In 1946, Sondheim entered Williams College interested in mathematics as well as music, but soon veered away from numbers under the spell of music professor Robert Barrow. After graduating, in 1950, he had a fellowship and studied in New York with the American avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt. He went to Hollywood and wrote scripts for the television show Topper, then returned to the East and worked on Saturday Night, a musical squarely in the Rodgers and Hammerstein vein about a bunch of Brooklyn go-getters looking for love and success. Just when the show was headed for Broadway, the producer died and the show sank under the weight of unpaid bills. But Sondheim’s witty songs left a mark, and in 1955—with urging from Hammerstein and after a chance meeting with librettist Arthur Laurents—he landed the plum job cowriting, with Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics for West Side Story. (Bernstein later granted Sondheim full credit for the lyrics.)
In 1958, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Gypsy—a musical about an impossible mother, burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee’s. Then, in 1962, his long-standing ambition to compose both music and lyrics for a Broadway show was finally realized in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a farce set in ancient Rome that starred the inimitable Zero Mostel and ran for 964 performances.
For the most part, Sondheim has been ahead of Broadway audiences, drawn to complex, neurotic characters and to that fundamental human emotion, ambivalence, about which Americans traditionally go to musicals to forget. Sondheim, a collector of 19th-century puzzles, apparently loves the psychological chess of working out a story, of building a character bit by bit.
For a while after A Funny Thing Happened, success largely eluded him. His next show, Anyone Can Whistle, ran for only nine performances in 1964. Honoring a commitment he’d made to Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim then collaborated with Richard Rodgers on the 1965 show Do I Hear A Waltz? It was not a happy experience—Rodgers, who could be prickly, once disparaged Sondheim in front of the cast—but the show played 220 performances.
It wasn’t until Sondheim teamed with director and producer Hal Prince that he resumed his stride. One can only envy those who saw the run of Sondheim shows that began in 1970 with Company and climaxed with Sweeney Todd in 1979. The decade completed Sondheim’s transformation from apprentice to prodigy to subversive master of the traditionalist idiom to mold-shattering innovator.