Stephen Sondheim

On this date in 1930, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was born in New York City to nonreligious Jewish parents. "The school chosen for him . . . had been founded by Felix Adler, a nineteenth-century social reformer who had begun life as a rabbinical student but who had decided that religion was inadequate to deal with the problems of the modern world. Being born into an observant household seemed to have left no mark on Etta Janet [his mother], or rather, seemed to have convinced her that she wanted nothing more to do with it. . . . the Ethical Culture School was the ideal solution for parents uneasily poised between a strict adherence to old dogmas and atheism: although it was considered a radical school, it might have looked to both Sondheims as the only alternative. As for religious instruction, Stephen Joshua Sondheim received none at all. He never had a bar mitzvah ceremony, he knew nothing about the observances of the Jewish calendar, and he did not enter a synagogue until he was nineteen years old." (From Stephen Sondheim: a life, by Meryle Secrest, 1998, pages 13 - 14) After his parents divorced, he moved at about age 10 with his mother to Pennsylvania, where their neighbor happened to be Oscar Hammerstein II. Serving as a surrogate father, Hammerstein took Stephen under his wings, and inspired him to write music, critiquing his childish work and giving him invaluable pointers. Sondheim majored in music at Williams College, and studied with composer Milton Babbitt. At age 25, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for the musical play "West Side Story." In 1959, he wrote the words to the musical "Gypsy." His first score as composer/lyricist was for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1962), a successful musical farce. That was followed by many other musicals, including "Anyone Can Whistle" (1964), "Pacific Overtures" (1976), "Company" (1970), "Follies" (1971), "A Little Night Music" (1973), "Sweeney Todd" (1979), "Merrily We Roll Along" (1981), "Sunday in the Park with George" (1984, which was honored with a rare-for-musicals Pulitzer Price for Drama, 1985), "Into the Woods" (1987), "Assassins" (1999), and "The Frogs" (2004). His songs range from singable showtune hits such as "Send in the Clowns," to densely lyrical, operatic pieces relying on integrated music.

Nothing with gods, nothing with fate;
Weighty affairs will just have to wait!
Nothing that's formal,
Nothing that's normal,
No recitations to recite;
Open up the curtain:
Comedy Tonight!

—Stephen Sondheim, "Comedy Tonight" from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

Contribute to Nonbelief Relief

FFRF privacy statement