Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by WonderTeam. WonderTeam Wonders, “Who was Stephen Sondheim?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, WonderTeam!

Have you ever been to a theater to watch a play? There are few things like the joy one feels when the lights go down. Waiting for the curtains to open can feel like a lifetime!

Of course, nothing draws fans to the theater like a live musical. The singing, the dancing, the story—it’s a truly magical event! Are you familiar with musical theater? If so, you know that few names are held in higher regard than that of Stephen Sondheim.

Who was Stephen Sondheim? He was born on March 22, 1930, in New York City. Sondheim showed musical promise from an early age, learning to play piano and writing music. When he was 12, Sondheim’s parents divorced. He moved with his mother to Pennsylvania. 

In Pennsylvania, Sondheim formed one of his life’s most important relationships. He became friends with James Hammerstein, the son of Broadway producer Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein became a mentor for Sondheim. He taught young Sondheim a great deal about musical theater and gave advice on some of his earliest works.

After high school, Sondheim went to Williams College in Massachusetts. He graduated in 1950 with a degree in music. Sondheim also earned a fellowship—the Hutchinson Prize for composition. He then moved back to New York City, where he continued to study with composer Milton Babbitt.

Sondheim wrote scripts for the television shows “Topper” and “The Last Word” in the 1950s. He also composed music for “The Girls of Summer,” which played on Broadway. Sondheim continued to write music. He also built working relationships with many talented people, including Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein.

As Sondheim continued to rise in fame, he worked on many well-known Broadway hits. He wrote lyrics for “West Side Story” in 1957 and “Gypsy” in 1959. In 1962, he composed both music and lyrics for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” This play won a Tony Award for best musical.

Were all of Sondheim’s works successful? Well, no. As famous and talented as Sondheim was, not all the shows he worked on did well commercially. Two examples were 1964’s “Anyone Can Whistle” and 1965’s “Do I Hear a Waltz?” While many agree that Sondheim’s musical work for both shows was strong, neither was a success on stage.

Still, many of Sondheim’s other works became some of the most famed shows on Broadway. He wrote music and lyrics for “A Little Night Music,” “Into the Woods,” and “Sweeney Todd,” among others. Sondheim won eight Tony Awards and eight Grammy Awards. In 2008, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award for his work. In 2015, President Barack Obama gave Sondheim the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

On November 26, 2021, Stephen Sondheim passed away from cardiovascular disease. He was 91 years old. Today, people remember Sondheim as one of the greatest composers and lyricists in musical theater history.

Have you ever seen a Sondheim musical? What do you think is most impressive about his work? If you’re interested in theater, spend some time learning more today.

Standards: CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.W.1, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.L.2, CCRA.SL.1

Wonder What's Next?

Warning: Tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day could give you itchy eyes and sneezing fits!