Before he made a hat: Stephen Sondheim and West Side Story

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The Debut of the Master Songwriter

Lauded as one of the most creative and innovative musical theatre writers of the 20th century, Stephen Sondheim's Broadway career began with West Side Story.

Sondheim had been informally tutored by Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein was one of the foremost lyricists of the first half 20th century, writing the book and lyrics to such classic musicals as Oklahoma, Carousel, and The King and I. Sondheim describes Hammerstein as a "surrogate father" who mentored the young Sondheim in his teenage years.

Later, Sondheim honed his writing skills at Williams College, writing musicals for campus productions including a show titled Saturday Night which has since been professionally produced around the world.

He also seemed to have a knack for acting.

Sondheim's college show, Saturday Night, was scheduled to open during the 1954-55 Broadway season.

But after the sudden death of the show's lead producer, the production was scrapped.

A New Team
Arthur Laurents & Leonard Bernstein were looking for a new lyricist to replace Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who were originally slated to provide lyrics to the project that would become West Side Story. As Comden and Green note on their copy of the synopsis shown here, they had become too busy with their new musical, Bells are Ringing.  Laurents recommended Sondheim as a replacement when he heard that  Saturday Night wasn't moving forward.
Writing the lyrics
Sondheim auditioned for Bernstein and played songs from the sophisticated and comic Saturday Night, only to be asked if he had “something more poetic”. He said he didn't.

Still, he got the job and learned to write different kinds of lyrics from his collaborators.

Arthur Laurents taught him to write from the playwright's perspective.

From the composer Bernstein he learned to approach theatre music "more freely and less squarely" and to "make the most out of the least". He felt that Bernstein's music was so rich that he wanted to "underwrite" the lyrics.

In the song "Maria", Sondheim followed the minimalist dictum "less is more". The repetition of Maria's name created the romantic feeling of a young person falling in love.

In the song "America", he faced a challenge. He wanted to make sure the lyrics were understood by the audience but also sought to keep the flair and speed of the song. In his own book of collected lyrics he writes of this song: "Some lines of this lyric are respectably sharp and crisp, but some melt in the mouth as gracelessly as peanut butter..."

Continuing Collaborations
With the success of West Side Story, Sondheim began to work with his collaborators on other new works. 

Bernstein and Sondheim created and unfinished musical called The Race to Urga, based on the play by Bertolt Brecht. He also contributed lyrics to the revised 1973 revival of Candide.

Sondheim continued to collaborate with Arthur Laurents on the shows Gypsy, Do I Hear A Waltz and Anyone Can Whistle.

In 1962, Prince produced Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but the two mostly worked with other collaborators throughout the 1960s. Starting in 1970, though, the two joined forces again, this time with Prince as director, to create many of the ground-breaking workings of 20th-century musical theatre including Company, Follies, and Sweeney Todd,

His Work Continues
Since West Side Story, Sondheim has received eight Tony Awards (the most won by any composer) the American Theatre Wing Award Lifetime Achievement Award, eight Drama Desk Awards, eight Grammy Awards (including one for the West Side Story 2010 revival), a Pulitzer Prize, five Laurence Olivier Awards, The Kennedy Center Honors, and the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2010 a Broadway house was renamed The Stephen Sondheim Theatre in honor of his 80th Birthday. Sondheim continues to mentor young writers and create new works. In November of 2016, Sondheim's newest work, with the tentative title "Buñuel", was work-shopped at the Public Theatre.
Credits: Story

Curated by Misy Singson, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Photographs by: Friedman-Abeles, Martha Swope & Florence Vandamm.
Sources: Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim.

Credits: All media
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