Sondheim was born in New York City and grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and later on a farm in Pennsylvania. An only child in a well-to-do family, Sondheim's childhood has been described as isolated and emotionally-neglected. His parents, Herbert and Janet "Foxy" Sondheim, were non-religious Jews, though Foxy had grown up in an Orthodox family; Sondheim had no formal religious education or association, did not have a Bar Mitzvah, and reportedly did not set foot in a synagogue until he was 17.
Herbert and Foxy Sondheim divorced when their son was young, a traumatic event which would have major repercussions on both his private life and his public work. Under the laws of the day, Sondheim's mother retained full custody, which was perhaps unfortunate; Foxy Sondheim was narcissistic, emotionally abusive, a hypochondriac, and became sexually predatory towards her son as a substitute for his absent father. Many have speculated that it was this early intense love/hate relationship with his monstrous mother that would re-emerge in many of Sondheim's later works, which often treat love and commitment as claustrophobic and smothering, most notably in his musical Company. Perhaps also as a result of his relationship with his mother, Sondheim would become known for giving words and/or music to a series of strong, manipulative, somewhat unstable female characters, including Mamma Rose in Gypsy, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and the Witch in Into the Woods, all of whom are obsessive about keeping a hold on their child or love interest.
At about the age of ten, around the time of his parents' divorce, Sondheim became friends with Jimmy Hammerstein. Jimmy's father was the well-known lyricist/playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein taught Sondheim the basics of the musical after the boy 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 dramatized (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 theater 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. In 1985, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Sunday in the Park with George, one of the few times that a musical has taken the award.
Unless otherwise noted, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
- West Side Story (1957) (lyrics by Sondheim; music by Leonard Bernstein; book by Arthur Laurents)
- Gypsy (1959) (lyrics by Sondheim; music by Jule Styne; book by Arthur Laurents)
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) (book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart)
- Anyone Can Whistle (1964) (book by Arthur Laurents)
- Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965) (lyrics by Sondheim; music by Richard Rodgers; book by Arthur Laurents)
- Company (1970) (book by George Furth)
- Follies (1971) (book by James Goldman)
- A Little Night Music (1973) (book by Hugh Wheeler)
- Pacific Overtures (1976) (book by John Weidman)
- Sweeney Todd (1980) (book by Hugh Wheeler)
- Merrily We Roll Along (1981) (book by George Furth)
- Sunday in the Park with George (1984) (book by James Lapine)
- Into the Woods (1987) (book by James Lapine)
- Assassins (1990) (book by John Weidman)
- Passion (1994) (book by James Lapine)
- Saturday Night (1997, though composed in 1954) (book by Julius Epstein and Philip Epstein)
- Bounce (book by John Weidman) (Abandoned working titles were Wise Guys and Gold!; played at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, and in Washington, D.C. in 2003)
- The Frogs (2004) (revised book by Nathan Lane, from Burt Shevelove's 1974 book. Contains seven new songs)
- By George, a musical Sondheim wrote at age 15 lampooning the denizens of George School, which he attended at the time.
- Phinney's Rainbow, a musical satire on college life that Sondheim wrote at age 18 lampooning the denizens of Williams College, which he attended at the time.
- All That Glitters (1948), based on Beggar on Horseback by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly.
- Climb High (1951), an original musical about a college student moving to New York City to become an actor.
- Additional lyrics for the 1974 revival of Candide.
- The Frogs (1974), a musical version of Aristophanes' comedy with a book by Burt Shevelove. Performed in the Yale University swimming pool.
- Getting Away With Murder, a "comedy thriller" (non-musical play), co-written with George Furth.
Film / TV
- Topper (circa 1953), a non-musical television comedy series for which Sondheim wrote about ten episodes.
- Evening Primrose (1966), a made-for-TV musical about a secret society of people living in department stores and the romance between Ella, a department store denizen, and Charles, a poet who decides to live in the department store after renouncing the world.
- The Last of Sheila (1973), a nonmusical film mystery written with Anthony Perkins.
- "The Madam's Song", also called "I Never Do Anything Twice", for the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. (1976).
- The score for Alain Resnais's film Stavisky... (1974).
- Five songs for Warren Beatty's film Dick Tracy (1990).