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Sondheim, Stephen (b. 1930)  
 
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Stephen Sondheim's seventieth birthday on March 22, 2000 was marked by a gala fete at the Library of Congress and proved the occasion for numerous retrospectives of his remarkable career.

The only child of a mother who designed clothing for his father's company, Sondheim grew up in an environment of wealth, talent, and refined sensibility. His parents divorced when he was ten years old. When his mother moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Stephen became a friend of a neighbor boy, Jimmy Hammerstein, son of presiding Broadway genius Oscar Hammerstein II, who encouraged Sondheim in his earliest efforts.

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Sondheim studied music at Williams College with avant garde composer Milton Babbitt. After graduating, he wrote scripts for the television series "Topper."

One of the most innovative careers in Broadway history was launched when, at age 26, Sondheim was asked to write the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story and, the following year, for Jule Styne's songs for Gypsy. His first score as composer-lyricist was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962)--one of the few successful musical farces.

Multiple Tony Awards, an Academy Award, and a Pulitzer Prize followed, as well as the bestowal of Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts honors by President Clinton in 1993.

A Paradoxical Place in Gay Culture

Sondheim's musicals occupy a paradoxical place in gay culture. A gay creative artist who has never created an explicitly gay character and who, according to biographer Secrest, did not come out until his early forties or allow himself to fall in love with another man until age 61, Sondheim has nevertheless attained gay cult status.

He is recognized both as the most intelligent, witty, and musically audacious of composers and as a brilliantly ironic lyricist in the tradition of his gay predecessors Lorenz Hart, Noël Coward, and Cole Porter.

He incarnates the paradox of a highly intellectualized gay perspective that prizes ambivalence, undercuts traditional American progressivism, and rejects the musical's historically idealistic view of sex, romance, and the family; but that at the same time eschews camp, deconstructs the diva, and is apparently oblivious to AIDS, the post-Stonewall struggle for civil equality, and other socio-political issues that concern most gay men of his generation.

Sondheim's Remarkable Range

At first glance, Sondheim is uncategorizable. His aesthetic mirrors that of painter Georges Seurat, the subject of Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George (1984): "If you know where you're going, / You've gone. / Just keep moving on."

In each of his projects, Sondheim moves on, addressing a new creative challenge and in the process stretching the limits of one of America's most conventional dramatic forms.

His subjects or sources alone give a cursory sense of his extraordinary range: the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (Gypsy, 1959), a film by Ingmar Bergman (A Little Night Music, 1973), and a painting by pointillist painter Georges Seurat (Sunday); plays by dramatists as diverse as Kaufman and Hart (Merrily We Roll Along, 1981), Arthur Laurents (Do I Hear a Waltz?, 1965), William Shakespeare (West Side Story, 1957), and Plautus (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum); nineteenth-century British grand guignol (Sweeney Todd, 1979) and biting sketches of contemporary American domestic life (Company, 1970); Grimm's fairy tales (Into the Woods, 1987) and a nineteenth-century Italian novel of tormented passion (Passion, 1994); a history of American imperialism (Pacific Overtures, 1976), a sociology of American political assassinations (Assassins, 1991), and the psychological complexities of the murder mystery (Getting away with Murder, 1996).

Follies (1971), which remains Sondheim's most brilliant effort to date, was actually inspired by a 1960s newspaper photograph of silent film star Gloria Swanson standing triumphantly amid the ruins of the demolished Roxy movie palace.

Progressing musically from show to show, Sondheim has mastered the idiom of folk music, the Strauss waltz, nineteenth-century light opera, the British music hall, every pre-rock twentieth-century American popular style, and Japanese Kabuki. His music has become standard repertoire in both cabarets and opera houses. Sondheim has proved relentless in his need to move on.

Queering the American Dream

Rejecting the conventional and "pretty" (which, his Georges Seurat explains, is subject to time and change; beauty is, rather, "what the eye arranges"), Sondheim's plays represent a of the American dream that is traditionally inscribed in the Broadway musical.

While Rose disdainfully dismisses the passivity of "Some People" who "thrive and bloom, / Living life in a living room," her vibrant assertion that "Everything's Coming Up Roses" is shown by the conclusion of Gypsy to be as delusional as Willy Loman's dreams of success in Death of a Salesman.

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