STEPHEN SONDHEIM was an American composer and lyricist known for more than a half-century of contributions to musical theatre. He was born on this date (d: 2021); Famously mentored by none other than Oscar Hammerstein who he met as a ten-year old boy, Sondheim did nothing less than reinvent the American Broadway musical.
Sondheim received an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer, including a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre), eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the Laurence Olivier Award, and a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was described by Frank Rich of the New York Times as “now the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater.”
His best-known works as composer and lyricist include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, Assassins, and Passion. He also happened to have written the lyrics for West Side Story (when he was 27) and Gypsy (at age 29).
Sondheim also wrote film music, contributing “Goodbye for Now” to Warren Beatty’s 1981 Reds. He wrote five songs for 1990’s Dick Tracy, including “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” by Madonna, which won the Academy Award for Best Song.
In February 2012 it was announced that Sondheim would collaborate on a new musical with David Ives, and he had “about 20–30 minutes of the musical completed”. The show, tentatively called All Together Now, was assumed to follow the format of Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim described the project as “two people and what goes into their relationship … We’ll write for a couple of months, then have a workshop. It seemed experimental and fresh 20 years ago. I have a feeling it may not be experimental and fresh any more”.
In October 2014, it was confirmed the Sondheim and Ives’ musical would be based on two Luis Bunuel films (The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and would open (in previews) at the Public Theater in March 2017, under the working title Bunuel. The New York Times reported in April of 2021 that the project had been shelved.
The composer was president of the Dramatists Guild from 1973 to 1981. To celebrate his 80th birthday, the former Henry Miller’s Theatre was renamed The Stephen Sondheim Theatre on September 15, 2010, and the BBC Proms held a concert in his honor. Cameron Mackintosh has called Sondheim “possibly the greatest lyricist ever.
Sondheim was often described as introverted and solitary. In an interview with Frank Rich, he said: “The outsider feeling—somebody who people want to both kiss and kill—occurred quite early in my life”. Sondheim jokingly told the New York Times in 1966: “I’ve never found anybody I could work with as quickly as myself, or with less argument”, although he described himself as “naturally a collaborative animal”.
Sondheim opened up regarding his sexuality when he was about 40. He rarely discussed his personal life, though he said in 2013 that he had not been in love before he turned 60, when he entered into a roughly eight-year relationship with dramatist Peter Jones. Sondheim married Jeffrey Scott Romley, a digital technologist, in 2017.
In 2010–2011, Sondheim published, in two volumes, his autobiography, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954–1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes and Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981–2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany. The memoir included Sondheim’s lyrical declaration of principle, stating that four principles underpinned “everything I’ve ever written”. These were: “Content Dictates Form, Less is More, God is in the Details – all in the service of Clarity.”
In Six by Sondheim, James Lapine’s 2013 documentary film about the creative process, Sondheim revealed that he liked to write his music lying down and would occasionally have a cocktail to help him write. As one does.
Sondheim died of cardiovascular disease at his home in Roxbury in November 2021, at the age of 91, ten days after the premiere of the Stephen Spielberg/Tony Kushner remake of West Side Story. Collaborator and friend Jeremy Sams said Sondheim “died in the arms of his husband Jeff”. On December 8, 2021, Broadway theaters dimmed their marquee lights for one minute as a tribute. A trust managing Sondheim’s estate included the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts as beneficiaries.