Stephen Sondheim was a U.S. composer and lyricist born in New York on March 22, 1930. His meeting with his neighbor Oscar Hammerstein II in Pennsylvania (where he moved with his mother) led him to write lyrics for stage shows. Winning the Hutchinson Prize for music at Williams College enabled him to study privately with Milton Babbitt. Sondheim leapt to the forefront of Broadway lyricists while still in his twenties when he coauthored the songs (with Leonard Bernstein) for West Side Story (1957).
He followed this hugely successful musical with another lyrical triumph, Jule Styne’s Gypsy (1959), and then wrote both the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). Company (1970) revolutionized the art form, and Follies (1971) marked the start of Sondheim’s collaboration with Hal Prince. A Little Night Music (1973) contained his most popular song “Send in the Clowns,” while Pacific Overtures (1976) broke new ground with its use of Japanese kabuki theater techniques. Sweeney Todd (1979) is his biggest work.
In Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Sondheim, inspired by a painting by Seurat, conveyed his images of the pointillist style through use of musical minimalism. His later works include Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1991), and Passion (1994), his most symphonic score. He also wrote film scores. Sondheim’s musical language, in which melody and harmony are closely argued, retains strong affinities with Ravel and Aaron Copland, while making sophisticated use of jazz and dance idioms; it is intensely personal. His use of counterpoint is the anchor which separates him from most of today’s theatrical composers.
Sondheim was on the Council of the Dramatist Guild, having served as its president from 1973 to 1981. In 1983 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was appointed the first Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University (1990) and was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors (1993), a National Medal of Arts Award (1997), and the Praemium Imperiale, Japan’s highest honor, for a lifetime of artistic achievement (2000). In 2002, he received the ASCAP Richard Rodgers Award.
Most of his scores have won Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards. “Sooner or Later” from Dick Tracy won an Academy Award, and Sunday in the Park with George was awarded the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Sondheim died of cardiovascular disease on November 26, 2021, at the age of 91.
Grove Music Online; J. Gordon (ed.), Stephen Sondheim: A Casebook (1997); M. Secrest, Stephen Sondheim: A Life (1998); M. Gottfried, Sondheim (2000).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Unknown photographer, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.