It’s hard to believe Stephen Sondheim is turning 90. Anyone with a modicum of interest in musical theatre over the last 65 years will know him as the brilliant star that burst over Broadway with lyrics to West Side Story, then as the composer-lyricist who redefined the art form in works like the mould-breaking Follies, the wistful A Little Night Music and the grisly Sweeney Todd.

Stephen SondheimStephen Sondheim, 1977. Photo © Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

As a writer, Sondheim epitomises craft. His lyrics are sharp, smart and immaculately formed, a reassuring trove of eloquence, wit and insight. A restless self-critic, even now he can tut at an internal rhyme like “it’s alarming how charming I feel” in a song like I Feel Pretty. It’s too clever by half for a Puerto Rican immigrant with limited English, he says. In a recent New York Times interview ahead of the new Broadway production of West Side Story he was asked for a line that truly satisfied him. “I just met a girl named Maria,” he answered, adding “that’s the kind of lyric that belongs in this show, for these characters. That’s poetry.”

But, to paraphrase a line from Sondheim’s own Merrily We Roll Along, a show that famously runs backwards in time: “how did he get there from here?”

Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born in New York on March 22, 1930. A bright kid, his world was rocked by his well-heeled parents separation when he was 10. There was an upside, though. His mother moved to Pennsylvania where Oscar Hammerstein was a near neighbour. The great lyricist took the young Sondheim under his wing becoming a trusted mentor (and a surrogate father) to a lad with an interest in musicals and an obvious talent.

According to Craig Zadan’s book Sondheim & Co., Hammerstein famously declared the 15-year-old’s first attempt at a musical to be the worst thing he’d ever read. “Now I didn’t say it was untalented,” he told the boy, “I said it was terrible. And if you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you.” He then proceeded to take it apart scene by scene and song by song. “In that afternoon I learned more about song writing and the musical theatre than most people learn in a lifetime,” says Sondheim.

Over the next few years, Hammerstein critiqued four apprentice musicals he’d set Sondheim to write – George S. Kaufman’s Beggar on Horseback, High Tor by Maxwell Anderson, Mary Poppins, and an original work called Climb High with a first act that came in at 99 pages. “I got it back with a circle around 99 and just a ‘Wow!’ written on it,” Sondheim would recall later.

A fellowship to study in New York with Milton Babbitt, a composer better known for his use of serial technique, saw Sondheim hang out with young Turks like Hal Prince, people who would become the movers and shakers of the next generation of Broadway creatives. He also started his first serious musical, a show about the loves and dreams of a bunch of kids in 1928 Brooklyn. As it turned out, Saturday Night would wait over 40 years before premiering in London at the Bridewell Theatre, and although Babbitt told Zadan that the score bore no relation to anything Sondheim had written since, people who enjoyed it in 1997 were quick to spot pre-echoes of later masterpieces.

West Side Story FilmThe film of West Side Story was a box office hit in 1961

Things looked up for Sondheim when he bumped into playwright Arthur Laurents at a party who told him he was working with Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein on a musical version of Romeo and Juliet. Laurents had been at a backers’ audition for Saturday Night, and although he declared that “I didn’t like your music”, he did admit to liking the lyrics a lot (a frustrating bias that would bedevil Sondheim for years). Winning the confidence of Bernstein, Sondheim was recruited onto the West Side Story team, despite a certain reluctance (“I’ve never even known a Puerto Rican!” he told his agent at the time). By the time the show opened to rave reviews in 1957 Sondheim was one of Broadway’s hottest properties.

Keen to write both music and lyrics for his next show, Sondheim approached Burt Shevelove who suggested some comedies by the Roman playwright Plautus. A first draft of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was interrupted when Sondheim was approached about a musical on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee. When the show’s star, Ethel Merman, objected to Sondheim doing both score and lyrics, insisting on Jule Styne as composer, it took Hammerstein to persuade him that writing for Merman would be an invaluable experience. “I was heartsick, but I did it,” Sondheim said later. With standards like Some People and Everything’s Coming Up Roses, Gypsy was another feather in Sondheim’s cap, while the showbiz mom has been a vehicle for Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone and, most recently, Imelda Staunton.

Zero Mostel and Michael Crawford in the less successful 1966 film of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. 

Interestingly, for all the critical raves, neither West Side Story nor Gypsy were smash hits at the box office. “Generally, I’ve always wanted to have a smash, but I rather doubt that I ever will,” Sondheim once admitted, pointing out that smash hit musicals demand a story that audiences want to hear. “And it’s always the same story, how everything turns out terrific in the end and the audience goes out thinking, that’s what life is all about.”

On that basis, Forum, which finally landed on Broadway in 1962, ought to have been a smash, despite a bumpy road to opening night. Zero Mostel starred as Pseudolus, a slave trying to win his freedom, but he was third choice for the role and even he turned it down at first. For Sondheim it was an odd experience writing numbers which, for all their entertainment value, seldom advance the plot. “The songs could be removed from the show and it wouldn’t make any difference,” he admitted later, though he still raves about the script (“It’s almost like a senior thesis on 2,000 years of comedy with an intricate, Swiss watch-like farce plot”). When the show was bombing out of town, Jerome Robbins was called in. Putting his finger on the original opening number, he advised a rewrite. Its replacement, Comedy Tonight, turned a miss into a hit and Forum went on to win the Tony for Best Musical. Phil Silvers and Geoffrey Rush are among those who have played the lead, and in 1997, Whoopi Goldberg took over from Nathan Lane as Broadway’s first black and simultaneously first female Pseudolus.

Imelda Staunton as Rose in Gypsy, London 2015. Photo © Johan Persson 

Two years later, Sondheim had his first serious flop. A show about miracles and mental health (among other things), Anyone Can Whistle, with a book by Laurents, was “way ahead of its time,” according to its composer. Although she thought the story “crackers”, Hollywood star Angela Lansbury signed on to play the corrupt mayoress of a town desperate for a miracle, with Lee Remick as a sexually repressed nurse in charge of a band of mental patients. There are some fine songs – Everybody Says Don’t, There Won’t Be Trumpets and the show’s title number – and openminded reviewers praised its originality, but critics for the majors hated it and it lasted nine performances. Despite attempts to revive its fortunes over the years, little remains beyond its original cast album, recorded the morning after the show shut up shop.

Somewhat on the rebound, in 1965 Sondheim had his arm twisted to write just lyrics again, this time for Richard Rodgers who was in a rut following the death of Hammerstein. Do I Hear a Waltz? was another Laurents project, a bittersweet (or rather sweet-bitter) tale of marriages on the skids set in Venice. After a catalogue of creative differences, in 1973 Sondheim would describe Hammerstein to Newsweek as a man who had limited talent and infinite soul, but Rodgers as a man of infinite talent and limited soul. For his part, Rodgers, who had known Sondheim since 1942, joked to The New York Times that he’d “watched him grow from an attractive little boy to a monster.” Feuding singers contributed to a show Sondheim himself has referred to as having “no real energy”. Nevertheless, for lovers of tunes and clever lyrics the cast album contains some tantalising material.

It was soon after that two good ideas came along at once. The first came from Hal Prince and George Furth who had written a series of short plays, some of which touched on marriage. Sondheim saw the potential for a musical about couples in New York and an unmarried, 35-year-old central character with commitment issues. For all that its songs felt Brechtian – and Sondheim is no fan of Brecht – Company is the first Sondheim show that feels archetypally Sondheim. In fact, the show is more Chekhovian, with a cast of lost souls most of whom go precisely nowhere. Sharp as a thumbtack and totally up to date, tart, invective-laced numbers like The Little Things You Do Together and The Ladies Who Lunch rub shoulders with outbursts like the climactic Being Alive.

The show, with Elaine Stritch’s star turn as the vodka-soaked Joanne, opened in 1970 and was praised by many, though Clive Barnes in The New York Times found the characters unlikable and described the music as “slick, clever, and eclectic rather than exciting”. Nevertheless, it won Sondheim his first Tonys for Best Music and Best Lyrics, ran for 20 months, and is regularly revived. Its most recent staging at London’s National Theatre saw Sondheim sanction a female Bobby (now called Bobbie) in a production that transfers to Broadway in April.

The National Theatre’s Follies, 2017. Photo © Johan Persson 

The second idea had come from playwright James Goldman. With Prince helping the writers clarify their ideas, particularly the decision to use flashback as a device, Goldman’s The Girls Upstairs metamorphosed into Follies, a wistful hymn to show business, wealth and disappointment. When a group of former Ziegfeld girls are reunited to farewell their old theatre, the evening slips into recriminations for missed opportunities, or as one of Sondheim’s greatest songs puts it: The Road You Didn’t Take. With a rollcall of songs that includes Broadway Baby, Waiting for the Girls Upstairs, I’m Still Here and Losing My Mind, it seems unbelievable it wasn’t universally acclaimed. There were several raves, but Barnes weighed in again, admiring the lyrics but dissing the use of pastiche and describing the songs as forgettable. Although the 1971 production won its composer another Tony, Follies was written off at the time as one that got away. Over the years, it’s gone through more rewrites than most Sondheim shows, but recent revivals have demonstrated it to be a work of considerable genius and a film version was announced last year.

Nancye Hayes in Victorian Opera’s A Little Night Music. Photo © Jeff Busby

Follies may have lost its entire investment, but 1973 saw Sondheim back on Broadway with one of his best-loved shows. A Little Night Music is an adaptation of Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night with a deliciously crafted book by Hugh Wheeler. It took Prince, however, to steer Sondheim away from the bleakness of Bergman’s original and lighten the mood. When a middle-aged lawyer with a wife half his age meets a former flame, the ensuing weekend in the country provides the catalyst for old mistakes to be unmade with musical reflections on the unpredictability of love. The score, one of Sondheim’s most “classical” in feel, won him his third Tony and includes You Must Meet My Wife, Liaisons, and The Miller’s Son. The haunting Send in the Clowns – a song that the painstakingly slow Sondheim came up with overnight – would prove the composer’s most enduring hit.

Although his next show was not a success, Pacific Overtures, which opened in 1976, brought Sondheim into contact with a lifelong collaborator. John Weidman – son of Jerome Weidman who had contributed to the books for Fiorello! and I Can Get It For You Wholesale – had written a show about how the US forced the Japanese to open their doors to international trade in 1853. An emotive score that fuses Broadway, operetta and traditional Japanese music, it contains some of Sondheim’s most dazzling lyrics, while the composer has cited Someone in a Tree as his favourite song. It may have only lasted six months, but smaller scale revivals have shown that in the right environment it can thrive.

Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd, 2014. Photo © David Gordon

Undeterred, Sondheim’s next show would be one of his most popular. Sweeney Todd was inspired by Christopher Bond’s adaptation of an old Victorian melodrama that the composer had caught in London back in 1973. “It had a weight to it, but I couldn’t figure out how the language was so rich and thick without being fruity,” Sondheim told Craig Zadan. “It’s as cleverly plotted as Forum, but not as intricate… It struck me as a piece that sings.”

A tale of obsession in which a psychotic barber’s victims are baked into pies by his paramour, its grand musical ambitions – it has little spoken dialogue – and motivic score have made it popular with opera companies (State Opera of South Australia will be the latest to stage it this October). Hal Prince’s production, starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, opened on Broadway in 1979 to mostly excellent notices and ran 16 months. Subsequent interpretations have featured singers from Bryn Terfel to Anthony Warlow, while Tim Burton’s film starred Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

By 1980, Sondheim was entering a richly experimental period, though it started with a disastrous flop. Merrily We Roll Along runs in reverse to show how a trio of jaded musical theatre creatives and one-time friends gradually lost their wide-eyed idealism, sporting a high-octane score packed with hummable tunes. Casting unknowns may not have helped, and rehearsals were beset with major conceptual changes, but either way, audiences simply failed to get it and it closed after only 16 performances. Subsequent revivals have fared better, and there’s even a movie in the works, which will be filmed over more than a decade to allow the actors to age along with their characters. Sydney will have the chance to judge Merrily when the Hayes Theatre Co stages the work in April [now postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 crisis].

Meryl Streep as the witch in the film of Into the Woods, 2014

It was a young writer-director by the name of James Lapine who helped Sondheim get over his post-Merrily blues. Their collaboration, first on Sunday in the Park with George and subsequently on Into the Woods, saw the composer score two very different hits. The former takes its cue from Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte. Lapine pointed out to Sondheim the enigmatic relationships between the people in the canvas and speculated on the artist’s intentions. With a first act focusing on Seurat in 19th-century Paris and a second involving his supposed great grandson, a conceptual artist in modern day America, the show is a treatise on creativity, artistic integrity and holding to your vision. Its quixotic, minimalist-inflected score mirrors Seurat’s pointillist technique and contains some of Sondheim’s finest songs like Finishing the Hat, Putting It Together and Move On. Developed off-Broadway at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, the full production starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters struggled on moving to the Great White Way in 1984. Lukewarm reviews, however, couldn’t stop it winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Into the Woods, which unusually for Sondheim premiered in San Diego, interweaves fairy tales and has proved popular with family audiences as well as the musical cognoscenti. The show, in which storybook characters are forced to examine the consequences of their actions, features songs like No One Is Alone and Children Will Listen. Premiering on Broadway in 1987, it won him another Tony and is one of Sondheim’s most revived musicals. The 2014 Disney film adaptation featured an all-star cast headed by Meryl Streep as the witch and grossed $213 million worldwide.

Sondheim was presented with an Honorary Fellowship by RADA (Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in November, 2019. Photo © Kurt Sneddon

For his next project, Sondheim chose to explore his darker side once again in Assassins, a collaboration with John Weidman that views the American Dream through the eyes of a handful of broken misfits who killed, or attempted to kill, a US President. With catchy songs and a dramatis personae that includes John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, Assassins opened Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons to surprisingly poor reviews in 1990. A new production in 2004 at Broadway’s Studio 54 was a resounding success, however, and recent stagings have clearly resonated in our contentious political climate.

Passion, which opened in 1994, saw Sondheim back with James Lapine for a story adapted from Ettore Scola’s film Passione d’Amore, itself based on Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s 1869 novel Fosca. A bleak romance that deals with obsessive love, illness and sexual manipulation, the plot concerns the relationship between a self-absorbed soldier and his Colonel’s invalid cousin. Sondheim’s score, which contains ravishing songs like I Wish I Could Forget You and Loving You, won the Tony despite mixed reviews before closing on Broadway after eight months.

After Passion, Sondheim spent the best part of 14 years working and reworking his next musical. Road Show is a double biopic exploring the love-hate relationship between the real-life Mizner brothers – one a buttoned-up architect, the other a charismatic con man – both of whom died in 1933. First called Wise Guys, then Gold! and after that Bounce, the show underwent multiple revisions before reaching its final form, which premiered to disappointing notices Off-Broadway in 2008.

At 89, Sondheim is undoubtedly Broadway’s most feted artist, a composer who has spawned a host of compilation shows, from Side By Side By Sondheim and Marry Me A Little to the latest, Sondheim On Sondheim, which will play at QPAC on the composer’s 90th birthday in a performance featuring the Brisbane Philharmonic and a cast led by Philip Quast and Anne Wood [this performance has now been cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis]. Theatres have been named for him, he has his own “fan club” (the Stephen Sondheim Society), he was honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, and last year was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by RADA.

In recent years the composer has been reportedly working on an adaptation of two films by the surrealist director Luis Buñuel: The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). In 2019, New York’s Public Theatre announced that it would not be part of its 2019-2020 season and instead will be produced “when it is ready”. With hopefully another decade in him, musical theatre history waits with bated breath.

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