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At A Glance
Sondheim, Stephen [Joshua] (b. 1930), composer and lyricist. The most daring and often demanding theatre songwriter of his era, he was born in New York and given his pre-college education at the George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania. There he met James Hammerstein and befriended his father, Oscar Hammerstein II, who became a sort of mentor to Sondheim. After majoring in music at Williams College, Sondheim continued his studies with Milton Babbitt. His first score (music and lyrics) was written for Saturday Night, a Broadway‐bound musical that was aborted on the death of its producer; the show would not be performed until forty years later. Sondheim's lyrics were first heard on Broadway in West Side Story (1957), followed by his lyrics for Gypsy (1959). The popular A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) marked his Broadway debut as both a composer and a lyricist, followed by the unsuccessful cult favorite Anyone Can Whistle (1964). After providing lyrics only for Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), Sondheim hit his stride with a series of musicals in the 1970s that were not always commercially successful but never less than fascinating: Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1973), and Sweeney Todd (1979). In 1981 his Merrily We Roll Along was harshly received and had a brief run but in later years was produced frequently. Sunday in the Park with George (1984) won a Pulitzer Prize and his Into the Woods (1987) enjoyed a long run. Assassins (1991) was highly praised during its limited run and has found life in regional and college theatres, while Passion (1994) was more awarded than it was popular. He also contributed lyrics to the revised Candide (1973) and songs for the Yale production of The Frogs (1974) which was revised and revived on Broadway in 2004. Compilation shows based on his songs include Side by Side by Sondheim (1977), Marry Me a Little (1980), and Putting It Together (1993 and 1999). His most recent new project is the autobiographical musical Bounce (2003). Although many of Sondheim's songs have become favorites among theatregoers, only “Send in the Clowns” has en‐joyed the kind of wide‐ranging celebrity possible in the days of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Nevertheless, he is one of the most musicianly of contemporary composers and he is tirelessly experimental in the many forms theatre music can take. His forte, however, is his brilliant lyric writing, and only the most elegant, decorous work of Alan Jay Lerner equals it among contemporaries. Sondheim is an exceedingly clever rhymer and a superb, if misanthropic, wit. This wit and misanthropy have combined with his musicianship to make his musical comedies unique, while they have given his operet‐tas a style and tone closer to the comic opera masterpieces of Gilbert and Sullivan than anything since the heyday of the Savoyard works. Biography: Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Meryle Secrest, 1998.
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