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Stephen Sondheim: Everything Wonderful About Broadway Musicals


If somebody had set out to invent a life representing everything wonderful about Broadway musicals, and everything in their potential, it would have to have been the life of Stephen Sondheim. From childhood into his seventies, he has been involved with the most significant developments in this unique and beloved kind of theatre. In the process, he has brought out musical stage to its most mature development, and without ever losing his young sense of its exhilaration. From the overture of the most traditional musical comedy to the finale of the most ambitious concept musical, from comedy numbers and show stoppers to extended musical-dramatic sequences, Stephen Sondheim is still ruled by the singular thrill of a Broadway musical and he has written a dozen and a half shows to prove it.

He grew up in a New York world that hovered above the inner circles of show business. His parents mixed with the theatre's most famous, and by the time he was in his teens, he had the great Dorothy Fields for a mentor in writing lyrics and no less than Richard Rodgers as a familiar figure at everyday piano keyboards. He even got to play his student songs for Cole Porter, but the most important of all these people was Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist and librettist whose work spanned the entire range of American musical theatre, from operetta (The Desert Song) to musical comedy (Sunny) to the most important innovations in musical drama (Show Boat and Oklahoma!).

He was soon spending more time at the Hammerstein home than at his own, taken under the wing of "Ookie." For here was a man who loved to teach, and he had made this youth his first and only musical comedy student. That was going to be quite a formal course of study. Sondheim was assigned a series of musicals to solve particular problems, and he wrote them from prep school through college, certain that he was going to become the youngest composer in Broadway history.

After graduation, Sondheim supported himself by writing for television while composing unproduced shows, and then that lucky break flew his way while he thought he was just having a casual conversation. It seemed that a budding musical called East Side Story needed a lyricist, and although Sondheim considered himself a composer, he knew better than to let the break pass him by. So it was that he found himself working with two of the most talented and innovative artists in the musical theatre, the director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins, and one of the world's most important musicians, the composer, Leonard Bernstein.

Of course that 1957 show was ultimately called West Side Story (for more on West Side Story, visit ARTSEDGE's Romeo and Juliet mini-site), but before Sondheim could capitalize on it and pursue his composing ambitions, he had to accept one more, strictly lyric-writing assignment. He was not happy about that but Hammerstein urged one last lesson on him, the lesson being, how to write for a star. The show was Gypsy, the star was Ethel Merman, and it gave Sondheim the chance to write for one of the last of the first class musical comedies. With this, his second hit, Sondheim's future seemed assured, but it would not be so easy.

When given the chance to write his own music as well as lyrics in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum, he found that although the show was a hit, his songs were not. Forum won the Tony Award, but his score wasn't even nominated for one. Another eight years would pass before, at the age of forty, he'd be given any recognition as a composer—for Company—and even then, he was being regularly advised to concentrate on writing lyrics because "you can't hum the tunes." His music was simply too "musicianly" for ears accustomed to elementary show tunes.

In the years that followed, Stephen Sondheim established himself as Broadway's most ambitious and principled practitioner. He was the artistic conscience of the musical theatre. Every one of his shows was of serious artistic intent and uncompromising integrity. Each was unique, attempting the dangerous or, in his word, the "unexpected."

Sondheim's melodies, of course, have been ravishing, but in his own lanugage. Sondheim can write gorgeous melodies in homage to Gershwin (Follies and "Losing My Mind"), he can write beautiful melodies for the weird and eerie (Sweeney Todd and "Not While I'm Around") and of course there is his bittersweet "Send in The Clowns" from A Little Night Music, but these songs are not written simply to be beautiful songs. They are not from the shows. They are integral to the shows. They are woven into a fabric; they are sections in a musical score. He learned such integration from Oscar Hammerstein and refined the process, but even so, Stephen Sondheim's work can be taken as a metaphor for something bigger than musical theatre—a metaphor for the principles of integrity that he'd learned from "Ookie" Hammerstein.

Yet, Stephen Sondheim will insist that he did it all out of a passion for musical comedy, and that's true, too.

Excerpted from: Gottfried, Martin. "Sondheim." The Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration. Washington, DC: The Kennedy Center Education Department. 2002. (Publication may be purchased at the Kennedy Center Gift Shop.)

For more information on Stephen Sondheim, view this timeline or tune into Sondheim's interview with Frank Rich.

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Each of Sondheim's musicals is distinctively different; different from other Broadway musicals, and different from other Sondheim musicals as well. All were ground-breaking in their time, all remain provocative today.

In our Selected Works section, we focus on four Sondheim musicals that are appropriate for high school audiences.

Download and print classroom versions of the posters for these selected shows, created especially for ARTSEDGE users! Visit the Extras page for more information.

This resource was created in May 2002 by ARTSEDGE. All rights reserved.
For credits and additional information, see the Sources page.
ARTSEDGE is a project of the Education Department of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,
and is a member of the MarcoPolo Partnership.