March 22

This Day in History

Music

Mar 22, 1930:

Stephen Sondheim is born

Stephen Sondheim, one of the last giants of the American musical theater to work in a style not influenced by rock and roll, was born in New York City on March 22, 1930. Sondheim and the work he created helped revolutionize the Broadway musical in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

When Sondheim was a child, the musicals that dominated Broadway theater were of precisely the kind that his own work would later subvert: the kind filled with feather boas, top hats, chorus lines and big, show-stopping production numbers. Yet it was just such a musical, 1939's Very Warm For May, which first inspired a nine-year-old Stephen Sondheim to pursue a career in musical theater.

Sondheim's childhood was comfortable only in the material sense. The only child of relatively well-to-do Manhattan parents, he grew up in an apartment on Central Park West, but the home was not a very happy one. Sondheim's parents divorced bitterly when he was 10, and Stephen was left to live with a mother whom he would later speak openly of despising. The relationship that had the biggest positive effect on Sondheim's future was with the family of a friend he made shortly after his parents' divorce. That friend, Jamie Hammerstein, was the son of the legendary Broadway lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II, who nurtured the young Sondheim's interest in the theater and led him through a rigorous if informal apprenticeship as a teenager. Though Sondheim entered Williams College as a math major, he left with a degree in music and a desire to become both a lyricist and a composer. His big break came just five years into his professional career, when he was chosen to write the lyrics for a new show called West Side Story, which would run for 732 performances in its original production on Broadway. Next came another assignment as lyricist on Gypsy before finally getting the chance to launch a show for which he wrote both words and music, the comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

While those early works were probably enough to assure both his financial independence and his reputation as a great Broadway talent, the argument for Stephen Sondheim as a great American artist is based more on his works of the 1970s and 80s: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George. These shows, which tackled such nontraditional subjects as pointillist painting and Victorian cannibalism, established Sondheim as one of musical theater's greatest, and most iconoclastic, innovators.

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