On the occasion of his 90th birthday, Stephen Sondheim ’50 is the subject of a campus celebration and deep reflection on his musical theater—and Williams—legacies.
By Liz Leyden; Illustration by Sam Kerr
UPDATE: Stephen Sondheim ’50 died on Nov. 26, 2021. You can read his obituary in The New York Times, among many other news outlets around the world.
(For the health and safety of our community, Sondheim events from 3/12/20 onward have been canceled.)
The thought of Stephen Sondheim showing up for a course about the history of Broadway musicals seemed crazy, but Natalia Halpern ’20 couldn’t help but wonder.
It was just a few days before she and her classmates in The Broadway Musical were scheduled to discuss Sondheim’s work, and Professor W. Anthony Sheppard had suddenly begun reminding everyone to be on time and ready with questions.
Sondheim—the composer, lyricist and pioneer of musical theater who graduated from Williams in 1950—was the reason Halpern signed up for the course in the first place. Watching Gypsy at age 13 had kick-started her passion for musicals. She shared her suspicions with a fellow diehard fan, her dad, but he was skeptical. Still, she thought, “It’s Williams. Crazy things like that can happen.”
On the day of class, in the spring of 2018, Halpern walked into Bernhard Music Center’s Presser Choral Hall and saw a giant video screen at the front of the room.
For the next hour and fifteen minutes, Sondheim’s face filled the screen as he fielded questions about craft and collaboration and kept the packed room—45 students and a dozen more members of the Williams community who were auditing the class—on the edge of their seats.
“It was insane,” Halpern says. “We saw Sondheim. That was as good as it’s going to get.”
“I want to be a part of it.”
After the class, Sheppard, who is the Marylin and Arthur Levitt Professor of Music, started thinking about how much Sondheim’s work has meant to generations of Williams students. With Sondheim’s 90th birthday approaching, it seemed a celebration was due.
And so, with help from the theater department, Sheppard organized a campus-wide tribute, slated for March 6 and 7, 2020, including a new play by visiting theater professor Ilya Khodosh ’08 about Sondheim’s Williams years; a symposium featuring Sondheim scholars from around the country; and a production of his 1973 Tony Award-winning show A Little Night Music by the student theater group Cap and Bells. At the heart of the weekend: a performance of Sondheim songs by alumni, including Sebastian Arcelus ’99, Andrea Axelrod ’75, Eric Kang ’09, Claire Leyden ’16, Evelyn Mahon ’18, Evan Maltby ’11, Michelle Rodriguez ’12 and David Turner ’97.
Turner, who has appeared in two Broadway revivals of Sunday in the Park with George, was 15 when his boyfriend stood up in a New York City piano bar and serenaded him with “Anyone Can Whistle” from Sondheim’s show of the same name.
“It stopped the place cold,” Turner says. “I thought, ‘Whatever music this is, that reached me this way, that reached this room this way, I want to be a part of it.’”
When Sheppard asked him to be part of the celebratory weekend, Turner says he couldn’t say no. Sondheim’s legacy belongs to the world, where devoted fans road trip to revivals and serious scholars study his reinvention of an art taken not quite as seriously before he came along.
But at Williams, that legacy feels a little personal, too. Though the campus has changed dramatically since Sondheim’s days, the basement stage of the Adams Memorial Theatre has not. And, as any veteran of Cap and Bells will tell you, he once stood there, too. Says Turner: “To repay the favor—the favor that he paid us by spending all those days writing instead of out doing something else—it’s sort of the least we can do.”
“Williams was the limitless sky.”
Sondheim arrived at Williams when he was 16 years old, following an unhappy childhood whose central defining event—his parents’ divorce—led him to one of the most important people in his life: Oscar Hammerstein.
After the divorce, Sondheim and his mother moved to Bucks County, Pa., where they were neighbors of Hammerstein, a lyricist, book writer and one half (with Richard Rodgers) of a legendary Broadway duo. Hammerstein became a father figure, a mentor and the reason Sondheim wanted to write musicals.
At Williams, Sondheim intended to pursue an English degree but, on a whim, took a music class with Professor Robert Barrow. While some students chafed at Barrow’s anti-romantic approach, it woke something in Sondheim.
“I had always imagined that writing music was all about sitting in your penthouse or your studio until this lady muse twitters around your head and sits on your shoulder and goes, ‘Da-da-da dum, da-da-da, dum,” Sondheim said in a 1995 interview with Inside the Actors Studio. “Instead, Robert Barrow was talking about leading tones and diatonic scales, and I fell in love.
“He took all the mystery out of music and taught craft,” Sondheim said. “Within a year, I was majoring in music. He changed my life by making me aware that art is craft, not inspiration.”
Sondheim’s time at Williams coincided with the college’s post-WWII realignment. During the war years, the campus was used as a naval flight prep school, and enrollment dwindled so sharply that the yearbook was suspended for several years. When Sondheim arrived in 1946, it was, in some ways, to a blank slate.
Sondheim helped shape the campus’s creative life, writing for two magazines, The Purple Cow and
Comment, and joining Cap and Bells, where he performed in nine plays and led the group to put on its first-ever musical: Phinney’s Rainbow.
A satire of college life, the show was an original collaboration between Sondheim and Josiah T.S. Horton ’48. Phinney’s Rainbow, whose title riffed on the Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow and invoked then-Williams President James “Phinney” Baxter III, Williams Class of 1914, contained more than 20 original songs composed by Sondheim.
The show drew raves from students and the frequently prickly Williams Record, which deemed the cast “terrific” and the music “amazing,” stating: “It has been argued that singing songs is not the way to achieve that elusive quality known as ‘school spirit,’ but Phinney’s Rainbow has demonstrated that it damn sure helps.”
“I was so impressed with how intelligently he wrote, how critical he seemed to be, how vastly knowledgeable and creative. I wanted to be at a place that would have the potential to do something like that for me.”—Oberlin Professor Jamie O’leary ’04, who chose Williams in part because of Sondheim
In his junior year, Sondheim returned to the Adams Memorial Theatre with All That Glitters, an original musical adaptation of George Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s Beggar on Horseback. It was Sondheim’s first completed assignment for an informal apprenticeship designed by Hammerstein, from afar, to have the young composer write four different kinds of musicals.
Sondheim’s independent pursuit unfolded alongside his work for the music department, where he was developing a wide-ranging technical understanding of Maurice Ravel, Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith and writing an ambitious piano sonata for his senior thesis.
His efforts were noticed. In the Class of 1950 Gul yearbook, he received votes for most versatile, most brilliant, most likely to succeed, most done for Williams and most original. A chronicle of significant moments for his graduating class spotlighted not only Amherst weekends, football seasons and the freshman-year discovery that “gin and grapefruit juice mixed with pleasing effects,” but also each of Sondheim’s musicals along with specific praise for the man himself: “We were sure he was a genius.”
The fermentation and newness of the postwar years at Williams provided an open space for Sondheim’s developing talents, according to Steve Swayne, professor of music at Dartmouth College and author of the 2005 book How Sondheim Found his Sound.
“Had he gone to Columbia or Yale, which already had a history of collegiate shows, would he have been afforded the same kind of opportunities?” asks Swayne, a speaker at the Williams symposium in March. “Maybe not. I think Williams gave him an opportunity to climb as high as he could dare. I think for him, Williams was the limitless sky.”
“Listening to him felt like growing up.”
The same creative ambitions Sondheim nurtured at Williams blazed throughout his lifetime.
His many awards, including a Pulitzer, an Oscar, eight Tonys, eight Grammys and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, only scratch the surface. Consider the seismic impact of the work itself, splintering across the musical theater world almost from the moment Sondheim left Williams, starting with the lyrics he wrote for West Side Story and Gypsy and onward from there. Sondheim helped redefine what was possible for a musical in both substance and style, placing unlikely characters and subjects center stage, from murderous barbers and singing assassins to the 1853 opening up of Japan to the Western world.
His lyrics turned away from the frothy fizz of easy love and happy endings and allowed characters
to wrestle with the darker edges of life: loneliness, disillusionment, regrets. And he treated the music as seriously as he did the work of his favorite classical composers, creating wildly original scores that drove the drama and were custom built for the lyrics and characters, a jumble of puzzle pieces fit together with invisible seams.
He left Williams with a Hubbard Hutchinson Fellowship, awarded to one fine arts graduate each year, and used it to study composition, theory and harmony with the avant-garde composer Milton Babbitt. At the same time, he kept working on Hammerstein’s assignment to write four musicals. For his last challenge, he wrote an original, Climb High, whose title was inspired by what Sondheim described to Inside the Actors Studio as the “very Hammersteinish” dedication on the campus’ Hopkins Gate: “Climb high, Climb far, Your goal the sky, Your aim the star.”
Within a dozen years of his graduation, Sondheim would write lyrics for two of the century’s most iconic musicals, West Side Story and Gypsy, and then, in 1962, came A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The farce, based on the works of the Roman playwright Plautus, was the first musical with both lyrics and music by Sondheim to open on Broadway; there, his
voice began to emerge.
A string of flops followed, including Do I Hear a Waltz, for which Sondheim wrote lyrics and Richard Rodgers wrote the music. But then came the show that changed everything.
Company, a revolutionary musical about an ambivalent bachelor and his struggles to connect, opened in 1970 and was nominated for what was then a record 14 Tony Awards; it won six. The show marked the start of a string of musicals from Sondheim and collaborators, including legendary director and producer Hal Prince, about unhappy marriages (Follies), tangled love affairs (A Little Night Music), the Westernization of Japan (Pacific Overtures) and obsession and revenge (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) that remade Broadway.
“If I had turned to somebody in 1940 and said Company is a Broadway musical, or Pacific Overtures is a Broadway musical, they would’ve looked at me like I had three heads,” says Jamie O’Leary ’04, a professor of musicology at Oberlin College who specializes in Broadway musicals of the 1940s. “Sondheim stretched those boundaries.”
O’Leary first listened to Sondheim with his piano teacher, who was a big fan. The teen was so dazzled that he found his way to three of Sondheim’s most famous shows before graduating from high school: directing Company for a children’s theater group, performing in Follies on a community stage and landing his first gig as the second keyboard for a regional production of A Little Night Music at The Theater Barn in New Lebanon, N.Y.
O’Leary soon discovered skeptics who were perplexed by the intellect of Sondheim’s lyrics and decided lack of happy endings. For the children’s theater group, he says, “We did a Sondheim revue as a fundraiser, and all these parents came up to us and said, ‘Oh, what is this stuff?’” But O’Leary reveled in the intricate music and heady subject matter.
“Sondheim musicals struck a different chord with me than other musicals did,” he says. “Listening to him felt like growing up.”
He chose Williams in part because Sondheim’s work inspired him. O’Leary studied music and joined the Ephlats a cappella group, conducted the student symphony and served as musical director for a Cap and Bells production of Company.
“I was so impressed with how intelligently he wrote, how critical he seemed to be, how vastly knowledgeable and creative,” he says. “I wanted to be at a place that would have the potential to do something like that for me.”
“Shine and bubble and rise and fall.”
It wasn’t simply the subjects Sondheim tackled that set him apart. He demanded that musicals be taken seriously by taking them seriously himself, creating scores that surprised audiences with their imagination and innovation.
For Sweeney Todd, Sondheim used dissonance and a relentless churn of background music to keep the audience on edge as its title character sought vengeance with a sharp razor.
Williams Professor W. Anthony Sheppard remembers watching a PBS broadcast of the show when he was 13 and being blown away.
“Musically, Sweeney Todd was so interesting and so different from other musicals I had performed in,” he says. “We did not do Sweeney Todd in St. Petersburg, Fla. We did Oliver!.” The genre-crossing Sweeney Todd, which Sondheim has called a “dark operetta,” stuck with Sheppard.
“It planted the idea in my mind that I could just ignore any kind of big division between classical and popular, between opera and musicals,” says Sheppard, whose scholarly interests now range across American music, from Tin Pan Alley songs to contemporary opera.
Sondheim’s work helped erase another division, O’Leary says: “Sondheim’s legacy is that musicals are not stupid. We can demand they be taken seriously. Serious and entertaining are not opposing values. You don’t have to cordon off the two in your head.”
Sondheim was no less ambitious with his dense and detail-rich lyrics. Each word mattered, and few came easily. As he once said: “Making lyrics feel natural, sit on music in such a way that you don’t feel the effort of the author—so they shine and bubble and rise and fall—is very, very, very, very, very hard to do.”
Early on, he thought he’d be pigeonholed as a lyricist. And, maybe he was right to worry: He was very, very, very, very, very good at it. By 1976, The New York Times was describing his lyrics as “devilish, wittily and delightfully clever” and Sondheim himself as “the most remarkable man in the Broadway musical today.”
Audiences, however, didn’t always know what to do with him. Andrea Axelrod ’75, a writer and cabaret singer in New York, remembers seeing A Little Night Music with her parents and their neighbors when it opened on Broadway in 1973. She left exhilarated but also incredulous when the neighbors sniffed that it lacked melodies.
“Of course, there were melodies!” Axelrod says. “It was melodic and luscious and so memorable.
“The thing is, now you hear other people’s shows and say, ‘Oh, it sounds like Sondheim,’” she says. “Anybody who is witty and has a brain, now people say, ‘It sounds like Sondheim.’ He is the gold standard.”
“He makes you feel everything more.”
The facts of Sondheim’s life are found in the recordings held at the Library of Congress, in a 709-word biographical entry in the Encyclopædia Britannica and in the thousands of newspaper articles chronicling his rise, tracking his flops and measuring his impact across 70 years and counting. Even his name, “Sondheim,” merits an entry in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “Stephen Joshua, 1930-. American composer.”
But the impact of his life is perhaps best understood by listening to the stories of the people Sondheim has influenced.
Eric Kang ’09 came to Williams to become a doctor. Music—from his study of classical piano to playing keyboard in a high school rock band—was his hobby.
Then he agreed to direct a Cap and Bells production of Assassins. Over the next four years, he worked on three more Sondheim shows and spent hours in the basement of the old Sawyer Library, studying scores and listening to recordings. During his junior year, Kang, a pianist who is currently the musical director of the touring production of Cats, told his parents his plans had changed.
“The reason I wanted to be a doctor was about connecting with human beings,” he says. “But working in musical theater, I realized I was already pursuing those goals. Musical theater, and particularly Sondheim, is the reason I thought I should be a musician.”
It’s no surprise that he and so many others said yes when Sheppard asked them to perform in March.
“Any time you’re asked to be involved with anything Sondheim, anywhere, much less with this personal connection, you say yes,” says Sebastian Arcelus ’99, a Broadway performer and TV actor who most recently appeared on the CBS drama Madam Secretary. “I can’t listen to one of his pieces and not feel more vivid, more an artist, more a human, more a son. He makes you feel everything more. And that’s a gift beyond comprehension, really.”
Among the host of performers and speakers at Williams for the Sondheim celebration, there is one notable absence—Sondheim himself. He’s said he is not interested in marking his 90th birthday, and he’s largely kept his distance from Williams over the years. Sheppard almost didn’t ask him to speak with his class in 2018.
“It takes a lot of chutzpah to reach out and presume he’d be interested,” he says. “I kept talking myself out of it: ‘No, he’s too busy, he wouldn’t want to do this.’”
He wrestled with the idea for months until, finally, the week they were scheduled to discuss Sondheim, Sheppard emailed him. “I said to myself, ‘This is crazy. I should try.’”
Sondheim said yes that same afternoon.
The result—a lively back and forth between the composer and students—“was a class meeting I’ll never forget,” Sheppard says.
Evelyn Mahon ’18, now a professional actor, was sitting in the center of the second row that day. She was supposed to be in a modern drama class in Hopkins Hall, but her boyfriend was taking Sheppard’s course and, like Halpern, suspected Sondheim might show up.
A longtime fan, Mahon grew up listening to Sondheim at home and in school, where her Latin class screened A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum each year. She’d seen a revival of A Little Night Music on Broadway, and every time she gave a recital, she sang a Sondheim song.
So, she cut class and tagged along with her boyfriend, just in case. How could she not?
“He’s one of those composers that people are still going to be talking about hundreds of years later,” Mahon says. “We just happen to be living at the same time as him.”
Liz Leyden is a writer living in New Jersey.