By David Rather
A titan of American theater and culture died at his home in Connecticut in late November 2021, just as winter began. He was 91, but his death was described as “unexpected.” The reason? One week ago, he attended several theater performances in New York City and was working on a new musical instrument.
Stephen Soundheim There was more than just a life force in American theater. His music was transformative. They take American musical theater to new areas, new directions, and new (and often uncomfortable) content. Also, on top of that, he writes songs like this: Send in the Clowns, The Ladies Who Lunch, I’m Still Here, Everything Is Come Up Roses, Tonight, Maria, I Want to Live in America, And flight To survive. It seemed to happen.
When Soundheim wrote for the theater, he adapted for several of his musical films. Many of these adaptations have been very successful, in particular West Side Story (1961), which won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. In addition to numerous Grammy and Tony awards, Soundheim has won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Sooner or later (I always find my way) From Dick Tracy (1990).
Stephen Joshua Soundheim was born in New York City on March 22, 1930, the only child of Eta Janet “Foxy” Fox and Herman Soundheim. Her father was a garment maker designed by her mother. The family was well off and lived on the west side of Manhattan. And yet, Soundheim had a deeply unhappy childhood. Did you know those two buildings with the spear you see rising above Central Park? This is San Remo, a famous 27-storey apartment complex. That’s where Sandham grew up, “a lonely and emotionally neglected child.”
As my grandmother used to say, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your house is; it matters how beautiful the people are.” Apparently, Soundheim’s mother did not meet my grandmother’s “beautiful person” values, although she seems to have met my grandmother’s “high, strong and reasonable” standards.
How bad was Sondheim’s relationship with his mother? He did not attend his funeral. Ouch.
Sundheim attended various fancy private schools in Manhattan and Connecticut. About the time his parents divorced, he befriended a schoolmate, James Hammerstein, his son Oscar Hammerstein, Famous musical composer. The elder Hammerstein took the young Stephen under his wing and became a kind of surrogate father for the lonely boy. Hammerstein taught Soundheim to write songs, and as a teenager, forced him to write a series of four musical instruments in a variety of styles and themes. In terms of mentorship, that relationship with Yves Saint Laurent Christian Dior’s job as an assistant has to be ranked there. No, wait. I think working together in the same studio in Florence would be a better resemblance to DaVinci and Michelangelo. Maybe it’s a bit more, and from what I understand, they didn’t actually get that well anyway.
Suffice it to say, Hammerstein taught Soundheim a lot. In many ways, the student has arguably surpassed the teacher when all was said and done. But not too much.
Soundheim eventually attended the prestigious William College in West Massachusetts, where he became a major in theater and studied music. When he was a student, he met George S. Kaufman and Mark Connelly composed and produced a musical that was an adaptation of the play, Beggar on horseback. The show ran for three days and then closed.
After graduating from Williams, Soundheim returned with his father, camping in the living room to save money while writing songs. He failed miserably to sell any of them, so he moved to Los Angeles for a while and wrote a sitcom. Topper. What’s that? You never heard Topper? Pro Tip: It’s not so great, so don’t spend a moment looking for it. It’s about some good-natured ghosts who cause problems for their hosts and … oh, don’t mind. Every TV writer has done a terrific show or two, I included. Although, to be precise, I did not go to write West Side Story Later
The four musicals he wrote for Hammerstein as a child eventually worked for Soundheim. One of them, Saturday night, Got up to rehearsal before things broke down. Some rumors about the show invited him to a party in 1956 hosted by playwright Arthur Lorentz, who told Soundheim about a musical based on which he was working. Romeo and Juliet. Laurents The instrument was composed by the brilliant composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Do you know the old saying about opportunity knocking? Okay, Soundheim opened the door and was hired to write songs for the show.
And the rest, history. Over the next 50 years, Soundheim wrote 17 more musicals, churning them out at an astonishing rate. This awesome and varied output includes some great shows, e.g. Gypsy, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, Company, Folis, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber on Fleet Street, Park with George on Sunday, And In the barrel.
Soundheim came out as a homosexual at age 40 and said he never fell in love until he was 60. She had an eight-year relationship with playwright Peter Jones and then in 2017, at the age of 87, she finally married a man named Jeffrey Romley.
In 2010 and 2011, Soundheim published two memoirs, Finishing the Hat: A collection of lyrics by Attendant Comments, Principles, Herresis, Grouse, Huins and anecdotes (1954-1981)., And See I Made a Hat: Attendant Comments, Amplification, Dogmas, Harangus, Degrees, Episodes and Miscellaneous Collected Lyrics (1981-2011). In it he mentions four principles of his writing:
“Content forms indicate, more or less, God is in the description — all in the service of clarity.“
Soundheim’s musical instruments are always notable for their intricate characters, a competitive blend of dark rumination and optimism, verbal skill in lyrics and intense singing. Over the years, many of his musicals have taken place from Broadway to Hollywood.
Here you should consider adding to the queue.