Broadway Features and Reviews
Broadway Mentor: Stephen Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein II
By Schuyler Velasco, Broadway Magazine
Sondheim on Sondheim, a new musical revue of composer Stephen Sondheim's life and work, opens at Roundabout Theatre's Studio 54 on April 22. The show, starring Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, and Tom Wopat, interweaves new arrangements of classic Sondheim songs with intimate (we hope) details about the man's life and artistic process.
In honor of Sondheim by Sondheim, the composer's recent 80th birthday celebration, and the renaming of Broadway's Henry Miller Theatre to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre (it's been quite a month), Broadway Magazine takes a look at perhaps the most crucial relationship in propelling Stephen Sondheim to become the most innovative musical theatre composer of the last fifty years: his mentorship with Oscar Hammerstein II.
Stephen Sondheim first met Oscar Hammerstein at age ten, when he became friends with Oscar's son Jimmy. His parents, Foxy and Herbert, were going through a bitter divorce at the time, and young Sondheim used the Hammerstein residence as an escape from his crumbling home life.
Oscar became somewhat of a surrogate father to Sondheim, helping him stay away from home as much as possible and tapping into his budding love of musical theater.
The relationship afforded young Sondheim an insider's look at the industry; Hammerstein took him to many important theatre events, including an out-of-town preview of Carousel and the Broadway premiere of South Pacific, where he first met future collaborator Harold Prince (director of Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along).
Perhaps the most iconic demonstration of the close mentorship came in 1946, during Sondheim's high school years. He had penned By George!, a musical satire of campus life at the George School.
The show earned him chuckles and raves from his classmates, but when the cocky young composer presented the work to his mentor, he didn't get the warm reception he expected. Sondheim recounts the tale:
"I thought [By George!] was pretty terrific, so I asked Oscar to read it–and I was arrogant enough to say to him 'Will you read it as if it were a just a musical that crossed your desk as a producer? Pretend you don't know me.' He said 'O.K,' and I went home that night with visions of being the first 15-year-old to have a show on Broadway. I knew he was going to love it. Oscar called me in the next day and said, 'Now do you really want me to treat this as if it were by somebody I don't know?' and I said 'Yes, please' and he said, 'Well in that case it's the worst thing I ever read in my life.'"
Hammerstein then asked his devastated charge if he wanted to know why it was terrible. When Sondheim agreed, Hammerstein spent the afternoon giving him a tutorial on the musical, starting with the first stage direction and picking apart every detail.
"I dare say, at the risk of hyperbole, that I learned more in that afternoon than most people learn about songwriting in a lifetime," Sondheim said.
Afterward, Hammerstein devised a personalized, six-year musical writing course for Sondheim, during which he was to compose four musicals: 1) A show based on a play he admired (resulting in All That Glitters), 2) A show based on a play he didn't think was very good (an unnamed musical adaptation of the play High Tor), 3) An adaptation of a novel or short story (The unfinished Mary Poppins) and 4) an original show (Climb High).
Hammerstein had other proteges, but he recognized Sondheim as his "most special." Even after their intimate tutorship was finished, Hammerstein remained Sondheim's mentor, securing the composer's first musical gig writing songs for the Topper TV series and providing valuable career guidance.
The success of Sondheim's mentorship can be experienced on Broadway in the current productions of West Side Story, A Little Night Music, and the new production of Sondheim On Sondheim which has its official Broadway opening on April 22 at Roundabout Theatre's Studio 54.
For tickets and show times check Broadway.tv and look for more on Stephen Sondheim in Broadway Magazine.
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