Remembering Stephen Sondheim
Thursday, January 27, 2022

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Stephen Sondheim was a six-time Tony Award winner renowned for his words and music, starting in the 1950s. In the early 1950s Sondheim wrote scripts in Hollywood for the television series Topper. After returning to New York City, he wrote incidental music for the play The Girls of Summer (1956). He made his first significant mark on Broadway, though, as the lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, which opened in 1957. He then wrote the lyrics for Gypsy (1959; music by Jule Styne).

 

Stephen Joshua Sondheim (March 22, 1930 – November 26, 2021) was an American composer and lyricist. One of the most important figures in 20th-century musical theater, Sondheim was praised for having "reinvented the American musical" with shows that tackled "unexpected themes that range far beyond the [genre's] traditional subjects" with "music and lyrics of unprecedented complexity and sophistication." His shows addressed "darker, more harrowing elements of the human experience," with songs often tinged with "ambivalence" about various aspects of life.

 

  Broadway Honors Sondheim 'Sunday' From Sunday In The Park With George in Times Square 11/28/21

 

Stephen Sondheim Gallery 1

 

Sondheim's best-known works as composer and lyricist include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987). He was also known for writing the lyrics for West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959). 

 

 

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—based on comedies by the Roman playwright Plautus—opened on Broadway in 1962, with music and lyrics by Sondheim. It ran for 964 performances and won the Tony Award for best musical.

 

Sundheim outside theater 1

 

Sondheim's accolades include nine Tony Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2008), an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Laurence Olivier Award, and a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

 

 

He also had a theatre named for him on Broadway and in the West End of London. Sondheim wrote film music, contributing "Goodbye for Now" for Warren Beatty's Reds (1981). He wrote five songs for 1990's Dick Tracy, including "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)", sung in the film by Madonna, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Film adaptations of Sondheim's work include West Side Story (1961), Gypsy (1962), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), A Little Night Music (1977), Gypsy (1993), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Into the Woods (2014), West Side Story (2021), and Merrily We Roll Along.

 

sondheim at the piano 1

 

Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, into a Jewish family in New York City, the son of Etta Janet ("Foxy"; née Fox; 1897–1992) and Herbert Sondheim (1895–1966). His father manufactured dresses designed by his mother. The composer grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and, after his parents divorced, on a farm near Doylestown, Pennsylvania. As the only child of well-to-do parents living in the San Remo at 145 Central Park West, he was described in Meryle Secrest's biography (Stephen Sondheim: A Life) as an isolated, emotionally neglected child. When he lived in New York City, Sondheim attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. He spent several summers at Camp Androscoggin. His mother sent him to New York Military Academy in 1940.  From 1942 to 1943, he attended George School, a private Quaker preparatory school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he wrote his first musical, By George. From 1946 to 1950, Sondheim attended Williams College. He graduated magna cum laude and received the Hubbard Hutchinson Prize, a two-year fellowship to study music.

 

road work with Sundheim 1

 

Several benefits and concerts were performed to celebrate Sondheim's 80th birthday in 2010. Among them were the New York Philharmonic's March 15 and 16 Sondheim: The Birthday Concert at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, hosted by David Hyde Pierce. The concert included Sondheim's music, performed by some of the original performers. Lonny Price directed, and Paul Gemignani conducted; performers included Laura Benanti, Matt Cavenaugh, Michael Cerveris, Victoria Clark, Jenn Colella, Jason Danieley, Alexander Gemignani, Joanna Gleason, Nathan Gunn, George Hearn, Patti LuPone, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, John McMartin, Donna Murphy, Karen Olivo, Laura Osnes, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Bobby Steggert, Elaine Stritch, Jim Walton, Chip Zien and the 2009 Broadway revival cast of West Side Story. A ballet was performed by Blaine Hoven and María Noel Riccetto to Sondheim's score for Reds, and Jonathan Tunick paid tribute to his longtime collaborator.

 

 

Stephen came out as gay when he was 40-years-old, and at the time of his death, was married to his husband Jeff Romley. Jeff is a Broadway and West End theatre producer who has worked on many shows including The Producers, Hairspray, Porgy & Bess, Sweeney Todd and Company. He has also worked at the William Morris Agency as a theatre talent rep and at 41-years-old, is 50 years younger than Stephen Sondheim.   Before Jeff,  Stephen was with a man called Peter Jones. Not much is known about him, but he was reportedly a dramatist and the pair dated for eight years until 1999. Stephen was 61 when they started dating and Peter was the first partner he had ever lived with. They lived together at the famous Turtle Bay house where Stephen wrote many of his songs in the early 1960s.

 

 

Sondheim was only 25 went he wrote most of the lyrics of West Side Story‘s beloved score including “Tonight,” “Maria,” and “Somewhere.” While his decades as a composer would also make a great play or film, similarly the greatest drama would center around the many years that it took him to accept being gay, a subject that he was long defensive about, although he was known to have confided in a friend when he was 19 that he thought he might be gay.

 

 

She suggested a psychiatrist, to which he replied, “I just don’t know if I want to.” He ultimately began having sex with men — but also spent some 25 years in analysis. He did not have his first serious boyfriend, John David Wilder, until the year he turned 41. They split up after a few months, and he did not have his first live-in partner, composer Peter “P.J.” Jones, until the year he turned 61, telling friends he was really in love for the first time. They exchanged rings on January 15, 1994. Sondheim gave Jones credit for helping him create the musical Passion, and although they would separate after a troubled decade together, they remained very close friends.

 

 An Early Version of the Finale of the Original Broadway Production of "Passion"

The Finale was Altered During Previews

 

In 2004, he began a relationship with actor Jeff Romley, 50-years his junior. “He is a great joy in my life. Once I had tasted the joys of living with someone, I wanted to live with someone else when it broke up,” Sondheim said. They married in 2017. In a 2009 interview, he also said, “If I had to live my life over again, I would have children. That’s the great mistake I made. It’s too late now. The idea of being a homosexual and raising children was one that was just not acceptable until, my goodness, I’d say the 1970s or 1980s. You want to live long enough to see your children grow up, they’re not puppies. The joy is not just to have them, but to watch them change and grow. So, yes, that is a great regret.”

 

“Alone is alone, not alive,” sings Company’s central character “Bobby,” whom LaFontaine believes “is a product of Sondheim’s subconscious”

 

"Somebody crowd me with love
Somebody force me to care
Somebody let come through
I’ll always be there
As frightened as you
To help us survive
Being alive
Being alive
Being alive"

 

Stephen Sondheim married Jeffrey Scott Romley 2017 1

Stephen Sondheim Married Composer Jeffrey Scott Romley in 2017 

 

Sondheim has been described as introverted and solitary. In an interview with Frank Rich, he said, "The outsider feeling—somebody whom people want to both kiss and kill—occurred quite early in my life". He did not come out as gay until he was 40.  He lived with dramatist Peter Jones for eight years in the 1990s.  The composer married Jeffrey Scott Romley in 2017. They lived in Manhattan and Roxbury, Connecticut. Sondheim died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, on November 26, 2021, at the age of 91. The cause of his death has not been publicly disclosed.

 

 

EXCERPS FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH THE "LONDON TIMES" IN 2015: “Ageing is no fun,” he says. “My memory isn’t sharp. All your energies diminish. You don’t want to make any more friends than you’ve made and they’re all dying anyway. You want to leave the house less. I don’t want to even leave the couch to go to the next room. I rode a bike to Broadway for 20 years. You get to know every pothole in New York. Watch me climb the stairs and you’ll know I’m an old man climbing the stairs. That also happens at the piano.” Stravinsky and Picasso are exceptions, he says: “The late work of most first-rate artists is second-rate.” This worries Sondheim, “but if you’ve gotta write, you’ve gotta write”. He contemplates his mortality, “all the time. You find yourself thinking more about death than about life. Work is the great revivifier.” Sondheim goes into a trance state when writing and still finds “making something out of nothing” — that hat — thrilling. At retirement, Sondheim scoffs: “I don’t know what that means.”He was close to his supportive father Herbert, a dress manufacturer. His cruel mother was a “difficult and selfish woman. She wanted a career and didn’t want children,” but too much has been made of their vexed relationship, Sondheim says. “Many people have difficult relationships with their parents. People see Madame Rose in Gypsy, and say ‘It’s your mother,’ but it wasn’t.” At the age of ten, Sondheim became friends with Jamie Hammerstein, son of Oscar, the lyricist who became Sondheim’s “surrogate father” and mentor. His experimentalism inspired Sondheim’s. Sondheim and Romley have been together for 11 years. “It’s having somebody in your life who enriches you,” Sondheim says, “somebody who doesn’t let every day be the same day, somebody who forces you to go outside of yourself”. It is his second relationship; his first, when he turned 60, was with Peter Jones, a dramatist who now works for him. The age gap between him and Romley is “an interesting deal. The kinds of music I grew up on are entirely different to his. Although he loves my kind of music, I do not share his taste for contemporary pop music.”

 

sundheim c uo 1

 

While Sondheim enjoyed the new Broadway show Honeymoon in Vegas (“the essence of the musical theatre I grew up on”), he is not a fan of Lady Gaga, whom Romley “would crawl a mile to see. On the Academy Awards [in which she performed a medley of Sound of Music songs] she was a travesty. It was ridiculous, as it would be from any singer who treats that music in semi-operatic style. She had no relationship to what she was singing. What people liked was her versatility.” Sondheim may not want to deal with pop concerts’ “screaming fans”, but he went to a Radiohead gig where “the audience was more like church than concert”. He is a fan of the group’s harmonies. “For me music has always been about harmonies. Most pop music today isn’t: it’s about rhythm, sonic values, performance and visceral reaction.”The lack of innovation on Broadway frustrates him. The UK stage is creatively richer, he thinks, because of government funding of the arts. The rise of the “jukebox musical” also rankles.“I’m interested in storytelling and these are stories designed around groups of songs and that restricts storytelling, so I don’t find them interesting. The genre doesn’t excite me.” As for the vogue for primetime television musicals, such as NBC’s Peter Pan Live! starring Allison Williams of the TV hit Girls, he is scathing. “From what little I’ve seen, they’re so embarrassingly bad you have to sit and make fun of them or you’re just wasting your time.”

 

stephen sondheim west side story 1

 

People assume that Sondheim writes autobiographically. “No. These characters have been created by a playwright. The discovery Schubert was a homosexual has led people to look for clues in his music. They look for clues in mine. It’s nonsense, but it helps people navigate through the mysterious shoals of creativity.” When I met Sondheim in 2012 he spoke about the state of Broadway, having his first non-platonic relationship at 60 and the state of musicals. Yet a couple of Manhattan theatre-addict friends had only one question for me afterwards: “What about the sex dungeon?” There’s a rumour you have a sex dungeon, I say. Sondheim laughs. “I have heard of this. I don’t know how it got started.” (He ponders one possible source as the critic Martin Gottfried, who died last year.) So you haven’t got one? “No, I haven’t. There is no basis of truth in it whatsoever. It bothers me. What it represents is people trying to put me down and trash me. It’s like saying, ‘So and so’s a drunk’, ‘Who does he think he is?’ “If you go downstairs there’s a washing machine and a boiler. There’s one great thing down there and that’s a cedar closet with all my original manuscripts in it.” In 1995 a fire almost destroyed a cupboard in his assistant’s office, so the papers were moved to the cellar, “which of course could be flooded but we’re hoping that doesn’t happen”.

 

step inside broadways stephen sondheim theatre.JPRG

 

Fame and being “Stephen Sondheim” means very little. “I have no sense of myself that way. That’s not modesty. It’s lack of awareness. When people would shake my hand and their palms were wet I would think, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ It’s also because my mother convinced me I was a piece of shit and that lasts. My father would say I’m the best.” The effects of both “prevented me being egotistical”.

 

sondheim ON SONDHEIM

 

He doesn’t care about his legacy: “I won’t be around to enjoy it.” Sondheim still likes writing. “Then you think of the other things. How will it be received? Will people be disappointed? Do you have any fresh ideas left? All the self-doubt . . . and then when you’re finishing the hat” — he smiles — “it’s really good.”

 

Obama honors Sundheim with Presidential medal 1

President Barak Obama Honored Stephen Sondheim with the Presidential Medal of Freedom

in 2015 at the White House

 

 

 

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