10 Things You Might Not Know About... Stephen Sondheim

Think you know everything there is to know about the great Stephen Sondheim? Think again!

By: Jul. 30, 2020

Stephen Sondheim is best known as the father of modern musical theatre whose major triumphs and and lowest lows have been well- documented for all to see. In a career as long and varied as his, however, there are many pockets of interest and intrigue just waiting to be uncovered.

These anecdotes, only known to his most devoted fans, theatre historians, and enthusiasts of the most trivial kinds of trivia, provide some new and exciting insights into the most mysterious and brilliant musical theatre writer of his time.

Check out a few of those tidbits below as Steve becomes the first subject of our new series 10 Things You Might Not Know About...

He traces his interest in theatre to the obscure musical, Very Warm for May.

The show featured the final Broadway score by his future mentor and father figure, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Jerome Kern. Sondheim saw the musical at age nine. He said of the experience, "The curtain went up and revealed a piano. A butler took a duster and brushed it up, tinkling the keys. I thought that was thrilling."

He was offered and refused a higher percentage of West Side Story royalties.

His collaborator, Leonard Bernstein, received three percent while Sondheim received one percent. Bernstein offered to even it up, proposing they receive two percent each. Sondheim refused because as a young man breaking into show business, he was just grateful to get the credit. He later said he wished "someone stuffed a handkerchief in my mouth because it would have been nice to get that extra percentage."

He eulogized Oscar Hammerstein II.

It is a well known fact that Oscar Hammerstein took a young Sondheim under his wing, providing artistic guidance and the fatherly love missing from Steve's own upbringing. And like any son, Steve eulogized the late, great composer at his funeral.

A few days before Hammerstein's death from stomach cancer in 1960, he gifted Sondheim a portrait of himself. which Steve asked him to inscribe. Sondheim later said that the request was "weird ... it's like asking your father to inscribe something".

On the portrait Hammerstein wrote, "For Stevie, My Friend and Teacher." The message touched Sondheim deeply and he left the house that evening feeling that they had said their final goodbye. Three days later, Hammerstein passed away. That was the last time they would see each other.

He considered quitting theatre altogether after the failure of Merrily We Roll Along.

Now noted as one of the most notorious flops in Broadway history and the end of his partnership with Hal Prince, Merrily's failure greatly affected Sondheim, who considered quitting theatre as a result.

He briefly thought about going into film and even creating video games in order to "find something to satisfy myself that does not involve Broadway and dealing with all those people who hate me and hate Hal."

His favorite musicals include...

Carousel, She Loves Me, and The Wiz, which he saw six times. He also counts the opera Porgy and Bess among his favorites. Steve is so protective of the latter, in fact, that he famously wrote a letter to The New York Times criticizing changes made for the Broadway musical adaptation. His criticism was so scathing, it prompted director Diane Paulus to drop a change she had made to the show's ending.

He is an avid fan of games and puzzles.

In In 1987, Time magazine called his love of puzzlemaking "legendary in theater circles." In 1968 and 1969, he published a series of cryptic crossword puzzles in New York magazine.

It has been said that the central character of Anthony Shaffer's play Sleuth was based on Sondheim. A persistent rumor (denied by Shaffer), suggested that the play began its life with the Working Title Who's Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?

He wrote screenplays.

Sondheim wrote the screenplay for the 1973 whodunit The Last of Sheila, with longtime friend Anthony Perkins. The 1973 film, inspired by his infamous love of puzzles, was directed by Herbert Ross, and received mostly positive reviews. It currently holds a rating of 86% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Sondheim and Perkins collaborated on two follow-up whodunit-style screenplays, The Chorus Girl Murders and Crime and Variations, both of which were never made.

...and a Broadway play.

Sondheim tried his hand at playwriting, collaborating with Company librettist George Furth on the play, Getting Away with Murder in 1996. The production was unsuccessful and closed after 29 previews and 17 performances.

He occasionally used a pen name.

In 1966, he penned "The Boy From...", a parody of "The Girl from Ipanema" for the off-Broadway revue The Mad Show. The song was credited to "Esteban Ria Nido", Spanish for "Stephen River Nest", and the lyrics were credited to "Nom De Plume" in the show's Playbill.

He hoped to adapt Groundhog Day into a musical.

Thirteen years before Tim Minchin's musical take on the 1993 Bill Murray film landed on Broadway, Sondheim had openly expressed an interest in adapting it. He later said of the idea, "To make a musical of Groundhog Day would be to gild the lily. It cannot be improved." When a team assembled to finally adapt the film, they did so with Sondheim's blessing.