The Sound of Sondheim

A Broadway composer and lyricist comes to town to discuss his storied career


Photo by Jerry Jackson

Attend the tale of Stephen Sondheim. While we wouldn’t suggest a full-throated cheer—some Sweeney Todd-o-phile might take a razor to your tantalizingly exposed neck—we’d suggest that among Broadway babies, a visit from this Great White Way icon is like a potentate chillin’ with the peasants.

That will transform The Smith Center for the Performing Arts into Casa De Royale when, on July 14, Stephen Sondheim, A Life in the Theater: An Evening of Music and Conversation will feature the 82-year-old discussing his exhaustive canon. Included: collaborations with Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Tim Burton, his creative process and the differences between film and theater. Performances by Christine Ebersole and Brian Stokes Mitchell will illustrate his fabled repertoire.

Count off the résumé highlights: lyricist for West Side Story and Gypsy; composer of Sweeney Todd, A Funny Thing Happened to the Way to the Forum, Company, A Little Night Music, Follies, Pacific Overtures, Assassins, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George; plus eight Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize (for Sunday in the Park) and an Oscar (for “Sooner or Later,” sung by Madonna in Dick Tracy).

Yet, like the lives of many creative legends, Sondheim’s began in turbulence, what biographer Meryle Secrest labeled an “emotionally neglected childhood.” The only child of well-off parents on Manhattan’s Central Park West, Sondheim saw his father move out when he was 10, leaving him in the care of his mother. Allegedly psychologically abusive, she once wrote him saying “the only regret [she] ever had was giving [him] birth.” At her 1992 funeral, her son was absent.

Both parents, Sondheim has said, eventually professed pride in his accomplishments, spurred by a helluva mentor—Oscar Hammerstein II, after Sondheim befriended Hammerstein’s son, James. As Sondheim recalled in a 2005 interview with the Academy of Achievement, he penned his first musical, By George, at age 15 and excitedly showed it to Hammerstein:

“I said … ‘I want you to treat this as if you didn’t know me, as if it just crossed your desk.’ And he said, ‘In that case, it’s the worst thing that ever crossed my desk.’ And I was shocked. … He said, ‘Now I didn’t say it wasn’t talented. … But if you want to go through it, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.’ … He treated me as if I were a professional, and by the end of the afternoon I was on my way to being a professional.”

While Sondheim always expresses his admiration for Bernstein’s music in West Side Story, his own lyrics are, surprisingly, not among his favorite work. “It embarrasses me; it’s very hard for me to listen to some of those songs,” he told Nightline, adding that he didn’t think they served the characters as well as he would have liked.

Noting that lyrics should be “underwritten,” Sondheim told the Academy of Achievement that “one of the hardest things about writing lyrics is to make the lyric sit on the music in such a way that you’re not aware there was a writer there.”

Another surprise? Despite his Tony glory, he told the academy: “The Tonys ignored West Side Story. The Tonys ignored Gypsy. They’re worthless and useless, except when they sell tickets, which they don’t do anymore.”

More surprises? Attend the tale of Stephen Sondheim.

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