Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Stephen Sondheim: The Making of a Theatrical Life, Part One

Stephen Joshua Sondheim (born 1920); April 6, 2004, by Richard Avedon
Stephen Joshua Sondheim (born 1920); April 6, 2004, by Richard Avedon

We mark the birth on March 22, 1930 – 91 years ago today – and the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Alive and we trust well, living in his brownstone townhouse in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay neighborhood on the East Side of Midtown (also the home of the Chrysler Building and the United Nations), we can only hope that Maestro Sondheim is spending the day doing what he does best: writing a song. What a wonderful coincidence: for the second week in a row, I get to write about one of my favorite subjects: the American musical theater. Last week it was the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and their masterwork, My Fair Lady. In today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes, I get to write about Stephen Sondheim. What a pleasure!An upfront statement. Stephen Joshua Sondheim has lived a long, complex, incredibly productive and well-documented life. To attempt to tell his entire story in one or two 2500-word blog/podcasts can only trivialize his life story and his work. So instead, today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes posts will tell the painful story of his early life and explore the mentorships and experiences that shaped his education and early career. A proper examination of the man and his stage works demands – at very least – a 24-lecture Great Courses Survey, which would run approximately 120,000 words!

A One-Man Operation

In last week’s Music History Monday post, we observed that the great Broadway song writing teams – Lerner and Loewe, Gershwin and Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rogers and Hammerstein, and so forth – are spoken of so often that their names merge into a single name: “Rogersandhammerstein.” But as we noted last week, a singularity these teams are not: they consist of two often very different people working together in one of the most intense collaborations imaginable.The operative words in the previous paragraph are “teams” and “collaborations”. Writing good lyrics and good music are two very difficult and very different artistic challenges; to become accomplished at either one usually requires half a lifetime of hard work. To be both successful as a lyricist and a composer is another thing all together. Members of this vaunted club are few indeed, and include Cole Porter (1891-1964), Meredith Wilson (1902-1984; who wrote The Music Man), Frank Loesser (1910-1969; who wrote the lyrics and music fore Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying); Lin-Manuel Miranda (born 1980; who created Hamilton), and Anaïs Mitchell (born 1981; who created Hadestown). But with all due respect to the wonderful Cole Porter (who wrote the songs for 24 musicals!), we must recognize that qualitatively (if not quantitatively) the greatest one-person-lyrics-and-music act in the history of Broadway is Stephen Sondheim, hands-and-feet down. 

Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), and choreographer Jerome Robbins (1918-1998), at work on West Side Story, 1956
Left-to-right: Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), and choreographer Jerome Robbins (1918-1998), at work on West Side Story, 1956

Early in his career, Sondheim did indeed work solely as a lyricist; he wrote the lyrics to West Side Story (1957, music by Leonard Bernstein); Gypsy (1959, music by Jule Styne); and Do I Hear a Waltz (1965, music by Richard Rodgers). But that was it, and Sondheim provided both the lyrics and the music for his remaining 16 shows. Those shows include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Evening Primrose (1966), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeny Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1990), Passion (1994), and Road Show (2008).This is a stunning body of work to which we must also add songs for such movies as The Seven-Percent Solution, Reds, Dick Tracey, and The Birdcage. Along the way Sondheim has picked up, among other awards and honors, an Academy Award, 8 Grammy Awards, 9 Tony Awards (more than any other composer in the history of the stage), 8 Drama Desk Awards, 5 Lawrence Olivier Awards, a Pulitzer Prize (for Sunday in the Park with George), Kennedy Center Honors, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.…

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