Stephen Sondheim – A brief history and biography of the man and his musicals

Stephen Sondheim - A brief history and biography of the man and his musicals_550
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Stephen Sondheim: His Story and Shows

If you want to work in musical theatre it is vital that you know your Sondheim from your Schwartz and your Jason Robert Brown from your Jonathan Larson. Here at Actor Hub we want to help you know your composers and understand your MT history.
Born in 1930 Stephen Sondheim is one of the most distinguished figures in American Musical Theatre.
If people have split views about your work, I think it’s flattering. I’d rather have them feel something about it than dismiss it.
Stephen Sondheim
If we think of Broadway in generations then Sondheim is the big name in the third generation of writers, before him came such legends as Victor Herbert in the first generation, followed by Rodgers and Hammerstein. You can see their influences in his work, as much as you can see the influence of Sondheim in the writers of today.

Stephen Sondheim: His Early Life

Sondheim’s childhood was not a happy one, when he was ten his father abandoned him and his mother projected her anger at this upon Stephen. She used to beat him and treat him like dirt and wrote a letter to him saying that her one regret was giving birth.
To escape this childhood Sondheim found a safe haven with his friend James Hammerstein who was the son of the lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein. Oscar became Stephen’s surrogate father and helped to develop Stephen’s love for musical theatre.
Stephen showed Oscar his first ever musical By George which he had written at school. Oscar didn’t treat him with kid-gloves and told him it was the worst thing he had ever read! He then took time to dissect it and work with Stephen. Looking back at this event Sondheim has said “in that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime.”
By the time I was 22, I was a professional. A young and flawed professional, but not an amateur.
Stephen Sondheim
After studying, in 1954 Stephen Sondheim wrote the musical Saturday Night which was never professionally produced until 1997! “I don’t have any emotional reaction to ‘Saturday Night’ at all – except fondness,” Sondheim says. “It’s not bad stuff for a 23-year-old. There are some things that embarrass me so much in the lyrics – the missed accents, the obvious jokes. But I decided, Leave it. It’s my baby pictures. You don’t touch up a baby picture – you’re a baby!”

Stephen Sondheim: His First Success

His big break came in 1956 when he was introduced to Leonard Bernstein, who had heard Saturday Night and hired him to write the lyrics for West Side Story. This show is probably the most well-known show that Sondheim had ever worked on. Working as a lyricist Sondheim followed up West Side Story with Gypsy, working alongside Jules Styne as composer.
In 1962 Sondheim finally wrote both music and lyrics for a show. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to The Forum opened in 1962. This farce is inspired by the Roman farces of Platus and tells the story of a bawdy slave and his attempts to win his freedom. Like all good farces it involves lots of mistaken identity, slamming of doors and saucy puns! It has since been made into a movie and revived both on Broadway and in London many times.
West Side Story, Gypsy and A Funny Thing had given Sondheim a hat-trick of hits, this successful run ended with the 1964 musical Anyone Can Whistle which flopped and closed after only nine performances. He followed this with a lyric writing job on Richard Rodgers’ Do I Hear A waltz[ and a television movie-musical called Evening Primrose, about a society of people who live in secret in a Department Store only coming out at night!

Stephen Sondheim: Musical Theatre for Adults

If you’re dealing with a musical in which you’re trying to tell a story, it’s got to sound like speech. At the same time it’s got to be a song.
Stephen Sondheim
Sondheim’s next musical was the show Company in 1970. This show is really one of the first musicals which deals with adult themes and relationships. In a series of short comic vignettes we explore the life of singleton Bobby and his relationships with his three girlfriends and five married couples who make up his best friends.
A Little Night Music in 1973 is more traditionally plotted than Company and is based on the film Smiles Of A Saturday Night by Ingmar Bergman. Again this show looks at the romantic links and lives of several couples. The whole score is composed in waltz time. The popular song ‘Send In The Clowns’ comes from this show and went on to be a hit outside of musical theatre which helped Sondheim’s popularity grow.
In 1976 Sondheim tackled the westernisation of Japan, from the point of view of the Japanese, with the sophisticated Pacific Overtures. The show was performed Kabuki style with the score is built around a quasi-Japanese pentatonic scale (a musical scale with five notes per octave as opposed to a major or minor scale with seven notes). Perhaps because of these unusual production demands this show is one of the least performed of Sondheim’s shows, and when it does perform it tends to be produced by Opera companies rather than musical theatre.
One of the hardest things about writing lyrics is to make the lyrics sit on the music in such a way that you’re not aware there was a writer there.
Stephen Sondheim
In 1979 Sondheim stuck with these operatic leanings and created the melodrama musical Sweeney Todd which tackles the never before seen themes in musical theatre of murderous revenge and cannibalism! The musical tells the tale of Sweeney Todd, a barber who is avenging the rape and murder of his wife and his own wrongful imprisonment. He teams up with a pie maker, Mrs Lovett, and opens a barbershop where he slits the throats of his customers and has them baked into pies! The show was a success winning awards both here and in the US. And it’s gory story is still performed today and also lives on in a Tim Burton movie version.
Merrily We Roll Along followed in 1981. It was expected to be one of Sondheim’s most traditional scores and would generate some hits, however it performed only sixteen performances before being closed and is considered Sondheim’s biggest flop. The musical begins at the height of Franklin Shepard, a Hollywood producer’s, fame and then moves backwards through his life showing us how he became the man he is and how he abandoned his friends, colleagues and dreams. The show ends with three young friends considering how anything is possible with the beautiful song ‘Our Time’. The show has been revived many times since.

Stephen Sondheim: Children and Art

Sondheim next teamed up with the artsy James Lapine, a writer with a taste for the avant-garde and visual theatre. Their first collaboration was Sunday In The Park With George, which explores the creation of the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat, and the sacrifices and struggles an artist goes through following their own dream and path.
Musicals are, by nature, theatrical, meaning poetic, meaning having to move the audience’s imagination and create a suspension of disbelief, by which I mean there’s no fourth wall.
Stephen Sondheim
Their next collaboration came in 1987 with the musical Into The Woods, which re-imagines classic fairy tales. The musical is tied together by an original story involving a childless baker and his wife and their quest to begin a family, their interaction with a Witch who has placed a curse on them, and their interaction with other storybook characters during their journey. The show is one of Sondheim’s most popular and Disney is producing a film adaptation which will be released Christmas 2014.

Stephen Sondheim: The Later Years – Assassins, Passion and Road Show

In 1990 Sondheim teamed up with John Weidman once more, they had earlier worked on Pacific Overtures. Their new show Assassins which uses the premise of a murderous fairground game to produce a revue-style portrayal of the various men and women who have attempted to assassinate Presidents of the USA. The music used for each assassin reflects the music of the era.
All the best performers bring to their role something more, something different than what the author put on paper. That’s what makes theatre live. That’s why it persists.
Stephen Sondheim
1994 brought us another Sondheim and Lapine collaboration with the show Passion, which is adapted from the film Passione d’Amore and concerns a young soldier in 19th century Italy and how he changes due to the obsessive love of Fosca, the ailing cousin of his Colonel. The show deals with love, sex, obsession, illness, passion, beauty, power and manipulation. It only played for a short run on Broadway but won a Tony Award for Best Musical that year.
In the late nineties Sondheim worked, again with John Weidman, on the musical Road Show (which has previously been called Bounce, Wise Guys and Gold!) It tells the story of the Mizner brother’s Addisson and Wilson and their adventures across turn of the century America with the Alaskan gold rush and the Florida real estate boom. The show has never acheived great success or accolades.
For sixty years Stephen Sondheim has proved himself to be the world’s leading composer-lyricist. He has achieved this reputation by never repeating himself. Each of his works has been groundbreaking and unique, he is constantly confronting new challenges and discovering new artistic paths to explore.
His work grows out of established Broadway traditions but he constantly reinvents what has come before.
  • Here is a list of our favourite Sondheim song’s in the Actor Hub office. What is your favourite? Do you agree with our picks? We would love to hear from you.
  • Sondheim songs are great for actors who want to show off their ‘acting’ as well as their singing. Here are some uptempo songs which would work as audition songs.
  • Sondheim songs are difficult to ‘get right’ and sometimes they are tricky for accompanists to follow. Here are some Sondheim ballads which could be sung at auditions.