Stephen Sondheim

On this date in 1930, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was born in New York City to nonreligious Jewish parents. “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)

He apparently hasn’t spoken or written publicly about his personal religious views, but his song lyrics are perhaps a good indicator. New York Times theater critic Stephen Holden wrote in April 2010 that “Now You Know” (excerpted in quote below) encapsulates “Sondheim’s skeptical worldview as tartly as anything the composer has written.”

Sondheim’s father manufactured medium-priced dresses. His mother was the firm’s designer. His fascination with the theater started at age 9 when his father took him to see the Broadway musical “Very Warm for May.”  (Time magazine, Dec. 7, 1987) Composed by Jerome Kern with libretto by Oscar Hammerstein II, it was their last Broadway pairing and featured “All the Things You Are,” which became an American standard. 

After his parents divorced the next year, he moved with his mother to Pennsylvania, where Hammerstein was their neighbor. Serving as sort of a surrogate father, Hammerstein took him under his wing and helped inspire him to write music, critiquing his childish work and giving him invaluable pointers. Sondheim later majored in music at Williams College in Massachusetts and studied with composer Milton Babbitt.

His songs range from singable show tunes such as “Send in the Clowns” to densely lyrical, operatic pieces. “Complex polyphony” (independent melodies working harmoniously together) is a phrase applied to some of his work. At age 25 he wrote the lyrics for the musical “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), 1984’s “Sunday in the Park with George” (honored with a rare-for-musicals Pulitzer Prize for Drama), “Into the Woods” (1987), “Assassins” (1999) and “The Frogs” (2004).

Sondheim has been described as introverted and solitary. In an interview with Frank Rich, he said, “The outsider feeling — somebody who people want to both kiss and kill — occurred quite early in my life.” He lived with dramatist Peter Jones for eight years in the 1990s. As of 2010 he was in a relationship with Jeff Romley. In a 2019 interview, Romley’s friend Randy Rainbow, a satirical songwriter, referred to Romley as Sondheim’s husband. They had married in 2017, it was later revealed.

Sondheim died at age 91 at home in Roxbury, Conn. (D. 2021)

Freedom From Religion Foundation