Today we honor and celebrate one of the most important figures in American theatre, Stephen Sondheim. He was born in Manhattan in 1930 as the only child of Etta Janet “Foxy” (née Fox) and Herbert Sondheim. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and later, after his parents divorced, on a farm near Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Herbert was a dress manufacturer and Foxy, his mother, designed the dresses. While living in New York, Sondheim attended the Ethical Culture affiliated Fieldston School. Later, Sondheim attended the New York Military Academy and George School, a private Quaker preparatory school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he wrote his first musical (By George!). He also spent several summers at Camp Androscoggin. He graduated from George School in 1946.
Sondheim traces his interest in theatre to Very Warm for May, a Broadway musical he saw at age nine. “The curtain went up and revealed a piano,” Sondheim recalled. “A butler took a duster and brushed it up, tinkling the keys. I thought that was thrilling.” At about the age of ten, around the time of his parents’ divorce, Sondheim became friends with Oscar Hammerstein II’s son James. The elder Hammerstein became Sondheim’s surrogate father. It was at the opening of South Pacific, the musical Hammerstein wrote with Richard Rodgers, that Sondheim met Harold Prince, who would later direct many of his shows. When Sondheim showed Hammerstein his first musical (By George!), he said it was the worst thing he had ever seen. “But if you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you.” The rest of the day was spent going over the musical, and Sondheim would later say that “in that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime.”
From that beginning, Sondheim began writing. His big break came when he wrote the lyrics to West Side Story, lyricizing Leonard Bernstein’s music and Arthur Laurents’s book at the age of 25. He moved on to Gypsy, and continued with a number of successful shows. He began his productive partnership with director Hal Prince with Company in 1970. They collaborated on a number of hit productions in the 70s including A Little Night Music and Pacific Overtures.
Over the six decades of his career, Sondheim has been involved with dozens of shows, including some of the most famous and influential Broadway musicals. He is the winner of an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer) including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, multiple Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and the Laurence Olivier Award. He was president of the Dramatists Guild from 1973 to 1981. In celebration of his 80th birthday, the Henry Miller’s Theatre was renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
Sondheim also believes in giving back and nurturing the next generation. In 1981, he founded Young Playwrights to introduce young people to writing for the theatre; he is the Executive Vice President. Although he has a number of close friends, Sondheim sees himself a solitary person. Because of his parents’ ugly divorce, he has stated that he does not believe in marriage. He came out in the Ronald Reagan Homophobic 1980s (not an easy time, even in theatre) and had a long-term relationship with dramatist Peter Jones.
Stephen Sondheim is a complicated man and a monumental talent. As we celebrate his contributions, enjoy one of his best-known songs (and his only Top 40 hit), Send In the Clowns.