His works include Into The Woods, West Side Story and Gypsy
As well as writing the music for an array of iconic shows such as Follies, Into the Woods, Merrily We Roll Along, Company and Sweeney Todd (to name just a few), Sondheim’s major works also include collaborations with other celebrated composers; he collaborated, for example, with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, and with Jule Styne on Gypsy (source). It comes as no surprise, then, that he is considered to be one of the greatest composers and lyricists in musical theatre history. Cameron Mackintosh even described Sondheim as “possibly the greatest lyricist ever” (source).
In his early career, he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II
After being friends with the famous lyricist’s son, Sondheim became close with Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein was a prominent influence for Sondheim, who was, at the time, an aspiring musician, and went on to become a mentor and even father-figure throughout the mid-1940s (source). Although critical, in many ways, Hammerstein’s feedback paved the way to some of Sondheim’s early successes. When Sondheim showed him a comic musical that he had written at school (By George) Hammerstein was extremely critical, but did say that “if you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you”. They talked through the musical in depth that same day and, later, Sondheim said that “in that afternoon I learned more about songwriting and the musical theatre than most people learn in a lifetime” (source).
Sondheim mentored others, in turn, even giving feedback on The Hamilton Mixtapes
Sondheim returned the favour mentorship to several other musicians over the course of his career. Lin Manuel Miranda translated some of the lyrics in West Side Story for Sondheim prior to the show’s 2009 revival (source). Miranda later showed Sondheim songs from The Hamilton Mixtape, which would later become the hit musical Hamilton (source), which has just opened in the West End after incredible success in Broadway. Sondheim spoke about Miranda’s music with enthusiasm (source). As well as this, Sondheim mentored Larson during the time in which he wrote Rent, and followed the progress of the musical closely from the very beginning (source).
He is well known for the complexity of his musical style
Think about the opening number of Into the Woods (also the show’s title number)… Sondheim’s musical style is easily recognisable, and not least because of its almost iconic complexity.
He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014
Sondheim was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2014, as “one of the country’s most influential theatre composers and lyricists” (source). He has also been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, and an array of Grammy Awards, Tony Awards (even including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre), Drama Desk Awards, and Olivier Awards (source). In 1975, Sondheim was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (source). I could go on … It’s fair to say that his works have not gone unappreciated, and he has certainly been widely celebrated.
Harriet has been immersed in the theatre life from a multitude of angles: from writing, to working backstage, to performing, to directing. She spends most of her spare time in the West End or regional theatres and fills the rest with talking about the wonderful world of theatre through regular blogs.