Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Stephen Sondheim: The Making of a Theatrical Life, Part Two

We pick up where we left off in yesterday’s Music History Monday with part 2 of “Stephen Sondheim: The Making of a Theatrical Life.”

Stephen Sondheim circa 1947
Stephen Sondheim (born 1930) circa 1947

In 1946, at the age of 16, Sondheim went away to Williams College, a small, very exclusive private liberal arts school in the western Massachusetts burg of Williamstown. He was attracted to Williams’ theater program, and was unconcerned about its tiny music program because, by his own admission, “I didn’t care about music.” Instead, he enrolled as an English major and took music courses as electives.

The “English-major” thing didn’t last for long. All it took was a first-year harmony class with a professor named Robert Barrow:

“Barrow made me realize that all my romantic views of art were nonsense. I had always thought an angel came down and sat on your shoulder and whispered in your ear ‘dah-dah-dah-DUM.’ [It] never occurred to me that art was something worked out. And suddenly it was skies opening up.”

What “opened up” for Sondheim was the realization/revelation that music is not just an art but a language and a craft, one with its own syntax and structure. Inspired, Sondheim switched his major to music and began to compose all sorts of music, including the “musicals” Hammerstein had challenged him to write back in Doylestown.

Along with music, Sondheim threw himself (actually, a difficult thing to do if you think about it) into Williams’ theater program as an actor, “playwright” (mostly parodies of then-popular movies and plays), lyricist, and song writer. As Irwin Shainman – one of Sondheim’s music professors – trenchantly observed:

“For people like Sondheim, the theater department became a surrogate family.”

Sondheim’s graduate photo from Williams College, 1950
Sondheim’s graduate photo from Williams College, 1950

When he graduated at the age of 20 in 1950, that same Professor Shainman remembered that Sondheim:

“made it very clear that he wasn’t planning to write a symphony or planning to write an opera. He wanted to be the best on Broadway.”

Many years later, Sondheim could only shake his head as he pondered his naivete.

“You know, I had this idealistic notion, when I was twenty, that I was going into the theater. I wasn’t; I was going into show business, and I was a fool to think otherwise.”

That said, Sondheim had no illusions about his musical training, which was still quite incomplete. He briefly considered graduate school, but rejected that idea:

“I just wanted to study composition, theory, and harmony without the attendant musicology that comes in graduate school. But I knew I wanted to write for the theatre, so I wanted someone who did not disdain theater music.”

After having sought the advice of a number of teachers, Sondheim decided to study with Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), a music professor at Princeton University who took a small number of private students on the side.…

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