Stephen (Joshua) Sondheim

American Born 22 Mar 1930

The composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is one of the most critically acclaimed exponents of the American musical in recent times. With a dozen Broadway shows to his credit, he has explored and widened the scope of the musical, though his music is often too challenging to win wide scale popular approval. His musical language has certain affinities with that of Copland and Ravel, and is notable for its lyricism and sophisticated use of jazz.

Born in New York on 22 March 1930, the son of a successful dress manufacturer and designer, Sondheim began piano lessons at the age of seven, though he had only a passing interest in music. His father, however, was an enthusiastic admirer of Broadway songs, often performing them on the piano after his fashion shows.

When his father left suddenly, Sondheim and his mother moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania where they lived next door to the great musical composer, Oscar Hammerstein II. Sondheim studied privately with Hammerstein before attending Williams College, where he was awarded the Hutchinson Prize for music. This allowed him to continue private study with composer Milton Babbitt.

Beginning his career as a script-writer for TV shows, his big break came as a lyricist for Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (1957) and Jule Styne's Gypsy (1959). Success as a composer was slower to materialise, however, with a string of unsuccessful shows in the late fifties and sixties.

In 1970 he began a long-standing collaboration with director Hal Prince, writing the concept-musical, Company, and following it a year later with Follies. Both were critically acclaimed and established Sondheim as a major force in American theatrical life. Further success in the 70s came with A Little Night Music, which features his most popular song Send in the Clowns; Pacific Overtures, with its use of Japanese theatre techniques; and his largest work, Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

A variety of approaches and techniques characterises Sondheim's musicals of the 1980s and 90s: 1981's Merrily We Roll Along, for example, has a plot that goes backwards, but was not a popular success and marked the end of Sondheim's collaboration with Hal Prince. His next musical, Sunday in the Park with George, saw him experimenting with minimalist techniques and won the 1985 Pullitzer Prize for drama. His most recent work to date is the lyrical 1994 show, Passion.

Sondheim has also written sporadically for film, and in 1990 won an Academy Award for his songs in Dick Tracy, though his only extended film score was written for Stavisky (1974). His musicals have also won numerous Tony and New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, and in 1990 he became the first Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University.

Show more