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Stephen Sondheim productions at the John F. Kennedy Center


Stephen Sondheim

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If somebody had set out to invent a life representing everything wonderful about Broadway musicals, and everything in their potential, it would have to have been the life of Stephen Sondheim. From childhood into his seventies, he has been involved with the most significant developments in this unique and beloved kind of theatre. In the process, he has brought out musical stage to its most mature development, and without ever losing his young sense of its exhilaration. From the overture of the most traditional musical comedy to the finale of the most ambitious concept musical, from comedy numbers and show stoppers to extended musical-dramatic sequences, Stephen Sondheim is still ruled by the singular thrill of a Broadway musical and he has written a dozen and a half shows to prove it. He grew up in a New York world that hovered above the inner circles of show business. His parents mixed with the theatre’s most famous, and by the time he was in his teens, he had the great Dorothy Fields for a mentor in writing lyrics and no less than Richard Rodgers as a familiar figure at everyday piano keyboards. He even got to play his student songs for Cole Porter, but the most important of all these people was Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist and librettist whose work spanned the entire range of American musical theatre, from operetta (The Desert Song) to musical comedy (Sunny) to the most important innovations in musical drama (Show Boat and Oklahoma!). He was soon spending more time at the Hammerstein home than at his own, taken under the wing of “Ookie.� For here was a man who loved to teach, and he had made this youth his first and only musical comedy student. That was going to be quite a formal course of study. Sondheim was assigned a series of musicals to solve particular problems, and he wrote them from prep school through college, certain that he was going to become the youngest composer ever in Broadway. After graduation, Sondheim supported himself by writing for television while composing unproduced shows, and then that lucky break flew


his way while he thought he was just having a casual conversation. It seemed that a budding musical called East Side Story needed a lyricist, and although Sondheim considered himself a composer, he knew better than to let the break pass him by. So it was that he found himself working with two of the most talented and innovative artists in the musical theatre, the director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins, and one of the world’s most important musicians, the composer, Leonard Bernstein. Of course that 1957 show was ultimately called West Side Story (for more on West Side Story, visit ARTSEDGE’s Romeo and Juliet mini-site), but before Sondheim could capitalize on it and pursue his composing ambitions, he had to accept one more, strictly lyric-writing assignment. He was not happy about that but Hammerstein urged one last lesson on him, the lesson being, how to write for a star. The show was Gypsy, the star was Ethel Merman, and it gave Sondheim the chance to write for one of the last of the first class musical comedies. With this, his second hit, Sondheim’s future seemed assured, but it would not be so easy. When given the chance to write his own music as well as lyrics in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum, he found that although the show was a hit, his songs were not. Forum won the Tony Award, but his score wasn’t even nominated for one. Another eight years would pass before, at the age of forty, he’d be given any recognition as a composer — for Company — and even then, he was being regularly advised to concentrate on writing lyrics because “you can’t hum the tunes.” His music was simply too “musicianly” for ears accustomed to elementary show tunes. In the years that followed, Stephen Sondheim established himself as Broadway’s most ambitious and principled practitioner. He was the artistic conscience of the musical theatre. Every one of his shows was of serious artistic intent and uncompromising integrity. Each was unique, attempting the dangerous or, in his word, the “unexpected.”


Sondheim’s melodies, of course, have been ravishing, but in his own lanugage. Sondheim can write gorgeous melodies in homage to Gershwin (Follies and “Losing My Mind”), he can write beautiful melodies for the weird and eerie (Sweeney Todd and “Not While I’m Around”) and of course there is his bittersweet “Send in The Clowns” from A Little Night Music, but these songs are not written simply to be beautiful songs. They are not from the shows. They are integral to the shows. They are woven into a fabric; they are sections in a musical score. He learned such integration from Oscar Hammerstein and refined the process, but even so, Stephen Sondheim’s work can be taken as a metaphor for something bigger than musical theatre—a metaphor for the principles of integrity that he’d learned from “Okie” Hammerstein. Yet, Stephen Sondheim will insist that he did it all out of a passion for musical comedy, and that’s true, too. Excerpted from: Gottfried, Martin. “Sondheim.” The Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration. Washington, DC: The Kennedy Center Education Department. 2002. (Publication may be purchased at the Kennedy Center Gift Shop.)


A Stephen Sondheim Timeline 1930 Stephen Sondheim is born on March 22, 1930 to Janet Fox (“Foxy”) and Herbert Sondheim in New York City. 1942-1943 Sondheim enters George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania, and becomes friendly with James Hammerstein, son of Oscar Hammerstein II. 1945 Sondheim writes a musical about campus life called By George! at the age of 15. He presents the work to Oscar Hammerstein who criticizes the work and requests that Stephen write four musicals to learn the technique. Stephen Sondheim says that he learned more about musical theatre in an afternoon with Hammerstein than most people do in a lifetime. 1955 Sondheim is chosen as co-lyricist for Berstein-Laurents-Robbins, West Side Story. He will eventually become the full lyricist. 1957 September 16: West Side Story premieres on Broadway. 1961 Sondheim writes incidental music for the play, Invitation to a March. The fiilm version of West Side Story is released. 1963 The film version of Gypsy is released. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is awarded a Tony for the best musical of the year. 1972 Sondheim’s lyrics and music earn him a Tony Award for Follies. 1981 November 16: Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along premieres on Broadway. The show abruptly closes on December 2. Due to artistic differences, the Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim partnership ends. 1984 May 2: Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George premieres on Broadway. Sondheim partners with James Lapine. Sunday in the Park with George is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 1987 November 5: Sondheim’s Into the Woods premieres on Broadway. Woods marked the second greatest success for Sondheim and the second collaboration with James Lapine. Sondheim’s book, Sondheim & Co., is revised to include Into the Woods. 1988 Into the Woods earns Sondheim a Tony for lyrics and music. 1998 Sondheim’s critically acclaimed revival of Follies opens at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Into the Woods opens in London. 2000 Merrily We Roll Along is revived in London.


Follies Some critics have called Follies a nearly perfect musical. It is set at a reunion of the cast of the Weismann Follies. The Follies were produced between the two World Wars, and now the theatre the once was its home, is about to be destroyed to make room for a parking lot. In Follies, Stephen Sondheim and librettist, James Goldman, question if one can return to what was lost in the past. They use the conventions of old Broadway musicals and twist them to make incisive observations about life’s paths, both taken and not taken. Two couples—the glamorous and sophisticated Ben and Phyllis Stone and the plain and unsophisticated Buddy and Sally Plummer—once close friends in their youth in the Follies, have seen their lives go in very different directions. At the reunion, old longings and laments are stirred, and the couples confront their past as it intersects their present. As the couples near a nervous breakdown, a moment of surrealism allows the audience to see the characters’ memories and to see the ghosts of their youthful selves, a youth filled with hope for the future.

1971 April 4: Follies premieres on Broadway. Sondheim’s lyrics and score for the Company earn two Tonys, respectively.


Into the Woods What happens in fairy tales when the characters do not live “happily ever after”? In Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and librettist, James Lapine, retell Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s fairy tales as several familiar characters —and some new—share the same stage. The adventures of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel are woven together as they try to overcome obstacles in the same forest, while a Baker and his Wife attempt to reverse a family curse that prevents them from having a child. Sondheim and Lapine explore the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests. Into the Woods was also inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment.

In the mid-1980’s, when a Broadway musical tended to be either a widely-acclaimed hit or a failure, Sondheim and Lapine were interested in creating a light-hearted, funny musical that would appeal to the middle group—a musical that would entertain a wide audience, but would not necessarily be a box-office smash. Lapine, who had loved fairy tales when growing up, at first conceived of a musical based on an entirely new fairy tale, but the notion of combining several already-cherished fairy tales in one work was rife with possibilities for slapstick humor and witty lyrics. The resulting musical, Into the Woods, premiered on Broadway in 1987 and was heralded with three Tony Awards and nine nominations. In 1988, it was named best musical by the Drama Desk and the New York Drama Critics Circle.


Merrily We Roll Along Merrily We Roll Along was based on George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 play of the same title. The play’s action runs backward with the characters starting out as their middle-aged selves and, by play’s end, reverting to their selves as graduating high school students. In 1981, the Kaufman and Hart play seemed unlikely source material for the next Stephen Sondheim musical. The composer/ lyricist and his director/producer, Harold Prince, had collaborated on five ground-breaking (if not necessarily lucrative) musicals since 1970: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd. Prince, at fifty-three, wanted to do a musical about young people. In the original production of Merrily We Roll Along, Prince’s cast was a mixture of actors in their teens and twenties. Though the original production flopped, subsequent revivals have won critical success as Sondheim and various directors, including James Lapine, have fixed the problems that doomed the original. Sondheim’s musical adaptation of the Kaufman and Hart play transforms the story of three successful people looking back on their lost friendship. Frank, Mary, and Charley grew up to realize their dreams and goals, but may have paid a greater price than they anticipated. Merrily We Roll Along tells a masterful tale of three remarkable people reflecting on years of aspiration and reality, and dreams both fulfilled and lost.


Pacific Overtures is a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a libretto by John Weidman, and additional material by Hugh Wheeler, set in 1853 Japan. The musical begins on the July morning when U.S. Admiral Matthew Perry and his four war ships appears in Kanagawa habor in order to force Japan out of its 250 year closure to the rest of the world, and particularly to open trade with the United States. Pacific Overtures traces the affects of Westernization on Japan through two of its characters, Kayama, a samurai of little consequence, and Manjiro, a prisoner who has returned to Japan after a stay in Boston. The title of the work is ironic, nodding toward “overture” as a musical form, and archly noting that the initiatives of the Western powers for commercial exploitation of the Pacific nation were anything but pacific overtures. Built around a quasi-Japanese pentatonic scale, the music contrasts Japanese contemplation (“There is No Other Way”) with Western ingeniousness (“Please Hello,” “Pretty Lady”). Sondheim said in 1976 that “Someone in a Tree,” where two witnesses describe negotiations between Japanese and Americans, was his personal favorite of all the songs he had written. “A Bowler Hat” neatly encapsulates the show’s theme, as a samurai gradually sells out to the Westerners.

1976 January 11: Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures premieres on Broadway. This premiere marked the fourth partnership with Harold Prince.

Pacific Overtures


Inspired by the painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, Sunday in the Park with George focuses on the famous French pointillist painter himself, who believes that reality can always be improved upon in art. Through the act of painting, he washes away the petty disagreements of the characters in his landscape, creating a world of order, balance, and harmony. Locking himself in his solitary studio filled with paints and canvasses, Seurat devotes himself fully to his art, unable to commit to anything else— including his longtime mistress, Dot. Sondheim’s songs merge past and present into basic, heartfelt truths about life, creation, and emotion.

In Sunday in the Park with George are the lyrics that give us “Art isn’t easy,” but also “Art is what you do for yourself” and “Children and Art” and, most centrally, “Move On”: “If you can know where you’re going, you’ve gone….Look at what you want, not at where you are, not at what you’ll be… anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new.” As Stephen Sondheim himself has always said, musicals remain works in progress however many times they may open and close in different productions worldwide, and the ongoing greatness of Sunday in the Park after two decades lies in its willingness to explore the very nature of the making of art, just as the Sondheim and Jule Styne musical Gypsy explores the very nature of show business itself.

Sunday in the Park with George


Sweeney Todd

1979 March 1: Sweeney Todd premieres on Broadway, which soon earns Sondheim yet another Tony for his lyrics and music.

In Victorian England, Sweeney Todd has just been released from jail for a crime he did not commit. The former barber has only one thing on his mind: cold revenge against the corrupt judge who framed him, murdered his wife, and stole his daughter to raise as his own. Teaming up with the dazzlingly demented Mrs. Lovett, a struggling baker of meat pies, the “demon barber of Fleet Street” cooks up a hilariously macabre revenge scheme that fulfills both their needs in very unexpected ways! Comedy, tragedy, romance, and madness intersect brilliantly in this Sondheim favorite, which won eight 1979 Tony Awards—including Best Musical. The story of Sweeney Todd came from the Grand Guignol-like melodrama—a comic thriller most commonly called Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The macabre story can be traced as far back as an 1825 article in Tell-Tale Magazine called “The Terrible Story of the Rue de la Harpe,” which was in turn taken from an earlier account in Joseph Fouche’s Archives of the People.


The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – A Brief History The John F. Kennedy Center opened its doors on September 8, 1971, and celebrates its birthday each September with the free Open House Arts Festival. As always, the Center continues its efforts to fulfill President Kennedy’s vision by producing and presenting an unmatched variety of theater and musicals, dance and ballet, orchestral, chamber, jazz, popular, and folk music, and multi-media performances for all ages. Every year the institution that bears President Kennedy’s name brings his dream to fruition, touching the lives of millions of people through thousands of performances by the greatest artists from across America and around the world. The Center also nurtures new works and young artists, serving the nation as a leader in arts education and creating broadcasts, tours, and outreach programs. World premiere performances of Kennedy Center-commissioned works have been offered through an unprecedented commissioning program for new ballet and dance works. These works have been created by America’s foremost choreographers—Paul Taylor, Lar Lubovich, and Merce Cunningham—for leading American dance companies including American Ballet Theatre, Ballet West, Houston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, and the San Francisco Ballet. The Center has co-produced more than 150 new works of theater since opening its doors, including Tony-winning shows ranging from Annie in 1977 to A Few Good Men, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The King and I, Titanic, Bounce, On Golden Pond, and Thoroughly Modern Millie. In April 2003 the Center launched the extraordinarily successful summer-long festival Tennessee Williams Explored, featuring new Kennedy Center productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, A Distant Country Called Youth, and the one-act play collection Five By Tenn. The Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays provides critical support in the development of nearly 150 new theatrical works, resulting in premieres that included three Pulitzer Prize winners: Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle, and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.


The National Symphony Orchestra, the Kennedy Center’s artistic affiliate since 1987, has commissioned dozens of new works, among them Stephen Albert’s RiverRun, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music; Morton Gould’s StringMusic, also a Pulitzer Prize-winner; William Bolcolm’s Sixth Symphony, and Michael Daughtery’s UFO, a concerto for solo percussion and orchestra. In addition to its regular season concerts, the National Symphony Orchestra, under the leadership of its acclaimed Music Director Leonard Slatkin, presents a number of variously themed festivals each season. The annual American Residencies for the Kennedy Center is a program unique to the National Symphony Orchestra and the Center. The Center sends the Orchestra to a different state each year for an intensive period of performances and teaching encompassing full orchestral, chamber, and solo concerts, master classes and other teaching sessions. The Orchestra has given these residencies in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South and North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming/Montana. In recent years the Kennedy Center has dramatically expanded its education programs to reach young people, teachers, and families throughout the nation. Each year more than 7 million people nationwide take part in innovative and effective education programs initiated by the Center, including performances, lecture/demonstrations, open rehearsals, dance and music residencies, master classes, competitions for young actors and musicians, backstage tours, and workshops for teachers. These programs have become models for communities across the country, as educators and government leaders recognize what the Center has known for years: that the arts can unlock the door to learning for young people, fostering creativity, teaching discipline, improving self-esteem, and challenging students to think in new ways, as well as offering them experiences in the joy of the performing arts.


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Calendar Key:

Follies Merrily We Roll Along Sweeney Todd

Into the Woods Pacific Overtures Sunday in the Park with George


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How to Purchase Tickets There are four ways to purchase tickets to Kennedy Center performances: online, at the box office, by phone through instant-charge, or by mail. Tickets for Kennedy Center performances usually go on sale about two months before the engagement begins. For more information about ticket sales call (202) 467-4600 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Please Note: All sales are final. All persons regardless of age must have a ticket for ticketed events. Please carefully consider whether a performance is appropriate for children before planning to attend with young people. Also, please be aware that children who are disruptive will not be allowed to remain in the theater. Be considerate of others in the audience and of your young person’s comfort. Online Tickets may be purchased online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Diners Club. There is a 9.9% service charge for online orders. All you have to do is find a performance and follow the steps. Tickets will either be mailed to you or held at the Box Office. Step 1: Find a Performance Step-by-step instructions for online ticketing. At the Box Offfice The central Box Office for all theaters is located in the Kennedy Center’s Hall of States. Regular Box Office hours are Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–9 p.m., and Sundays and holidays, noon–9 p.m. Sixty minutes of free parking is available for patrons making ticket purchases and exchanges with validation from the Box Office. Free parking is NOT available from the Columbia Plaza garage. The Box Office accepts cash, checks, travelers’ checks, MasterCard, Visa, American Express, and Diners Club. By Phone Tickets may be charged by phone through Instant-Charge at (202) 4674600 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.The toll-free number is (800) 4441324. The TTY number for purchasing tickets is (202) 416-8524. There is a 9.9% service charge for phone orders. Instant-Charge accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Diners Club. Tickets ordered by phone at least 14 days in advance will be mailed, or may be picked up at the Box Office at your request. You must show your credit card when picking up your tickets.


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Stephen Sondheim - A Tribute