Sondheim was at the GeorgeSchool outside Philadelphia when he composed his first musical, By George, and demonstrated a preternatural knack for the music of language, writing of the conservative prep school in one song: “No firearms, no drinking / Not even coed winking / All they allow is thinking.”
He showed the script to his mentor and asked for an unflinching critique. When Sondheim’s lower lip began to tremble, Hammerstein said that although By George was riddled with flaws, its author clearly had talent. Hammerstein devised a syllabus by which Sondheim would study musical theater composition. He was to write four shows, all based on other sources. Sondheim dutifully followed the program. He would continue to seek his mentor’s advice until Hammerstein died in 1960.
No doubt the young Sondheim’s difficulties with his mother made the Hammerstein household all the more of a refuge. His mother, Sondheim later told biographer Secrest, was “an impossible person” who, among other infractions, “used me the way she had used [my father], to come on to and to berate.” Mother and son grew estranged. In the 1970s, Sondheim’s mother was scheduled to have a pacemaker implanted in her chest. She apparently believed that the procedure entailed open-heart surgery, which she imagined would kill her, and wrote a valedictory note to her son, delivered by messenger. “The night before I undergo open heart surgery (my surgeon’s term),” the note said, “the only regret I have in life is giving you birth.”
Sondheim’s reply, according to Secrest, was three pages of indictments he had kept dammed up all his life. He said he never wanted to see her again (though, later, he did see her). She died in 1992, at 95. He did not attend the funeral. Inevitably, many have wondered how Sondheim’s complex childhood may have shaped his temperament and work. Clearly his reserve, his irony and detachment, his wariness of emotional entanglements, his perfectionism and profound self-doubt, his precocity and even his romanticism can be read as compensations for and responses to the pain of a broken home. The same goes for his love of the stage and the surrogate family of theater folk, and his attachment to his teachers.
Though the parallels between his art and life invite speculation, Sondheim, who reportedly has spent many years in psychoanalysis, has warned interviewers not to interpret his characters as embodiments of his personal history—they’re just vehicles for stories, he says. Generally, he does not even dream them up; they come from the playwrights and directors he works with. All he does, he says, is try to inhabit the characters, just as an actor gets into a part. Even so, Sondheim has acknowledged that artists choose stories that resonate with them. The critic Allen W. Menton has noted that a recurring theme in Sondheim’s work is the “domineering or repressive mother figure locked in a cycle of dependence and rivalry with (often grown) children.” Ultimately, every choice an artist makes is autobiographical, and one can usually detect the composer in the composition.