Todd (1979) (book by Hugh Wheeler)
  • Merrily We Roll Along (1981) (book by George Furth)
  • Sunday in the Park with George (1984) (book by James Lapine)
  • Into the Woods (1987) (book by James Lapine)
  • Assassins (1990) (book by John Weidman)
  • Passion (1994) (book by James Lapine)
  • Saturday Night (1997, though composed in 1954) (book by Julius J. Epstein and Philip Epstein)
  • Bounce (book by John Weidman) (Abandoned working titles were Wise Guys and Gold!; played at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 2003 but anticipated move to Broadway was cancelled due to poor reviews)
  • The Frogs - Second version (2004) (revised book by Nathan Lane, from Burt Shevelove's 1974 book. Contains seven new songs)

Minor works


  • By George (1945), a musical Sondheim wrote at age 15 lampooning the denizens of George School, which he attended at the time.
  • Phinney's Rainbow (1948), a musical satire on college life that Sondheim wrote at age 18 lampooning the denizens of Williams College, which he attended at the time.
  • All That Glitters (1948), based on Beggar on Horseback by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly.
  • Climb High (1951), an original musical about a college student moving to New York City to become an actor.
  • The Mad Show (1966) (music mostly by Mary Rodgers; lyrics mostly by Marshall Barer)-- wrote the lyric for "The Boy From...", a parody of The Girl from Ipanema.
  • Candide - Second Version (1974) (new lyrics by Sondheim; original lyrics by Richard Wilbur; music by Leonard Bernstein; Book by Hugh Wheeler)
  • The Frogs (1974), a musical version of Aristophanes' comedy with a book by Burt Shevelove. Performed in the Yale University swimming pool.
  • Getting Away With Murder (1996), a "comedy thriller" (non-musical play), co-written with George Furth.

Film and TV

  • Topper (circa 1953), a non-musical television comedy series for which Sondheim wrote about ten episodes.
  • Evening Primrose (1966), a made-for-TV musical about a secret society of people living in department stores and the romance between Ella, a department store denizen, and Charles, a poet who decides to live in the department store after renouncing the world.
  • The Last of Sheila (1973), a nonmusical film mystery written with Anthony Perkins. Perkins and Sondheim received a 1974 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay.
  • "The Madam's Song", also called "I Never Do Anything Twice", for the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).
  • The score for Alain Resnais's film Stavisky (1974).
  • Music for the film Reds starring Warren Beatty (1981), including the song "Goodbye For Now."
  • Five songs for Warren Beatty's film Dick Tracy (1990), including "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)", which won the Academy Award for Best Song.

Awards and recognitions

Eight year presidency for the Dramatist Guild

Grammy Award, Sweeney Todd (1979)

Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Sunday In The Park With George (1985)

Academy Award for Best Song, "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" from Dick Tracy (1990)

Kennedy Center Honors, Lifetime Achievement, (1993)

Multiple Drama Desk Awards and other smaller awards for his Off-Broadway productions.


Company (1971, Best Score, Best Lyrics)

Follies (1972, Best Score)

A Little Night Music (1973 Best Score)

Sweeney Todd (1979, Best Score)

Into The Woods (1988, Best Score)

Passion (1994 Best Score)


  • Gottfried, Martin. Sondheim. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993.
  • Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: A Life. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1998.
  • Zadan, Craig. Sondheim & Co. (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row, 1986.


  • "Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos."
  • "My idea of heaven is not writing."

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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