Stephen Sondheim is the American musical theater maestro, and one of the most influential and memorable figures in the history of the theater, whose songs have helped change the texture of popular culture. Sondheim won four Tony Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes during his career, a rarity for composers.
“I don’t see myself as a composer or a lyricist,” he once told The New York Times. “I just see myself as an arranger and a dramaturg.”
“For me, writing is really just a ladder to climb and then down and back up,” he told The New York Times in 1986. “I’m really just a student of theater, a lover of theater.”
His work on Sweeney Todd or Company have become inextricably linked with the traditions of classic melodrama, from Hollywood to Broadway. “His cutting of snide dialogue, while merely redolent of nursery rhymes, reveals perversity beneath its decorative layers,” Columbia University drama professor Anthony Chase once told the Times.
Sondheim crafted his persona in vaudeville and Broadway musicals, and remained a performer through most of his life. In the 1970s, he told The New York Times: “I always started writing as the entertainment and then went into the mind of the character.” His trademark lyricism inspired the work of several of his more contemporary counterparts, including their innate blend of beauty and power. Many of Sondheim’s works have become the touchstones of contemporary musical theater; if not for Sondheim, Sondheim would most likely be one of those composers.
A native of Brooklyn, Sondheim didn’t get his start in the business until his early 30s, when he was working at the Random House publishing house in a newspaper ad sales job. In 1957, a songwriter friend asked him to write a score for a theater piece. Sondheim’s first foray into musicals was Company, which followed the 1950s comedy it’s based on. The performance was so popular, Sondheim crafted the show in 1974.
His fiction is also noteworthy, and includes two memoirs, including Moving Out, about his first marriage, which ended in divorce, and his visit to Vietnam in the early 1970s. After Company, he wrote the musicalCompany and offered the lead role to Denzel Washington, much to the chagrin of the show’s other producers. It has since become a best-selling book, featuring a now classic anecdote about how he rejected the film’s costar, Vanessa Redgrave, who was considered for the role.
He was married five times, and had three children. He received 12 honorary degrees from universities, including a PhD from Harvard. And his voice, sultry as a siren’s, was as irrepressible as his culture.
“Hair is a wonderful thing, not only to sing but to perform,” he told NPR in 2015. “Because as soon as I read the lyrics and read what the kind of song is, I can just throw them in the pocket and not have to worry about finding it.”
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