Stephen Sondheim, titan of the American musical, died at the age of 91

An afternoon-long tutorial followed which, according to Mr. Sondheim’s report, taught him more about the craft than most songwriters learn in their entire lives. Hammerstein presented him with a way of writing exercises: turning a good piece into a musical; convert a flawed play into a musical; turn a story from another medium into a musical; and finally, write a musical from your own original story. So did the young Mr. Sondheim, a project that led him to graduation from Williams College in Massachusetts, where he complemented his theater work with serious study of composition with Robert Barrow, an intellectually strict specialist in harmony, of which Mr. Sondheim the Lesson, as he put it, “that art is work and not inspiration, that invention comes with craft”. Mr. Sondheim later studied independently with Milton Babbitt, the avant-garde composer.

Mr. Sondheim’s first professional show business job wasn’t in the theater at all; he was hired through the agency that Hammerstein represented to write for a television comedy from the 1950s, “Topper”, about a greedy banker who is haunted by two urban ghosts. (Much later, Mr. Sondheim wrote the crime screenplay “The Last of Sheila” with actor Anthony Perkins; it was produced in 1973 and directed by Herbert Ross.) By the 1950s he had become a connoisseur of puns and puzzles, and an inventor of sophisticated games. From 1968 to 1969 he created cryptic crossword puzzles for New York magazine.

His affinity for theatrical deception and mystery was recognized by his friend the playwright Anthony Shaffer, who based the vengeful Cuckold in part on Mr. Sondheim in his play “Sleuth”. (The play once had the provisional title “Who’s Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?”)

Mr. Sondheim was in his early twenties when he wrote his first professional show, a musical called “Saturday Night,” an adaptation of “Front Porch in Flatbush,” a play by Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein. He got the job of writing both text and music after the composer Frank Loesser turned him down. The show was supposed to be presented in 1955, but producer Lemuel Ayers died before he could raise funds for it, and production ceased. The show was presented by a small company in London in 1997; it subsequently performed in Chicago and finally had its New York premiere in 2000, Off Broadway at the Second Stage Theater.

Mr. Sondheim didn’t take any of his first Broadway appearances, “West Side Story” and “Gypsy”, because he felt like a composer and not just a lyricist – “I enjoy writing music a lot more than lyrics”, he confessed in “Finishing the hat”. But he agreed to both on the advice of Hammerstein, who told him that he would benefit from working with Bernstein; Laurents, (who wrote the book) and director Jerome Robbins first and foremost and from writing for a star like Ethel Merman in the second, when it was she who wanted a more experienced Broadway hand, Jule Styne, as the composer.


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