The Stephen Sondheim Society Archive
at Kingston University
The Stephen Sondheim Society Archives are now available at Kingston University for researchers or those with a general interest. If you wish to visit the Collection should email .
Introduction to the Archive
A treasure trove of musical theatre memorabilia from the work of one the most famous composers of recent times is held at Kingston University. Capturing highlights of the career of Stephen Sondheim, the extensive collection is made up of a raft of theatre ephemera from some of the most popular productions to grace the West End and Broadway during the past five decades. It includes vintage programmes, flyers, posters and reviews of such stage hits as West Side Story, Company, Follies and Sweeney Todd.
Originally compiled by United Kingdom-based theatre collector and Sondheim enthusiast Peter Wood, the collection – which was sold to The Stephen Sondheim Society in 2008 – has a British slant. Amongst the most striking items are the oversized posters from some of the American composer’s most famous shows. Documenting the changing style of theatre design over the years, the colourful signs offer a whistle-stop tour through the back catalogue of one of theatre-land’s most successful sons. One of the oldest is a billboard for the 1958 London production of West Side Story, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics to accompany Leonard Bernstein’s score. The show gave the young composer, who was mentored by musical theatre great Oscar Hammerstein II, his first real taste of success.
A delve deeper into the archive uncovers a few unusual pieces. Amongst the Sweeney Todd paraphernalia is a promotional apron, complete with fake blood splatters and artwork from the original 1979 Broadway production. The musical about the murderous barber, which was turned in to the hit 2007 movie starring Johnny Depp, also boasts the oldest item in the collection – an illustrated pamphlet of the Sweeney Todd tale which dates back to 1842.
Along with Sweeney Todd, the musical Follies, one of Sondheim’s biggest hits, is probably the best represented in the collection. The 1971 show, which won seven Tony awards, tells the story of the reunion of a group of performers from Weismann’s Follies, a musical revue staged in the inter-war years. Among the keepsakes is a full-size reproduction of the original Winter Garden Theatre poster. Other items from the musical include a set of original posters from the 1987 West End production produced by Cameron Mackintosh.
“The Stephen Sondheim Society were keen to find a way to bring the material to a wider audience and give students and researchers of theatre history the chance to explore it,” Kingston University archivist Katie Giles explained. With its growing collection of theatre annals, including the Sheridan Morley Theatre Collection and David Heneker Archive, the University was recommended as a potential home.
“The project was obviously a labour of love for Mr Wood. Everything came to us in very good condition – carefully stored and catalogued, with its own numbering system,” Mrs Giles said.
Sondheim had no trouble attracting big names to his shows. At the height of his fame, Frankie Howerd starred in the 1963 London premiere of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, one of the composer’s best known works. The archive contains a photo signed by the well-loved funny man, alongside a newspaper photograph of him on stage.
Not all of Sondheim’s musicals were instant hits. Merrily We Roll Along did not find favour with the critics when it first opened on Broadway. Sondheim refined the show and in 1992 Maria Friedman starred as female lead Mary in a production at the Leicester Haymarket, hailed as a success. Photographs of the actress on stage, and of Sondheim himself standing outside the theatre, make up part of the ensemble, along with an original flyer from the musical.
The collection also includes a huge poster from the 1990 Hollywood blockbuster Dick Tracy, adorned with the familiar comic-style figure of Warren Beatty’s character, for which Sondheim wrote five tracks and won an Oscar for the song "Sooner or Later".
Catalogue records now online
The following is from Katie Giles, the archivist at Kingston University responsible for the Society archives:
“We’re very pleased to announce that a number of catalogue entries from the Stephen Sondheim Society Archive are now available on our online catalogue at http://adlib.kingston.ac.uk
"The catalogue entries cover archival material from the Peter Wood Sondheim Collection, a large body of archival material related to the work of Stephen Sondheim. This collection then passed to the Stephen Sondheim Society, who have since added a great deal of material. The material now catalogued includes a large number of programmes, leaflets, posters and press cuttings dating from the earliest days of Stephen Sondheim’s work until the mid 2000s.
"Work will shortly begin on cataloguing the additional archival material of the Stephen Sondheim Society. Cataloguing is also underway on the books in the Stephen Sondheim Society Archive, and catalogue entries for these are available of the University’s Library catalogue iCat.
"Audio visual material will also be added to iCat in due course. Please remember that all the material from the Stephen Sondheim Society Archive is available to consult by appointment within our searchroom. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with any enquiries relating to the Collection, or to make an appointment.”