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Tributes for influential composer-lyricist behind legendary Broadway shows



A supreme wordsmith – and an avid player of word games – Sondheim’s joy of language shone through. “The opposite of left is right/The opposite of right is wrong/So anyone who’s left is wrong, right?” he wrote in Anyone Can Whistle. In Company, he penned the lines: “Good things get better/Bad gets worse/Wait – I think I meant that in reverse.”

Taught by no less a genius than Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim pushed the musical into a darker, richer and more intellectual place. “If you think of a theatre lyric as a short story, as I do, then every line has the weight of a paragraph,” he wrote in his 2010 book, Finishing the Hat, the first volume of his collection of lyrics and comments.

Early in his career, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for two shows considered to be classics of the American stage, West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959). West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein, transplanted Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the streets and gangs of modern-day New York. Gypsy, with music by Jule Styne, told the backstage story of the ultimate stage mother and the daughter who grew up to be Gypsy Rose Lee.

Solitary childhood led to Hammerstein as mentor and friend

Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, into a wealthy family, the only son of dress manufacturer Herbert Sondheim and Helen Fox Sondheim. At 10, his parents divorced and Sondheim’s mother bought a house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where one of their Bucks County neighbours was lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, whose son, James, was Sondheim’s roommate at boarding school. It was Oscar Hammerstein who became the young man’s professional mentor and a good friend.

He had a solitary childhood, one in which involved verbal abuse from his chilly mother. He received a letter in his 40s from her telling him that she regretted giving birth to him. He continued to support her financially and to see her occasionally but didn’t attend her funeral.

Sondheim attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he majored in music. After graduation, he received a two-year fellowship to study with avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt.

One of Sondheim’s first jobs was writing scripts for the television show Topper, which ran for two years (1953-1955). At the same time, Sondheim wrote his first musical, Saturday Night, the story of a group of young people in Brooklyn in 1920s. It was to have opened on Broadway in 1955, but its producer died just as the musical was about to go into production, and the show was scrapped. Saturday Night finally arrived in New York in 1997 in a small, off-Broadway production.

Sondheim wrote infrequently for the movies. He collaborated with actor Anthony Perkins on the script for the 1973 murder mystery The Last of Sheila, and besides his work on Dick Tracy (1990), wrote scores for such movies as Alain Resnais’ Stavisky (1974) and Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981).

Sondheim shows continue to shine on Broadway

Over the years, there have been many Broadway revivals of Sondheim shows, especially Gypsy, which had reincarnations starring Angela Lansbury (1974), Tyne Daly (1989) and Peters (2003). But there also were productions of A Funny Thing, one with Phil Silvers in 1972 and another starring Nathan Lane in 1996; Into the Woods with Vanessa Williams in 2002; and even of Sondheim’s less successful shows such as Assassins and Pacific Overtures, both in 2004. Sweeney Todd has been produced in opera houses around the world. A reimagined West Side Story opened on Broadway in 2020 and a scrambled Company opened on Broadway in 2021 with the genders of the actors switched.

Sondheim’s songs have been used extensively in revues, the best-known being Side by Side by Sondheim (1976) on Broadway and Putting It Together, off-Broadway with Julie Andrews in 1992 and on Broadway with Carol Burnett in 1999. The New York Philharmonic put on a star-studded Company in 2011 with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert. Tunes from his musicals have lately popped up everywhere from Marriage Story to The Morning Show.

A HBO documentary directed by Lapine, Six by Sondheim, aired in 2013 and revealed that he liked to compose lying down and sometimes enjoyed a cocktail to loosen up as he wrote. He even revealed that he really only fell in love after reaching 60, first with the dramatist Peter Jones and then in his last years with Jeff Romley.

In September 2010, the Henry Miller Theatre was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. “I’m deeply embarrassed. I’m thrilled, but deeply embarrassed,” he said as the sun fell over dozens of clapping admirers in Times Square. Then he revealed his perfectionist streak: “I’ve always hated my last name. It just doesn’t sing.”



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