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About Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim © Cambridge University Union

Stephen Sondheim was born in New York on 22 March 1930, and is widely acknowledged as the most innovative, most influential and most important composer and lyricist in modern Broadway history.

For more than 50 years, Stephen Sondheim set an unsurpassed standard of brilliance and artistic integrity in the musical theatre. His accolades included an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer) including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, multiple Grammy Awards, multiple Drama Desk awards and a Pulitzer Prize.

He wrote the music and lyrics for:

  • Saturday Night (1954)

  • A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962)

  • Anyone Can Whistle (1964)

  • Company (1970)

  • Follies (1971)

  • A Little Night Music (1973)

  • The Frogs (1974)

  • Pacific Overtures (1976)

  • Sweeney Todd (1979)

  • Merrily We Roll Along (1981)

  • Sunday In The Park With George (1984)

  • Into The Woods (1987)

  • Assassins (1991)

  • Passion (1994)

  • Bounce (2003) which later became Road Show (2008)

  • Here We Are (2023)


He also wrote lyrics for:

  • West Side Story (1957)

  • Gypsy (1959)

  • Do I Hear A Waltz? (1965)

  • Candide (1973, additional lyrics)

Anthologies of his work as composer and lyricist include:

  • Side By Side By Sondheim (1976)

  • Marry Me A Little (1981)

  • You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow (1983)

  • Putting It Together (1993/99)

  • Moving On (2001)

  • Sondheim on Sondheim (2010)

  • Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends (2022/23)


For films, he composed the scores of Stavisky (1974) and co-composed Reds (1981), as well as songs for The Seven Percent Solution (1976) and Dick Tracy (1990). He also wrote the songs for the television production Evening Primrose (1966), co-authored the film The Last of Sheila (1973) and the play Getting Away With Murder (1996).


He provided incidental music for the plays The Girls Of Summer (1956), Invitation To A March (1961), Twigs (1971), The Enclave (1973) and a new production of King Lear (2007) and songs for the plays I Know My Love (1951) and A Mighty Man Is He (1955). He wrote the "Passionella" segment of The World of Jules Feiffer (1963), and additional material for Hot Spot (1963), The Mad Show (1966) and The Madwoman Of Central Park West (1979).


He created cryptic crosswords for New York Magazine in the late 1960s, and was screenwriter for the television series Topper (c.1953). As an actor, he featured in the television revision of June Moon (1974) and has appeared as himself in the film Camp (2003).

Sondheim studied at George School, Pennsylvania (1942 to 1946) and at Williams College, Massachusetts (1946 to 1950), where he was a music major. On college graduation he received the Hutchinson Prize for Composition, and subsequently studied music theory and composition with the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt.


Mr Sondheim’s early work for school and college theatre includes By George (1945) and Phinney’s Rainbow (1948). Between 1948 and 1951, he wrote All That Glitters, High Tor, Mary Poppins and Climb High as part of a course of study under his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II. Saturday Night (1954), his first professional musical, finally had its world premiere at London’s Bridewell Theatre in 1997 at the instigation of The Stephen Sondheim Society, followed by a Broadway production two years later.

Mr Sondheim received the Tony Award for Best Score/Music/Lyrics for Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into The Woods and Passion, all of which won the New York Drama Circle award for Outstanding /Best Musical, as did Pacific Overtures and Sunday In The Park With George. In total, his works have accumulated more than sixty individual and collaborative Tony Awards.


“Sooner Or Later” from the film Dick Tracy won the 1999 Academy Award for Best Song. Mr Sondheim received The Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1984 for Sunday In The Park With George.


In 1983, he was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters, which awarded him the Gold Medal for Music in 2006. In 1990, he was appointed the first Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University and was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award in the 1993 Kennedy Center Honors. In 1992, he declined the National Medal of Arts from the Bush Administration but accepted it from the Clinton administration in 1996. In 2000, he was honoured with the Praemium Imperiale, Japan’s highest honour for a lifetime of artistic achievement; in 2001 was granted the Fellows of the Phi Beta Kappa Society Award; and in 2002 received the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Richard Rodgers Award. In February 2007, he was a recipient of the 49th Grammy Awards Trustees Award, an award recognizing outstanding contributions to the industry in a non-performing category.

He had been patron to The Stephen Sondheim Society since its foundation in 1993. Mr Sondheim was also on the Council of the Dramatists Guild – the national association of playwrights, composers and lyricists – having served as its President from 1973 to 1981, in which year he founded Young Playwrights Inc. to develop and promote the work of American playwrights aged 18 years and younger.

In June 2008, Mr Sondheim received the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre; also the New York transfer of The Menier Chocolate Factory’s London production of Sunday in the Park with George received nine Tony nominations.

Mr Sondheim’s most recent show, Road Show (aka Gold, Wise Guys and Bounce), opened off-Broadway in October 2008, and in London in 2011. It had a US revival in June 2013 in Chicago.

March 22nd 2010 was Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday and there were numerous celebrations around the world to mark the event. Among those was the new anthology show Sondheim On Sondheim, for which Sondheim himself provided a pre-recorded video commentary. This opened on Broadway in March of that year.

In July 2010, Mr Sondheim received the accolade of having a London Prom Concert dedicated to his work and in a ceremony on September 15th New York’s Henry Miller’s Theatre was renamed The Stephen Sondheim Theatre. In the same year, his work was produced in Paris with the Théâtre du Châtelet production of A Little Night Music. This was followed in 2011 with Sweeney Todd, then Sunday in the Park With George (2013), Into The Woods (2014) and Passion (2016).

In October 2010, the first of two volumes of his collected and annotated lyrics, Finishing the Hat, was published; that same month The Royal Academy of Music conferred on him an Honorary Doctorate of the University of London. Volume two, Look I Made a Hat, was published the following year.

To mark his 80th birthday, Arlington’s Signature Theatre instituted the Sondheim Award, which in its first year was presented to Angela Lansbury. Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone won in 2011 and 21012 respectively; the 2013 winner was Harold Prince; orchestrator Jonathan Tunick won the 2014 award; and librettist James Lapine in 2015.

In 2011, among other things, he received the Olivier Special Award, the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, and the Handel Medallion, (New York City’s highest award for achievement in the arts); the Kennedy Center inaugurated the Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards; Road Show opened in London, and volume two of his collected and annotated lyrics, Look I Made a Hat, was published.

The UK Critics Circle 24th Annual Award for Services to the Arts was given to Mr Sondheim in March 2012 and later that year an acclaimed London production of Merrily We Roll Along opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory. This production then transferred to play at the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre in April 2013. At the 2013 Olivier Awards, the Chichester production of Sweeney Todd won Best Musical Revival, and the transfer of Merrily We Roll Along won two Olivier Awards in 2014 for Best Musical Revival and Best Sound Design.

In July 2013, The Stephen Sondheim Society launched The Stephen Sondheim Society Archive. Housed at Kingston University, this is of great use and interest to Sondheim academics and scholars around the world.

Recent revivals of his work include Gypsy at Chichester, directed by Jonathan Kent and starring Imelda Staunton, which subsequently enjoyed a West End transfer at the Savoy Theatre; Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory, directed by Jamie Lloyd; and two important productions of Sweeney Todd, one from the ENO at the Coliseum starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson, and the other at Harrington’s Pie & Mash Shop by the Tooting Arts Club, a site-specific production that transferred to a pop-up pie shop on Shaftesbury Avenue.

In 2014, Sir Cameron Mackintosh announced that The Ambassadors Theatre in London was to be renamed The Sondheim Theatre in Stephen’s honour. The following year, Sondheim’s 85th birthday was marked with, among other things, the gala Hey, Old Friends!, produced at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane by The Stephen Sondheim Society and Richard Douglas Productions.

Stephen's 90th birthday was marked with a virtual concert, Take Me To the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, which saw Broadway luminaries such as Stephen Schwartz, Neil Patrick Harris, Kelli O'Hara, Melissa Errico, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Patti Lupone, Bernadette Peters and Raul Esparza stream their appreciation and birthday greetings.

His work continues to be staged around the world. The much-lauded gender-switched production of Company directed by Marianne Elliott - which started life in London's West End - re-opened on Broadway after the COVID shutdown, and the Spanish premiere of Company was staged in Malaga with Antonio Banderas. Steven Spielberg's version of West Side Story opened in early December, and pre-production work began on a cinema adaptation of Follies.


Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends, a one-off gala celebration of Steve's life curated by Sondheim and Sir Cameron Mackintosh, was staged at the Sondheim Theatre on 3 May 2021, and previews began on 21 September 2023 for a 16-week run of the show at the Gielgud under the same title, with a gala press night on 3 October.


Sondheim's last musical, Here We Are - based on the movies of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and written with playwright David Ives - began previewing at The Shed's Griffin Theatre off-Broadway in September 2023 and is due to open on 22 October.

Stephen died suddenly on the morning of Friday 26 November 2021 at the age of 91 at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut, where he had been spending most of his time during the COVID-19 pandemic. He will be remembered as the most influential and inspiring musical theatre creator of his generation, whose legacy will resonate long into the 21st century.

"Look I made a hat... Where there never was a hat"

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