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Who is Stephen Sondheim?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 June 2014
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Stephen Sondheim is an American composer and lyricist. He was born in New York City on 22 March 1930 and studied piano as a child, but it was his reaction to seeing a Broadway musical at age nine that began his interest in theater. That same year, his parents divorced, and he moved to Pennsylvania, where he met Jimmy Hammerstein, whose father was lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II.

Under Hammerstein’s mentoring, Sondheim honed his skills in constructing musicals, creating four musicals according to Hammerstein’s criteria. An award from Williams College allowed him to study composition with composer Milton Babbitt.

After co-authoring television scripts, Sondheim returned to musical theater as the composer and lyricist for Saturday Night, which wasn’t staged until 1997. It was as lyricist for West Side Story (1957), with a score by Leonard Bernstein, and for Gypsy (1959), with a score by Jule Styne, that he got his big break. He had hopes of doing the music for Gypsy, but Ethel Merman, who had the leading role, wanted a composer with more experience.

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With A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Sondheim got the opportunity to write lyrics and music for a musical, and it outlasted West Side Story on Broadway. His next outing, however, did not succeed; Anyone Can Whistle, Angela Lansbury’s debut in musical theater, closed after nine performances. After one more stint as lyricist, this time for Richard RodgersDo I Hear a Waltz?, Sondheim composed and wrote lyrics for a series of mostly memorable musicals:

  • Company (1970)
  • Follies (1971)
  • A Little Night Music (1973)
  • Pacific Overtures (1976)
  • Sweeney Todd (1979)
  • Merrily We Roll Along (1981)
  • Sunday in the Park with George (1984)
  • Into the Woods (1987)
  • Assassins (1990)
  • Passion (1994)
  • Wise Guys (1999)
  • Bounce (2003)
  • The Frogs (2004)

Sondheim has also adapted his musicals to other media — for example, he adapted Company for television and Sweeney Todd for a feature film in 2007. He also provided incidental music for King Lear in the same year, and wrote songs for the movie Dick Tracy in 1990.

The composer has won numerous awards, including a Grammy Award for the score of Sweeney Todd, Grammy Song of the Year for “Send in the Clowns,” a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Sunday in the Park with George, and an Academy Award for “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” from Dick Tracy. In addition, he has won six Tony Awards and received the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.

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