Of the many George School alums who found careers in music and theater, Stephen Sondheim ’46 is the most prolific.
He is the man behind the lyrics for shows such as West Side Story, Gypsy, Into the Woods, and Sweeney Todd. He is a legend in the musical theater industry producing music and lyrics to nearly twenty of Broadway’s biggest hits.
When his parents divorced as a young boy, his mother bought a home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania next to an old family friend, Oscar Hammerstein. Stephen spent many summers working on the Hammerstein farm and became good friends with James Hammerstein ’48. In fact, it was Oscar and James that first introduced Stephen to George School.
While at George School, Stephen was known to be a great student and graduated in the first quintile of his class. In addition to his interest in musical theater, he was also Editor of the school yearbook—then called The Caravan. His yearbook caption reads:
Do you need information about the theater? Perhaps you require an intellectual giant to aid you in schoolwork, or maybe you’d like to hear some really masterful piano playing. Anyway, Steve’s your man, “Caravan’s” energetic editor, and George School’s own Rachmaninoff.
He often spoke about the education he received at George School, and notably recalls his Latin teacher and her way with words and the interest he developed in language as a result of her teaching.
Stephen’s first musical By George, was a parody on George School life which follows the life of both students and faculty throughout the school year. It was written and performed while he was a student.
Stephen’s Broadway debut came just eleven years after graduating from George School, when Composer Leonard Bernstein and Choreographer Jerome Robbins were looking for a lyricist for a contemporary musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet titled West Side Story. Stephen wrote the lyrics for the musical, which opened in 1957 and quickly became one of Broadway’s most successful productions of all time.
Stephen continued to write music and lyrics for hits such as Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, and Sweeny Todd. In the early 1980’s Stephen collaborated with playwright-director James Lapine to create Sunday in the Park with George, a musical inspired by the painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. The duo paired again for Into the Woods, which along with Sweeney Todd, became hit motion pictures.
In addition to his work in musical theater, Stephen occasionally wrote music for films, including Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man) performed by Madonna in the film Dick Tracy. The song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Throughout his career, Stephen was awarded eight Tony Awards, including the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award, eight Grammys, an Oscar, a Pulitzer Prize, a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 1996, Stephen received the George School Alumni Award. It was the second time the school wanted to honor him with this award. The first time in 1991, Stephen was unable to accept the award because he was performing for the Queen of England. In a note to George School he wrote,
Thanks for the invitation again, but again the timing is unfortunate. I’ll be in England in mid- May to oversee an after-dinner entertainment of my music for (sorry to drop names) the Queen of England.
He was finally given the award in 1996. As part of the celebrations, students performed Side by Side by Sondheim. While Steven could not attend the production, he wrote a thank you note to the school and requested one of the t-shirts made for the students in the show.
It was once said of Stephen, “It is impossible to imagine the theater without the musical. It is equally impossible to imagine the musical without the contributions of Stephen Sondheim.”
Stephen passed away on Friday, November 26, 2021 at the age of 91.