The Playbill Vault Celebrates Tony Award Winner Stephen Sondheim
By Megan Dekic
Legendary composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who, with eight wins, has won more Tony Awards than any other composer, celebrates his birthday March 22. To mark the special day, the Playbill Vault highlights some of his many contributions to musical theatre.
Sondheim's earliest Broadway credits include lyrics for the classic musicals West Side Story and Gypsy. In 1962 he made his debut as both composer and lyricist with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a musical farce based on the plays of Plautus.
With a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart and directed by George Abbott, the production opened May 8, 1962, at the Alvin Theatre. Zero Mostel starred as Pseudolus, a role he would later reprise in the 1966 film version. The musical won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical for Mostel, and enjoyed a 964-performance run.
After his short-lived Anyone Can Whistle, which starred Angela Lansbury and lasted only nine performances, Sondheim wrote music and lyrics for the innovative concept musical Company, about the perils and pleasures of love, marriage and dating in New York City.
Company premiered April 26, 1970, at the Alvin Theatre and marked Sondheim's first collaboration with librettist George Furth. Harold Prince directed a cast that included Elaine Stritch, Donna McKechnie and Dean Jones (who was succeeded early in the run by his understudy Larry Kert).
In his review for the New York Times, Clive Barnes wrote: "Creatively Mr. Sondheim's lyrics are way above the rest of the show; they have a lyric suppleness, sparse, elegant wit, and range from the virtuousity of a patter song to a kind of sweetly laconic cynicism in a modern love song." The show was nominated for a record-setting 14 Tony Awards and won six, including Best Music and Best Lyrics for Sondheim.
Sondheim followed up the success of Company with Follies, a musical about a group of former "Weismann's Follies" performers who reunite at their old theatre before it's scheduled to be demolished. The production opened April 4, 1971, at the Winter Garden Theatre, starring Gene Nelson, Dorothy Collins, John McMartin and Alexis Smith.
Clive Barnes of the New York Times said the musical was "stylish" and "innovative" with "some of the best lyrics [he had] ever encountered." The show won seven of the eleven Tony Awards it was nominated for, including Best Original Score for Sondheim and Best Choreography for Michael Bennett, and went on to play 522 performances.
Follies was most recently revived on Broadway in 2011 with Bernadette Peters, Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell and Ron Raines.
In 1979 the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical Sweeney Todd, concerning a murderous barber seeking revenge, opened on Broadway. Len Cariou starred as the title character opposite Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett with Victor Garber as Anthony and Ken Jennings as Tobias.
The show opened March 1, 1979, at the Uris Theatre to rave reviews. The New York Times' Richard Eder wrote: "Mr. Sondheim has composed an endlessly inventive, highly expressive score that works indivisibly from his brilliant and abrasive lyrics." The production received eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ran for 557 performances.
The most recent Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd opened in 2005 and starred Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris. This production was notable in that it did not have an orchestra. Instead, it featured a cast of actor-musicians who played the score themselves with musical instruments on stage.
Into the Woods, Sondheim and James Lapine's fairy tale-inspired musical, debuted on Broadway Nov. 5, 1987, at the Martin Beck Theatre. The cast featured Bernadette Peters as the Witch, Chip Zien as the Baker, Joanna Gleason as the Baker's Wife and Tom Aldredge as the Narrator.
The production ran for 765 performances and won Tony Awards for its original score and book, and Gleason took home the award for Best Actress in a Musical. The show was revived on Broadway in 2002 with a cast that included Vanessa Williams and John McMartin.
Sondheim's other works include A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along and Passion. In 2008, he received a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.
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