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Stephen Sondheim

(1930 - 2021)

Stephen Sondheim was a Jewish American composer and lyricist.

Born Stephen Joshua Sondeim on March 22, 1930, in New York City. Sondheim came from a wealthy family that ran a dressmaking company. His father left when he was 10 and his mother once told him her greatest regret was that Stephen had been born.

He had no formal Jewish education or association, nor did he have a Bar Mitzvah, but began to find his Jewish identity later in life. In 1950, he graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Oscar Hammerstein II, a family friend, became his mentor and Sondheim wrote the music for four of his shows: All That Glitters, High Tor, Mary Poppins, Climb High. None of these “assignment” musicals were produced professionally. Sondheim went on to study composition with the famous composer Milton Babbitt.

At the age of twenty-five, Sondheim obtained his first big break when he was asked to write the lyrics for West Side Story. In 1959, he wrote the lyrics to the musical Gypsy. In 1962, Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics for the Broadway musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Between 1970 and 1981, Sondheim collaborated with producer/director Harold Prince on six musicals. In 1970, he composed and wrote the lyrics for the musical Company. This was followed by Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979).

In 1981, with the flop of Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim ended his partnership with Prince, and found a new collaborated in James Lapine. In 1985, they released their first musical, Sunday in the Park with George. In 1985, he won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Sunday in the Park with George. In 1987, the Sondheim-Lapine duo also produced the popular show, Into the Woods.

He also wrote music for several films including Reds (1981) and Dick Tracy.

Sondheim’s best-known song, “Send in the Clowns,” has become a modern standard, covered by famous artists such as Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra.

Sondheim won eight Tony Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2008), an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Laurence Olivier Award, a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has a theater named for him both on Broadway and in the West End of London.

In 2017, he married his partner Jeffrey Romley.

Sondheim died on November 26, 2021. He was 91.

Sources: “Stephen Sondheim, (1930 - ), American Jewish Desk Reference, (NY: Random House, 1999), pp. 405-6.
Internet Movie Database.

“Stephen Sondheim,” Wikipedia.
Ron Kampeas, “Stephen Sondheim, Jewish theater legend who reshaped the American musical, is dead at 91,” JTA, (November 26, 2021).

Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.