Stephen Sondheim, composer

Stephen Sondheim, composer

The composer and lyricist Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born in 1930 to a wealthy New York dress manufacturer. When his parents divorced, he moved with his mother to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The young Stephen turned out to be in the right place at the right time. One of his mother’s neighbors was Oscar Hammerstein II, who was working on the musical Oklahoma! and it didn’t take long for the adolescent boy to realize that he was fascinated by musical theater. He studied music at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts and composition with Milton Babbitt. Like Hammerstein, he wrote the occasional pop song (with Jule Styne for Tony Bennett) and dabbled in films, but, like Hammerstein, he always returned to the theater.

His initial success was in 1957 as a lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, followed by Jule Styne’s Gypsy in 1959. He wrote the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) and Company (1970), Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Pacific Overtures (1976), Merrily We Roll Along (1981) and Assassins (1990). He found success again with Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984) as well as Into the Woods (1987). In 1990, his musical Passion had its Off-Broadway premiere, while the Broadway version of the show received five Tony Awards in 2004.

He was President of the Council of the Dramatist Guild from 1973 to 1981. In 1983 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was appointed the first Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University in 1990. Stephen Sondheim received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985 for Sunday in the Park with George. He is the only composer in the world to win seven Tony Awards and has been honored with a seventh in 2008, the special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. He was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1993 and he received the National Medal of Arts in 1997. In 2000, he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale, Japan’s highest cultural honor, for his lifetime of artistic achievement and in December 2002 he received the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Richard Rodgers Award. In the summer of 2002, six of his shows were presented in Washington, D.C. as part of the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration. In 2003, the musical Bounce had its premiere in Chicago and appeared Off-Broadway under the title Road Show in 2008. Together with Michael Starobin, he composed the music for the Shakespeare production of King Lear at the Public Theatre in New York in 2007.

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