Stephen Sondheim is a world renowned composer and lyricist for stage musicals. From his early mentoring under the great composer Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim showed a knack for innovative musical techniques, unusual composition, and great lyrics. In his long career, the music of Stephen Sondheim has garnered him seven Tony Awards, an Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize for drama. His musicals are among the best loved in the canon of theater.
Many people are unaware that one of at the age of 27, Sondheim composed the lyrics for West Side Story in 1957. Although the musical is noted for its strong storyline and powerful musical score by Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics of songs like “Maria,” “Something’s Coming,” and “Cool” brought Sondheim considerable fame. Despite the incredible success of the musical and film, Stephen Sondheim considered the lyrics overly poetic. He also composed only lyrics for the popular musical Gypsy in 1959.
The first of the Stephen Sondheim musicals to have both his lyrics and composition was the farcical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This 1962 comedy set in Ancient Rome received considerable notice and several Tony Awards in its initial Broadway run, but the score was not well received by most critics.
After a string of poorly received work, Sondheim again was given positive attention for Company in 1970. The production won the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score. Company is considered by many to be the first of the great Sondheim musicals, featuring his trademark staccato rhythms and complicated internal rhyme structures.
The dark and tragic Sweeny Todd has become perhaps the best known of the Sondheim musicals. The story follows a wrongfully imprisoned barber in Victorian London, returned from 15 years in an Australian penal colony determined to get revenge. With the help of a mercenary landlady, Todd sets about murdering his accusers in his barber shop and having them turned into pies. While Sweeny Todd is undoubtedly the most gruesome of the Sondheim musicals, it is consistently popular with audiences. In 2007, a film version was made by director Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp as the demon barber.
Many critics consider the 1980s to be the golden age of Sondheim musicals. In 1985, Sunday in the Park with George received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, only the 6th time in history the award has gone to a musical. The play follows the woes of pointillist painter George Seurat as he works on his masterpiece. The score is noted for its lyricism, including the popular “Finishing the Hat,” and “Beautiful.”
Closely following on the heels of that success, Into The Woods was produced in 1987 to considerable critical acclaim. This fairy-tale turned nightmare follows several legendary characters including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel, as their promised happy endings unravel. This Sondheim musical is often seen as a vindication of his eclectic style; after being snubbed at the Tony Awards for Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods conquered the awards circuit with several prominent wins.
Stephen Sondheim has proved a visionary and unique addition to the world of musical theater. His tunes may not always be easy to hum as he often ignores classic melodic structure, but they can be extremely affecting and are constructed with obvious technical prowess. Many musical critics consider the influence of Sondheim musicals to be one of the major forces in modern musical theater, and his new works are still highly anticipated in the musical theater community.