The first yahrzeit of Stephen Sondheim (z”l) (22 Kislev) will be December 16, 2022 , and so we remember him here, singing a few of his songs: “Another Hundred People,” “Somewhere,” “Ladies Who Lunch,” “That Dirty Old Man,” “Comedy Tonight,” “Send In the Clowns,” and “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.”
Stephen was born in New York City on March 22, 1930, to Herbert S. Sondheim and Etta Janet “Foxy” (Fox) Sondheim. As a young boy, he lived a rather isolated life, and his home life going forward was not exactly idyllic. He showed very early musical talent and love for piano, though, and did spend summers at camp.
When he was nine years old he saw Very Warm for May on Broadway, which opened with a piano being dusted and played by a butler. Thus young Stephen was hooked on theatre. He was sent to the New York Military Academy in 1940 (around the time his parents were divorcing), and he found music even there: “I played the organ when I went to military school, when I was 10. They had a huge organ, the second-largest pipe organ in New York State. I loved all the buttons and the gadgets. I've always been a gadget man.”
When the family moved to Doylestown, Pa., Stephen attended the George School, a private Quaker school. While there, he wrote his first musical, the eponymous By George in 1945. In Bucks County they were neighbors of Oscar Hammerstein II, lyricist and playwright, whose son James became Stephen’s friend. James’ dad grew to be Stephen’s mentor and father figure, and he taught him to construct a good musical.
Thereafter Stephen attended Williams College for theatre, graduating magna cum laude and receiving a two-year fellowship to study music, through which he studied with composer Milton Babbitt. Supporting himself writing scripts for the tv series Topper, young Stephen maintained connections with those creating theatre, and wrote adaptations of plays, incidental music, and such. He was shopping his work around when one day he found himself in the same room with Arthur Laurents, who was looking for a lyricist for an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. After deliberation, Sondheim threw his hat into the ring and would compose the lyrics for West Side Story, which opened in 1957 and ran for 732 performances.
Needless to say, he went on to a fabulous career creating. Some advice he gave: “The worst thing you can do is censor yourself as the pencil hits the paper. You must not edit until you get it all on paper. If you can put everything down, stream-of-consciousness, you'll do yourself a service.”
He also said, “Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.” May his memory be for a blessing.