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March 22: Stephen Sondheim

March 22, 2011

Stephen Sondheim, described by the New York Times as “the greatest, and perhaps best-known artist working in musical theater,” was born in New York City on this date in 1930. The child of disturbed and divorced parents, he was mentored as a teenager by Oscar Hammerstein II, whose son was his school chum; Sondheim wrote four musicals as “homework” under Hammerstein’s tutelage. His breakthrough came as lyricist for West Side Story in 1957; he then wrote the lyrics for Gypsy, staged in 1959, and both music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, staged in 1962. Sondheim has received eight Tony Awards, an Oscar, a Pulitzer, and multiple Grammys while creating, on his own or in various collaborations, such great works as Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeny Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and many other shows. He came out as a gay man in 1970, and has been single for most of his life. “[T]he outsider feeling,” Sondheim has said, “[of being] somebody who people want to both kiss and kill — occurred quite early in my life.” Sondheim’s lyrics are emotionally complex and nuanced; he “does not eschew happy endings,” writes Norman Lebrecht; “instead, he subverts the meaning of happiness so that those who thought they were, are no longer quite so sure.”

“I don’t see any solution for Broadway's problems except subsidized theatre, as in most civilized countries of the world.”
—Stephen Sondheim