The most adorably fanboyish I’ve ever seen Stephen Colbert was when he got Sondheim on the Report. I mean, he pretty much fully dropped character and was just giddy with delight, quoting Sunday in the Park With George at the man who’s clearly an idol of his. This was as excited as Jon Stewart had been at Bruce Springsteen. This was, in essence, Springsteen for theatre geeks. Someone Cameron Mackintosh had said was probably the greatest lyricist ever. Who somehow doesn’t have an Emmy; clearly, the next of those live musical productions on TV needs to be a Sondheim one to fix that issue.
Honestly, it sounds as though his parents never should have married and his mother never should have given birth. But they did and she did, and then, when he was ten, they divorced. His father was distant; his mother was abusive. (You have to be a pretty lousy parent to send your child a letter saying that your only regret in life was giving birth to them.) However, he met and befriended James Hammerstein, whose father, Oscar Hammerstein II, took young Stephen under his wing and gave him the emotional support he wasn’t getting at home. He also gave support to Stephen’s burgeoning talent.
The rest of the world would learn about it with West Side Story. Sondheim had been bouncing around for a while, writing for TV and so forth, and he wrote what became Saturday Night, not produced until a 1997 London run, but it was when he saw Arthur Laurents at a party that he was told to audition as lyricist to Leonard Bernstein. He took one percent of the profits instead of two in exchange for sole credit as lyricist, which he now says he kicks himself for; that show has made a lot of money. He agreed to work again as lyricist to Jule Styne for Gypsy.
Hammerstein died before his protege’s first solo success, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In the years since then, there have been many shows, some more financially successful than others. Merrily We Roll Along bombed. Assassins originally got 73 performances off-Broadway. Bounce tanked in its previews and never made it to Broadway. But shows such as Company and Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods have been incredibly successful. Somewhere in America right now, you can probably find a production of a Sondheim show without trying too hard.
In the movies, he has had equally uneven success. He won an Oscar for Best Original Song for Dick Tracy‘s “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man),” in my opinion not the best song from the movie. (“What Can You Lose.”) A Little Night Music is probably better not spoken of. Both Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd are controversial (I like Sweeney Todd well enough and am not fond of Into the Woods). But then there’s Gypsy and Funny Thing and, of course, the Oscar juggernaut of West Side Story. And I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that there’s never going to be an Assassins movie and merely resent that Great Performances, which gave us great recordings of Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George and so forth didn’t do the Broadway revival.
Beyond his own work, though, Sondheim has chosen to give back what Hammerstein gave him and mentor other rising talents. His personality doesn’t seem entirely suited to it, honestly; that childhood history of emotional abuse doesn’t really turn you into a people person. But he did, in 2008, approach Lin-Manuel Miranda to do a Spanish translation of West Side Story, and in return he was one of the first people to hear what would later become Hamilton. He wasn’t sure it would work, but he apparently said that, if anyone could make it work, Miranda could. Speaking of people who should be EGOTs and aren’t.
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