Biography

a picture of Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim was born in New York in 1930, and is widely acknowledged as the most innovative, most influential and most important composer and lyricist in modern Broadway history.

For more than 50 years he has set an unsurpassed standard of brilliance and artistic integrity in the musical theater. His accolades include an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer) including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, multiple Grammy Awards, multiple Drama Desk awards and a Pulitzer Prize.

He has written the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962), Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), The Frogs (1974), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday In The Park With George (1984), Into The Woods (1987), Assassins (1991), Passion (1994) and Bounce (2003) which later became Road Show (2008), as well as lyrics for West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), Do I Hear A Waltz? (1965), and additional lyrics for Candide (1973).

Side By Side By Sondheim (1976), Marry Me A Little (1981), You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow (1983), Putting It Together (1993/99) Moving On (2001) and Sondheim on Sondheim (2010) are anthologies of his work as composer and lyricist. For films, he composed the scores of Stavisky (1974) and co-composed Reds (1981) as well as songs for The Seven Percent Solution (1976) and Dick Tracy (1990). He also wrote the songs for the television production Evening Primrose (1966), co-authored the film The Last of Sheila (1973) and the play Getting Away With Murder (1996). He provided incidental music for the plays The Girls Of Summer (1956), Invitation To A March (1961), Twigs (1971), The Enclave (1973) and a new production of King Lear (2007) and songs for the plays I Know My Love (1951) and A Mighty Man Is He (1955). He wrote the Passionella segment of The World of Jules Feiffer (1963), and additional material for Hot Spot (1963), The Mad Show (1966) and The Madwoman Of Central Park West (1979). He created cryptic crosswords for New York Magazine in the late 1960s, and was screenwriter for the television series Topper (c1953). As an actor he featured in the television revision of June Moon (1974) and has appeared as himself in the film Camp (2003).

He studied at George School, Pennsylvania (1942 to 1946) and at Williams College, Massachusetts (1946 to 1950) where he was a music major. On college graduation he received the Hutchinson Prize for Composition, and subsequently studied music theory and composition with the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt. Mr. Sondheim’s early work for school and college theatre includes By George (1945) and Phinney’s Rainbow (1948). Between 1948 and 1951 he wrote All That Glitters, High Tor, Mary Poppins and Climb High as part of a course of study under his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II. Saturday Night (1954), his first professional musical, finally had its New York premiere in 1999 following its UK premiere in 1997.

Mr. Sondheim has received the Tony Award for Best Score/ Music / Lyrics for Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into The Woods and Passion, all of which won the New York Drama Circle award for Outstanding /Best Musical, as did Pacific Overtures and Sunday In The Park With George. In total, his works have accumulated more than sixty individual and collaborative Tony Awards. “Sooner Or Later” from the film Dick Tracy won the 1999 Academy Award for Best Song. Mr. Sondheim received The Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1984 for Sunday In The Park With George. In 1983 he was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters, which awarded him the Gold Medal for Music in 2006. In 1990 he was appointed the first Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University and was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award in the 1993 Kennedy Center Honors. In 1992 he declined the National Medal of Arts from the Bush Administration but accepted it from the Clinton administration in 1996. In 2000 he was honoured with The Praemium Imperiale, Japan’s highest honour for a lifetime of artistic achievement, in 2001 was granted the Fellows of the Phi Beta Kappa Society Award and in 2002 received the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Richard Rodgers Award. In February 2007 he was a recipient of the 49th Grammy Awards Trustees Award, an award recognising outstanding contributions to the industry in a non-performing category.

He has been patron to The Stephen Sondheim Society since its foundation in 1993. Mr. Sondheim is on the Council of the Dramatists Guild – the national association of playwrights, composers and lyricists – having served as its President from 1973 to 1981, in which year he founded Young Playwrights Inc. to develop and promote the work of American playwrights aged 18 years and younger.

In June 2008 Mr Sondheim received the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre; also the New York transfer of The Menier Chocolate Factory’s London production of Sunday in the Park with George received nine Tony nominations.

Mr Sondheim’s most recent show, Road Show (aka Gold, Wise Guys & Bounce), opened off-Broadway in Oct 2008, and in London in 2011. It is having a US revival in June 2013 in Chicago.

Recent revivals of his work include A Little Night Music which opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory in November 2008, transferred to The Garrick Theatre (five Olivier Award nominations) and then opened on Broadway in November 2009 (nominated for four Tony Awards); Anyone Can Whistle which opened in March 2010 at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London and a Tony Award winning production of West Side Story which opened on Broadway in February 2009. Follies was revived on Broadway in 2011 – 12 and ithen moved to Los Angeles. In the UK, Sweeney Todd received a landmark production at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2011 – the production opened in London in March 2012 – and there was a highly-praised production of Company at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 2011.

March 22nd 2010 was Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday and there were numerous celebrations around the world to mark the event. Amongst those was the new show Sondheim On Sondheim which opened on Broadway in March of that year.

In July 2010, Mr Sondheim received the accolade of having a London Prom Concert dedicated to his work and in a ceremony on September 15th New York’s Henry Miller’s Theatre was renamed The Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Also for the first time, his work was produced in Paris with the Theatre du Chatelet production of Sweeney Todd. This was followed in 2011 with A Little Night Music and in 2013 with Sunday in the Park With George.

In October 2010 the first of two volumes of his collected and annotated lyrics, Finishing the Hat, was published; that same month The Royal Academy of Music conferred on him an Honorary Doctorate of the University of London.

To mark his birthday Arlington’s Signature Theatre instituted the Sondheim Award which in its first year was presented to Angela Lansbury. Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone won in 2011 and 21012 respectively; the 2013 winner was Harold Prince.

In 2011 amongst other things he received the Olivier Special Award; the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize; the Handel Medallion, (New York City’s highest award for achievement in the arts); The Kennedy Center inaugurated the Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards, Road Show opened in London and volume two of his collected and annotated lyrics, Look I Made a Hat, was published.

The UK Critics Circle 24th Annual Award for Services to the Arts was given to Mr Sondheim in March 2012 and later that year an acclaimed London production of Merrily We Roll Along opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory. This production then transferred to play at the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre in April 2013. At the 2013 Olivier Awards the Chichester production of Sweeney Todd won Best Musical Revival.

The recent New York production of Passion received seven Drama Desk nominations.

In July 2013 the Stephen Sondheim Society launched The Stephen Sondheim Society Archive. Housed at Kingston University this will be of great use and interest to Sondheim academics and scholars around the world.

This biography has been researched and written specially by the Stephen Sondheim Society with the co-operation and approval of Stephen Sondheim

© Stephen Sondheim Society 2013