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Stephen Sondheim: Composer, Lyricist, Student, and Teacher

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Stephen Sondheim, the musical genius, attributes much of his success to his teachers and mentors. He has said more than once that his life was saved by teachers. And no one had more influence on his life and career than his mentor and teacher Oscar Hammerstein II.

One spring afternoon in 1946, fifteen-year-old Stephen Sondheim handed the script of his first musical to his mentor. The show was By George!, a parody of life at the George School, where Sondheim was a student.

“Oscar, I’d like you to judge this as if I were a professional,” said Sondheim, who waited patiently as Hammerstein read each page of the manuscript. Since he was sure he’d written a hit, Sondheim wasn’t nervous about the judgment Hammerstein would render.

Finally, Hammerstein finished reading, turned to his student, and said, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever read.”

Sondheim was shocked. Until that moment he thought he was going to be the first fifteen- year-old to have a show on Broadway.

Hammerstein went on. “It isn’t untalented—you’re talented—it’s just bad.” Sondheim had asked to be judged by professional standards and that’s how Hammerstein was going to treat him.

The two of then proceeded to go over every word, note and stage direction in the manuscript. Later, Sondheim would say that he’d learned more in that afternoon about song writing and musical theater than most learn in a lifetime.

Sondheim, who went on to reinvent the Broadway musical, might never have gone into musical theater if not for his relationship with Hammerstein, which underscores the fact that even geniuses need teachers and mentors.

Throughout his life, Sondheim showed appreciation for the other teachers who had an impact on his life and art, and he showed that appreciation by following their example and passing on his knowledge.

“How About a Country House?” Follies

Stephen Sondheim’s journey to Bucks County and his life-changing relationship with the Hammerstein family started in an Upper West Side Manhattan apartment where he lived with his father, Herbert, and mother, Janet Fox (“Foxy”) Sondheim. Herbert was a theater buff who shared his love of theater with his son, often taking him to Broadway musicals. Sondheim, an only child, showed an aptitude for music and started taking piano lessons when he was seven. When his parents had musical soirees, they would sometimes trot him out to play “The Flight of the Bumblebee” for the guests. He remembers being taken to the movies, the theater, and occasional baseball games with his father. Though his parents were largely absent, he remembers being happy enough, playing with friends and enjoying school.

But in 1940 when Sondheim was ten, his world fell apart. Herbert abandoned his family, leaving Foxy for another woman. Foxy, a selfish and manipulative woman, was not easy to live with, and after Herbert Sondheim walked out on his family, the relationship between Sondheim and his mother became even more troubled. When Sondheim wasn’t being ignored by her, he was frequently the target of violent rages and sometimes even seductive behavior.

Later that year, Foxy had lunch with Hammerstein’s wife, Dorothy, an interior decorator and hired her to redecorate her Manhattan apartment. Foxy soon became friends with the Hammersteins, and Sondheim found a friend in their son James, who was a year younger.

In early 1942, Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein bought Highland Farm, a property outside of Doylestown, and that summer they invited young Sondheim for a visit. Though he was scheduled to go to camp, he convinced his mother to let him spend the summer in Bucks County instead.

Later that summer, Foxy purchased an old stone farmhouse and thirty-five acres of land near Iron Hill Road, not far from the Hammerstein residence. Foxy was a celebrity seeker, and living near someone as famous as Oscar Hammerstein was likely the primary reason she chose that location. She named the property Fox Hill Farm. The proximity of the Sondheim property to Highland Farm enabled Sondheim to forge an enduring relationship with the Hammerstein family—most significantly with Oscar. It also allowed him to distance himself from his mother.

After Foxy had moved them to the country, the atmosphere at Fox Hill Farm was still far from ideal for nurturing a precocious eleven-year-old. According to one of the Hammerstein children, Foxy often had house parties at the farm, where everyone got drunk and “you didn’t dare walk into a bedroom.”

It wasn’t surprising, then, that Sondheim spent most of his time at Highland Farm. The Hammerstein household was a warm and welcoming second home and, in contrast to his mother’s house, was full of life. In addition to Oscar and Dorothy’s own children and the children from their previous marriages, a troop of youngsters came and went, including the children of Richard Rodgers and a couple of girls who, like Stephen, were the victims of neglectful and abusive mothers. During the war years, the Hammersteins took in additional “adoptees,” including Dorothy’s niece Jennifer Watanabe, whose Japanese father was briefly interned on Ellis Island, and a couple of children who had survived the London blitz.

Most summer days, Sondheim biked the four miles from his mother’s home to Highland Farm and more often than not spent the weekend with the Hammersteins. He was there so often that he became a de facto member of the Hammerstein clan, so much so that when the children walked in the door, they’d ask, “Where’s Steve?” James Hammerstein called him “the boy who came to dinner.”

Despite the constant hustle and bustle at Highland Farm, Sondheim remembers being overwhelmed by an extraordinary sense of serenity. “The huge living room was dark and cool and chic, the atmosphere was unhurried. Not reverent—there were too many children for that— but unhurried, promising that every wound would be healed and that boredom would be dispensed with forever.” He looks back on his time with the Hammerstein family as some of the happiest years of his life. For a boy with an absent father and abusive mother, the Hammersteins were a balm for his psychological wounds.

James Hammerstein taught Sondheim to ride a bike, and the two of them enjoyed long bike rides through the countryside. They played tennis on the Hammerstein’s tennis court and would sometimes sneak into the nine-hole golf course adjacent to Highland Farm and play a few holes. One summer they bought rabbits with their allowance money, built hutches and had fun chasing the rabbits when they escaped. At night the two of them often went to the seven or nine o’clock showings at the County movie theater in Doylestown.

There was also music. By the summer of 1942, Oscar Hammerstein was already an established figure in American musical theater for almost two decades, though he had not yet launched on his collaboration with Richard Rogers that would revolutionize the medium.

It was probably clear to everyone that young Sondheim was intellectually and musically precocious, which no doubt endeared him to Hammerstein. Rodgers’s daughter, Mary, recalls Sondheim playing long excerpts from Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris when he was fifteen. Hammerstein gradually took Stephen under his wing, nurturing him both psychologically and musically. Sondheim often referred to Hammerstein as his surrogate father, and said that if it hadn’t been for the Hammersteins, he doesn’t know if he’d even be alive.

“Everything You Learn There Will Help When You Return There” Into the Woods

From 1942 to 1946, Sondheim attended the George School, a private Quaker high school near Newtown, Pennsylvania. The school was a good choice, conveniently located near the Hammerstein farm and offering a quality education to such a gifted student. It was at the George School where another teacher, Lucille Pollock came into his life.

On the first day of class, Miss Pollock talked about nouns, verbs, and adverbs. Though Sondheim was a precocious student, he had never studied the parts of speech, so Miss Pollock took him aside and worked with him on grammar, which he picked up quickly. Sondheim referred to Miss Pollock as the first teacher who changed his life, because she allowed him to move ahead and excited him about language.

Sondheim composed and produced By George!, a parody of life at the George school, in collaboration with two fellow students, Miriam Dubin and Jim Lincoln, though it was Sondheim who wrote the music and most of the lyrics. By George! was reviewed in the school newspaper as “the most sensational success the George School has seen for many a year.” Though these accolades undoubtedly boosted his ego, it was the lessons he learned from Hammerstein’s review of the script that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

There seems to be no record of the lyrics to Stephen’s first musical, but there is a short audio clip of him playing a piano accompaniment on the Internet, which briefly opens a window into the musical talent of the young Stephen Sondheim.

Besides his academic and theater pursuits at the George School, Sondheim edited the school yearbook, Caravan, and authored of one of the first original anagram/crossword puzzles in a school newspaper.

In 1996, fifty years after his graduation, Sondheim was awarded the George School’s Alumni Award for his outstanding achievements in his life’s work.

“Every road has a turning. That's the way you keep learning” Merrily We Roll Along

Sondheim took the lessons he learned from his mentors, especially Hammerstein and applied them to his lyrics and music. Here are some examples of what Hammerstein taught him:

1. A song should be like a play, with a beginning, middle, and end. Start with an idea and build on it. In “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company, the singer tells a story of rich middle-aged women, like herself, who waste their lives on meaningless activities. Songs should be thoroughly integrated into shows and not interrupt them. This is a technique that Hammerstein used for the first time in Oklahoma!, and it proved to be a turning point in musical theater. Sondheim took this even further and set the standard for today’s Broadway musicals. Though some of Sondheim’s songs are standalone hits—the most famous being “Send in the Clowns”—most are so organically woven into his shows, adding dimension and texture, that it’s often difficult to separate song from plot.

2. Study the work of legendary lyricists with a critical eye, and then develop your own style. Sondheim’s critiques of those other lyricists were not always positive, and even Hammerstein’s lyrics and librettos were not spared. But there was so much he admired in his mentor’s work, an example of which appears on the first page of Finishing the Hat, the first volume of his collected lyrics. He cites the opening lines of Oklahoma! as an example of a lyric that soars poetically—lines which, incidentally, were inspired by the beauty of the countryside surrounding Highland Park.

3. Lyrics should describe the character for whom they’re written, not the writer, which is why it’s vital to get inside the head of the character. Hammerstein told Sondheim about the many hours he thought about a character and his motivations before putting pen to paper. Sondheim was as meticulous as his mentor about writing in character. In composing “Send in the Clowns,” for A Little Night Music, Sondheim had extensive discussions with the librettist and producer of the show about the character’s motivation before penning the lyrics. He then wrote a page of sentences to understand the character’s feelings and decided to use short phrases, because that’s how a hurt individual would express herself. He even took the voice of the actress playing the role into account when he styled the phrasing.

4. Every word is important because there are so few of them in a song. Clearly, Sondheim loved words and loved playing them, as in the following lyrics from Into the Woods:

It’s a very short road

From the pinch and the punch

To the paunch and the pouch and the pension.

He also loved puns and anagrams. He and Hammerstein often worked together on the puns, anagrams and crossword puzzles in the New York Times, and he got a kick out of an anagram he made of his name “He pens demon hits.”

Sondheim occasionally included puns in his lyrics, such as this one from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:

Nothing with gods,

Nothing with fate,

Weighty affairs will just have to wait.

In addition to the advice Hammerstein gave him about crafting lyrics, Sondheim credits Lucille Pollock with deepening his understanding of how language works and for sparking his fascination with language and his love of words.

Sondheim was honest about his own mistakes in choosing the wrong words for a character. He said he always cringed at one line he wrote in the lyrics to West Side Story—Maria saying, “It’s alarming how charming I feel.” One of the actresses in the show told him that’s not what someone from the streets would say.

“Moving On” Sunday in the Park with George

Sondheim wanted to write music to be like Hammerstein; but Hammerstein cautioned him not to imitate him or anyone else. “Write what you feel, and write for yourself,” Hammerstein said when he reviewed Sondheim’s first script, “and if you do, you’ll be ninety percent ahead of everyone else.” Sondheim followed his mentor’s advice, as evidenced by these “Moving On” lyrics from Sunday in the Park with George:

Anything you do,

Let it come from you

Then it will be new

Even after he graduated high school and college, Sondheim sought Hammerstein’s advice. In fact, his first big theatrical success—writing the lyrics for West Side Story—might never have come to pass, had it not been for Hammerstein. In 1956, Sondheim auditioned with Leonard Bernstein to write the lyrics for the show. Bernstein had another writing team in mind for the job, but he told Sondheim he might consider him if the others were unavailable. Because Sondheim enjoyed writing music much more than lyrics, he planned to pass on West Side Story and move on to other projects where he could do both. However, before making that decision, he consulted with Hammerstein, who said he should “leap on the opportunity,” as it would be a chance to work with one of the most gifted men in music and theater; he could compose music any time. Sondheim once again followed Hammerstein’s advice and reaped the benefits; and that was not the last time. As Sondheim said, “Oscar was my professional guide and mentor until the day he died.”

Oscar Hammerstein died in 1960. In 1962, Stephen dedicated the score to A Funny Thing

Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first Broadway show for which he wrote both the lyrics and music, to Oscar. In a 1994 New York Times interview, Stephen said, “I often regret Oscar didn’t live longer...I would have liked for him to have seen some of the stuff I’ve done. Even if he’d said...I can’t follow the score...I would have loved to argue that with him.”

“Children Will Listen” Into the Woods

Sondheim was probably reflecting on his own troubled childhood when he said, “Teachers define us. In our early years when we are still being formed, they often see in us more than we see in ourselves, more even than our families see and, as a result, help us to evolve into what we ultimately become.” His “Children Will Listen” lyrics from Into the Woods drive home his point.

“Children will look to you

For which way to turn

To learn what to be”

“Writing lyrics for the theater is a craft,” he said, “and I would like to pass my knowledge of it on, just as Oscar passed his on to me,” something he has done in so many ways, including: founding the Young Playwrights Festival in New York; teaching drama and musical theater at Oxford University; and supporting the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award, which was established in his honor. And he has mentored other composers, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, who shared the early version of Hamilton with him.

Sondheim regrets that he never had children, but he said that art is the “other way of having children,” as is teaching. He has described teaching as a sacred profession and a necessity, adding that he could not live without it.

When asked what he would say to Hammerstein, his first teacher and mentor, if he were still alive, Sondheim replied, “Aren’t you proud of me.”

This article appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of Neshaminy, The Bucks County Historical and Literary Journal. Neshaminy is published by the Doylestown Historical Society in association with the Bucks County Writers Workshop.

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