- Category : Entertain-Music-Composer/Arranger
- Type : PSP
- Profile : 4/6 - Opportunistic / Role Model
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : RAX The Vessel of Love 1
American composer and lyricist whose scores include the lyrics for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy" and the words and music for "A Little Night Music." His honors include Grammy's, Tony's and the New York Drama Critics Award. He has co-authored many films and TV, including "The Last Of Sheila," a film, and "Topper," a TV series. Frequently he works in collaboration. His homosexuality was made public in a 1999 biography, "Stephen Sondheim: A Life."
Stephen was the son of a dad who was a prominent New York dress manufacturer, and a rejecting and controlling mom, Janet, known to friends and associates as "Foxy." first a fashion designer and then an interior decorator. A precocious child, he picked out tunes on the piano at the age of four and in first grade read his way through the New York "Times." His life was in upheaval when, at age ten, his parents divorced and his mom sent him to military school. His dad remarried and produced two younger stepbrothers. His mom threatened to jail his dad if Sondheim ever saw his stepmother because she was an "immoral woman," while Foxy was the one who acted in an inappropriately seductive way with her son.
Military school agreed with Sondheim because he loved rules and order. After the divorce he and his mom moved to Doylestown, Penn. where Oscar Hammer stein II, an old friend of the family, had a farm. The Hammerstein's had a son, Jimmy, who was Sondheim's age and he spent so much of his spare time at the celebrated lyricist's home that the Hammerstein's became a surrogate family to him. Hammer stein introduced him to the musical theater and at the age of 15 Sondheim and two classmates wrote a musical, "By George," for the George School. Showing his score to his mentor, he asked him to criticize it objectively. Not only did Hammer stein tell him it was the worst thing he'd ever read but showed him why. He learned how to build songs, how to introduce characters, how to make songs relate to characters, how to tell a story, how not to tell a story, and the interrelationships between lyric and musical. His musical training was sporadic, having had a year of piano when he was 7, a year of organ at 11, a year of piano at 14, and another year at 19. Sondheim graduated from the George School in 1946 and then attended Williams College where he majored in music taking a course of study suggested by Hammer stein.
When he graduated magna cum laude in 1950 he was awarded the Hutchinson prize, a two-year fellowship to study music and compose. He used the fellowship to study with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt in New York. Around 1953 Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for a musical called "Saturday Night," but when the producer, Lemuel Ayers, died suddenly the project was abandoned. Waiting for another chance to break into Broadway, he went to Hollywood and became a co-scriptwriter for the NBC TV comedy series "Topper."
In 1955 he was introduced to Leonard Bernstein who was impressed with his songs for "Saturday Night." Bernstein offered Sondheim the chance to write the lyrics for a new project, "West Side Story." When it opened on 9/26/1957 "West Side Story" was acclaimed as a moving and innovative musical and began his career on Broadway. In 1957 he was hired to write both the music and lyrics for "Gypsy" but at the last moment the star, Ethel Merman, refused to take a chance on an unknown composer and Jule Styne was brought in to compose the music. On opening night, 5/21/1959, "Gypsy" opened to rave reviews and ran for two years. For several years Sondheim worked with playwright Burt Shevelove on an idea for a play derived from the comedies of the classical Roman playwright Plautus.
Finally persuading the co-producer of "West Side Story," Harold Prince, to back the project, "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum" opened on 5/8/1962 starring Zero Mostel. The play was enormously popular and ran for 964 performances. Success was followed by a slump period with Sondheim writing the music and lyrics for "Anyone Can Whistle," 1964, with only nine performances. In 1965 he didn't fare well with the musical "Do I Hear a Waltz?" Finally on 4/26/1970, "Company" opened on Broadway, ran for 18 months and won many awards including, for Sondheim, the Tony awards for best lyrics and score as well as the Variety-New York Drama Critics poll awards for best composer and lyricist. When "Follies" opened on 4/04/1971 and the critics were sharply divided on their assessment of Sondeim's score, he again won the Tony and Variety-Critics Poll awards for his music and lyrics. In a change of pace Sondheim again teamed up with Harold Prince to create a romantic, operetta-like musical called "A Little Night Music." When the play opened 2/25/1973 it was accorded the best reception of Sondheim's career. "A Little Night Music" won Sondheim his third straight Tony and was voted the year's best musical by the New York Drama Critics Circle. Moody and intolerant of small talk, Sondheim can appear outwardly gruff, candid, and assured in his opinions.
He shows disdain for critics who find fault with his music but admits to being hyper-self-critical of his own work. A terrible procrastinator, he is also an inveterate game player and puzzle solver even inventing elaborate variations of Monopoly based on a friend's personality or work. Murder mysteries are another puzzle Sondheim likes to solve and with Tony Perkins he wrote the screenplay for the mystery thriller "The Last of Sheila" which was chosen to represent the U.S. at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival. The popularization of his work began in 1975 with the success of Judy Collins' Grammy Award-winning recording of "Send in the Clowns" and a small British revue "Side by Side."
It was Barbara Streisand's 1985 "The Broadway Album" that brought Sondheim to a new and broader audience reaching some people for the first time. His musical "Passion" opened in April 1994 with problems. Major revisions in the show postponed it opening again on 5/09/1994 to wildly divergent reviews. His latest work, "The Doctor Is Out: A Comedy Thriller," opened 9/17/1995 and is not a musical.
A bachelor, Sondheim has been romantically linked with a number of women including Lee Remick. In the 1999 biography "Stephen Sondheim: A Life," by Meryle Secrest, Sondheim goes public about his homosexuality and his relationship with Peter Jones, whom he met in 1991. Prior to the relationship with Jones, Sondheim felt the inability to let somebody else into his life, which he attributes to the shock of his parents' separation. Sondheim's bitterness towards his mom, who once wrote her son "the only regret I have in life is giving you birth," might have caused him to maintain a safe psychic distance from women.