Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim was born 22nd of March 1930 in New York City. He was known to have always had an interest in Musicals he also started studying the piano and organ. When we was 15 he had already written a musical this was not later one of his successful shows however. He grew to know Oscar Hammerstein II very well as he was good friends with Hammerstein’s son, and he soon became his mentor. After he graduated he went on to write the script for the television show ‘Topper’ and also was the lyricist for musicals such as ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Gypsy’. In 1962 he wrote the music and lyrics for ‘Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ which later won a Tony. Ore of his work includes ‘Sweeney Todd’, ‘Company’, ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, ‘ Into the Woods’ as well as many other great pieces of work.

I found that whilst I have been looking for social context for Sondheim it has been very difficult. This is because Sondheim has had such a long career you can’t pinpoint a specific musical to any current events at the time. However this is what I did find.

The Musical Company was very successful and was one of the first musicals that revolved around adult themes and relationships. The audiences in the 70s and before were mostly made up of upper to middle class people and so they went to the theatre to get escape their problems, however this musical just throws it back at their faces. Sondheim even said “these people really want to escape that world when they go to the theatre, and then here we are with Company talking about how we’re going to bring it right back in their faces”. This makes me think that Sondheim started bringing taboo themes into the theatre world to possibly show that people can’t keep avoiding these problems or maybe that they’re not so bad and these people should toughen up and deal with it. After the success of this show as well there have been many more musicals now that would have never been allowed to be performed back in the 1970s, for example The Book of Mormon, it has a great message but it does offend every race, religion,. Gender and anything else under the sun.




One thought on “Stephen Sondheim”

  1. Sophia, where is your section from the brief? “Investigate the definition of practitioners – What defines a practitioner?”
    I think you are a little confused by social context and by historical context. Social context is to do with the class, education, family and background of a person and historical context is to do with the events taking place in the world during the period they are alive and developing their work.
    You say that Sondheim was born in 1930 in New York City so, as he was growing up, he would have been very aware of the Great Depression that was affecting very many people in the Western World and America, enormous poverty, a huge amount of unemployment, famine all contrasted with a tiny minority of people with great wealth. By the time he was 15 and writing his first musical in 1945 he had seen the end of the second world war and things were just starting to improve in America, people started to have more things and there was more employment. These things would have an impact on someone growing up in these times. Was he part of a family that were the ‘haves’ or the ‘have nots’? Was he part of a large family? How did his family manage financially? Did he have to fight to be educated or was this just automatically his for the taking? Did his family approve of his interest in music and support him in becoming a composer or did they disapprove and want him to get a ‘normal ‘ job? Was he successful straight away? Was he recognised straight away as doing something different for musicals? What were his cultural interests (art, music, drama, dance)? Did he have creative friends that he bounced ideas off or was he working in isolation? Why do you think Sondheim didn’t want theatre to be safe and entertaining – could it be because of what his experiences were growing up? Could it be because he wanted to offer something different and new? Was his work liked by the critics and audiences because now that their lives were comfortable and nice they didn’t NEED to see nice and happy pieces instead they could comfortably watch miserable / ‘real’ pieces because this contrasted with their affluent lives?
    This is the kind of exploration and thinking we would like to see you do when you carry out research. At the moment the quality of evidence you have provided would barely meet the Pass standard set for Level 3. This is because it doesn’t go far and deep enough. Try and develop this aspect of your work ready for unit 12.


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