Stephen Sondheim wrote his first musical, By George in prep school when he was fifteen years old. Inspired by the success of the show, he asked his friend James’s father, Oscar Hammerstein II to evaluate it.
“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever read,” the elder Hammerstein told him. “But it isn’t untalented, just bad. If you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you.”
He did, and together they went through the musical line by line. Sondheim later said, “In that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theater than most people learn in a lifetime.”
Seventy-five years and eighteen Broadway musicals later, Stephen Sondheim has eight Tony Awards, a record for a composer; eight Grammy Awards; a Pulitzer Prize for Drama with James Lapine for Sunday in the Park with George; and an Academy Award for the song “Sooner or Later” performed by Madonna from Dick Tracy.
In November 2015, Sondheim was honored by President Barack Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“The only reason to write is out of passion.” —Stephen Sondheim
Simply put, no other composer has changed the American musical like Stephen Sondheim. Here are just a few of our personal favorites from the Sondheim songbook to celebrate his 90th Birthday.
First “Comedy Tonight,” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first Broadway musical for which he wrote but music and lyrics.
In 1970, Company changed nearly every facet of the Broadway musical. Tonight’s opening of the gender swapping revival had to be postponed due to the Broadway shutdown, but we can always enjoy this rare footage from the OBC recording session of “Being Alive.”
Anyone one who’s ever picked up a Sondheim score knows he likes composing in keys God hasn’t even thought of and with rhythmic patterns that would drive Satan mad. Naturally, only he could write a double duet like “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through” from Follies.
When asked, few artists will answer if they have a favorite work, but when pressed Stephen Sondheim does admit his is Follies. It’s hard to argue with him since every song is perfect in a different way, can stand all on its own, and yet together create a unified masterpiece. Then there are those that are just meant to steal the show.
Calling Sweeney Todd Sondheim’s greatest masterpiece is enough to start a heated argument likely go on for hours, but both sides are likely to agree, it’s Broadway’s only musical thriller. “A Little Priest” demonstrates Sondheim’s genius at word play.
Merrily We Roll Along is the musical we wish could work, but it’s not for want of a score. Pick a song, any song, they’re all great. ‘Our Time” is our favorite.
Into the Woods was such an “obvious” musical concept that no one saw the forest for the trees. “What happens after ‘…happily ever after?’” Turns out what we’re telling our kids at bedtime are not such innocent stories.
And finally, how appropriate that we should be celebrating Stephen Sondheim on an ordinary Sunday.
Happy 90th Birthday, Mr. Sondheim and many more …forever