Stephen Sondheim (born March 22, 1930) is an American musical theatre lyricist and composer.
Sondheim was born in New York City and grew up in Pennsylvania. At about the age of ten he became friends with Jimmy Hammerstein. Jimmy's father (lyricist/playwright Oscar Hammerstein II) taught Sondheim the basics of the musical after Sondheim came to him with a show he had written for a school performance. Though Hammerstein's reaction was negative, he saw the youngster's potential. As a training exercise, Hammerstein told Sondheim to write four pieces:
A musical based on a good play (which became All That Glitters)
A musical based on a bad play (which became High Tor)
A musical based on an existing novel or short story not previously dramatised (which became Mary Poppins)
An original musical (which became Climb High)
None of these "assignment" musicals was produced professionally. High Tor and Mary Poppins have never been produced at all, because the rights holders for the original works refused to grant permission for a musical to be made.
Sondheim went on to study composition with the composer Milton Babbitt. In 1954, he wrote both music and lyrics for Saturday Night, which was never produced on Broadway and was shelved until a 1997 production at London's Bridewell Theatre.
At the age of 25 Sondheim wrote the lyrics to West Side Story, accompanying Leonard Bernstein's music and Arthur Laurents's book. In 1959 he wrote the lyrics to the musical Gypsy, with music by Jule Styne and a book again by Laurents. Finally in 1962 Sondheim saw a musical for which he wrote both the music and lyrics, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, open on Broadway. His next musical, Anyone Can Whistle, was a financial failure, though it has developed a cult following. He donned his lyricist-for-hire hat for one last show, Do I Hear a Waltz?, with music by Richard Rodgers, and since then has devoted himself to both composing and writing lyrics for a series of critically acclaimed musicals.
Sondheim's work is most notable for his use of complex polyphony in the vocal parts, such as the chorus of five minor characters who function as a sort of "Greek Chorus" in A Little Night Music. He also displays a penchant for angular harmonies and intricate melodies reminiscent of his hero, Bach (he once claimed that he listened to no-one else). To aficionados, Sondheim's musical sophistication is considered to be greater than that of many of his musical theatre peers, and his lyrics are likewise renowned for their ambiguity ("Send In The Clowns"), wit ("Buddy's Blues") and urbanity ("The Little Things You Do Together"); he employs various literary techniques and devices that make his writing more akin to poetry than Tin Pan Alley.
Indeed, in 1968 and 1969, Sondheim published an astonishingly inventive series of word puzzles in New York magazine. These are sometimes inadequately referred to as mere crosswords; in fact, the form and construction of the puzzles was every bit as creative and diabolical as the clues.
Regarded by some as the anti-Andrew Lloyd Webber (though Lloyd Webber composed the distinctly Sondheimesque Tell Me On A Sunday), Sondheim is nevertheless no stranger to popular as well as critical success.