Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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SONDHEIM, Stephen

(b 22 March 1930, NYC) Composer and lyricist of musical shows. His lessons as a child from family friend Oscar Hammerstein II included full-length experimental musicals; he studied with composer Milton Babbitt (b 10 May 1916, Philadelphia PA) and wrote musicals while in college. Saturday Night was commissioned in 1952, based on the play Front Porch In Flatbush by Julius and Philip Epstein, who also shared an Oscar for the screenplay for Casablanca. Saturday Night didn't open because the producer died; it made it to the stage in London in 1997, whereupon Julius Epstein had a stroke. It appeared in Chicago and off-off-Broadway in 1999 but didn't make a stir. Finally, set a few months before the stock market crash of 1929, it seemed to be topical; it opened at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre in London in February 2009 and Norman Lebrecht said it contained plenty of fingerprints of the Sondheim to come.

Sondheim wrote incidental music for Broadway shows Twigs, Girls Of Summer, Invitation To A March; some lyrics for a revival of Leonard Bernstein's Candide '56, then lyrics for his West Side Story '58; Gypsy '59 might have been the first Sondheim musical, but star Ethel Merman insisted on a 'name' composer, so he worked with Jule Styne (the film without Merman '62 was less successful).

He wrote words and music for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum '62 (the film '66 was directed by Richard Lester, photographed by Nicholas Roeg, with Phil Silvers, Zero Mostel, Michael Crawford, Jack Gilford, Michael Hordern, Buster Keaton: Pauline Kael called it 'coitus interruptus going on for ever'; many of the songs had been dropped): there was an original cast LP on Capitol and a soundtrack on UA. The next few OC LPs were on Columbia: Anyone Can Whistle '64 flopped but was recorded the day after it closed; record companies seemed to understand the importance of recording Sondheim shows. (A concert version '95 from Sony presented the music uncut with better singing, though Angela Lansbury in the original was priceless.) At Columbia (CBS) the albums were produced by Goddard Leiberson, then by Thomas Z. Shepard, who went to RCA '76 and produced them there (and went to MCA '86). Sondheim collaborated with Richard Rodgers on flop Do I Hear A Waltz? '65 (Rodgers was difficult, past his prime and perhaps knew it). Evening Primrose '66 was a television play by James Goldman, with Anthony Perkins and four songs by Sondheim, followed by Company '70 on the stage, a '60s look at marriage in so far as it had a plot, a series of brisk and brittle scenes with witty cynical lyrics and internal rhymes which are his trademark; the show-stopper was 'The Ladies Who Lunch', performed in the original cast by the wonderful Elaine Stritch, but 'The Little Things You Do Together', 'Barcelona' and 'Side By Side' were also good songs. (When the show moved to London, a new edition of the recording replaced Dean Jones's voice with that of Larry Kert, a better singer.) Follies '71, set in show business, looked back to a heyday of Broadway with cynicism about romance, but also good melodies, including clever parodies of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin etc; it collected seven Tonys and ran 522 performances but lost money (the Capitol OC LP was a disaster, mangling the songs to make it fit on one LP; some cuts were restored on CD, but the two-disc Lincoln Center concert performance '85 on RCA was done properly). A Little Night Music '73 was written mostly in 3/4 time; it included his biggest hit song 'Send In The Clowns' (top 40 '75, top 20 '77 by Judy Collins); further evidence that he wrote a new kind of show, it contained his usual gloom (especially about marriage: his parents were divorced when he was ten), also ever more graceful wit. (The US OC album on Columbia is still the best; UK '75 on RCA is good; UK '90 on TER has drastically reduced forces; there was a bargain '96 Royal Court on Tring; the show was filmed '77 with Hermione Gingold and Elizabeth Taylor, a poorly-planned film, Taylor's version of 'Clowns' compiled from about 40 takes.)

Sondheim: A Musical Tribute '73 on WB was a benefit, with 33 performers and 42 songs, one of the first events of its kind to be recorded. Pacific Overtures '76 did not do well (OC on RCA; the ENO UK on TER included all the dialogue). Sweeney Todd (The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street) '79 began with a blank verse play by Christopher Bond, itself a version of an 1847 original, rewritten many times; the musical thriller was almost entirely sung, the touring production videotaped in LA (OC on RCA in both complete two-disc and single-disc abridgement, with the wonderful Angela Lansbury). The last five shows all won NY Drama Critics' Circle Awards and all but Pacific Overtures won Tonys, despite the fact that some were flops and important NYC critics disliked nearly all of them. The purpose of his songs is to advance the plot; they have been called 'unhummable', but in fact they are not reprised over and over until the audience remembers them: there is no reprise in a Sondheim show without a dramatic reason for it.

Side By Side By Sondheim '76 cleverly brought out the thread of poetry in his work, a compilation of his songs directed by Ned Sherrin (also one of the four performers); a hit in London, it went to Broadway and totalled 384 performances (two-disc album on RCA). Sondheim also wrote film music (Stavisky '74, The Seven Percent Solution '77, Reds '81), and co-wrote the script with Perkins for the non-musical Hollywood in-joke/whodunnit The Last Of Sheila '73, which began with a murder game he invented (and which also inspired Anthony Shaffer to write the smash play/film Sleuth). He also acted in a TV revival '74 of the play June Moon, the same year he wrote a score for and adaptation of Aristophanes' The Frogs, staged in Yale's swimming pool during its repertory season.

Marry Me A Little '80 was a one-hour late-night entertainment using unpublished and unperformed songs, a hit off-Broadway, but flopped when moved to a theatre where its intimacy was lost (album on RCA). Merrily We Roll Along '81 closed after 16 performances, the plot in reverse, three friends tracing their histories back to their optimistic earlier days; it was vividly recorded the morning after including a derisive lyric about 'humma-mamumma-mamummable melodies' (OC on RCA; the piece was reworked by Sondheim for an off-Broadway revival recorded for Varèse Sarabande and for a London production on TER, but the RCA original is unsurpassed). Sunday In The Park With George '84, on Georges Seurat with suitably pointillist music, received awards, as had Sweeney, was also taped for TV; Richard Corliss in Time described it as 'a cool unblinking object. Only a closer look reveals it as a shapely work of art' (the album on RCA CD is a triumph, with Mandy Patinkin's best performance). Into The Woods opened on Broadway late '87, combining characters from fairy tales, more affirmative than anything he has written, the haunting ballad 'No One Is Alone' compared to 'Clowns'. (The OC and London casts both on RCA, the latter perhaps superior but with no documentation, not even a coherent synopsis.)

Follies finally reached London '87 and Pacific Overture was revived by the English National Opera, combining Kabuki and Broadway, demanding more from performer and listener than Broadway was used to. The new shows continued: Assassins was a 90-minute examination of American political violence, John Weidman's book allowing Leon Czolgosz (who shot President McKinley) to get together with John Hinckley (who shot at Reagan) and Charlie Guiteau (Garfield) in a barroom; all are assembled in Dallas, where John Wilkes Booth encourages Lee Harvey Oswald to vindicate them all. The farce of Squeaky Fromm and Sara Jane Moore throwing bullets at Gerald Ford (intoning 'Bang! Bang!') is followed by Czolgosz's haunting, minor key 'Gun Song'; the music echoes Stephen Foster to Sousa, Scott Joplin to bluegrass and the 'me' love songs of the 1970s. Passion '95 with a book by James Lapine started with Ettore Scola's movie Passione D'Amore; it was a further step towards opera, through-composed and apparently with no songs at all, yet songful, fusing words and music completely, a curiously upbeat score for a dark, unsettling rhapsody on obsessive, unconditional love. Several of Sondheim's shows do better on disc than on stage (e.g. Merrily); the OC recordings of Assassins (RCA) and Passion (EMI) were superb.

A new project announced '95 was to be Wise Guys, about the Meisner brothers, one the architect of Palm Beach, the other a conman; its name changed to Bounce, it opened 2003 in Washington DC; renamed Road Show, it made it to New York in 2008, his first new show there since Passion. Sondheim and producer/director Hal Prince worked together on Bounce in 2003 for the first time since Merrily (though they had remained close friends). The show is short, only 100 minutes, similar to Assassins; with 18 songs and almost through-composed, it is about brotherly love: they can't stand each other and can't do without each other. Sondheim and librettist John Weidman had kept working on it until, ingeniously designed by John Doyle, it snuck into NYC to a tiny theatre with an audience of only 300 ecstatic Sondheim fans. One critic wrote that if it is a minor work, Sondheim's minor work is worth x times anything by anybody else.

Sondheim's songs and lyrics were recorded by Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Carly Simon; he worked with Barbra Streisand on her Broadway Album '85: Columbia didn't want her to do an album of show songs; half the songs were Sondheim's and the LP was no. 1 for three weeks. Many other bits and pieces included crossword puzzles for New York magazine '68 described as diabolical; two songs (with Styne's music) for Tony Bennett ('Come Over Here' and 'Home Is The Place'), other incidental music and lyrics. A Stephen Sondheim Evening '83 at the Whitney Museum was recorded by Shepard, a two-disc set on RCA, some of it included in Shepard's four-disc A Collector's Sondheim with other bits not previously issued; three-disc Sondheim '83 from the Book of the Month Club was a new set supervised by Sondheim, with a 27-minute arrangement of dances from Pacific Overtures and song 'Goodbye For Now' (theme from film Reds). Composer-lyricist Jerry Herman said 'We would all agree that Steve is the genius of the group, the only one who keeps on taking the musical theatre to new places' (quoted in Time). An illustrated book, Sondheim And Co. by Craig Zaden in 1987, had commentary from principals including Prince, stars of the shows, award-winning orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and many others as well as valuable appendices. A revival of Company designed by Doyle was issued on DVD in 2008.