WIDELY REGARDED as the greatest living composer in the American musical theater, Stephen Sondheim has in recent years become very open about being a gay man. While coming to terms with his sexuality was a prolonged process, and his public coming out did not occur until he was nearly seventy, the Sondheim phenomenon on Broadway involved revolutionary portrayals of love and sexuality in many of his greatest musicals, such as Company, A Little Night Music, and Into the Woods. His most romantic musical, Passion, was inspired by the first genuine love affair of his life, which happened when he was sixty.
Musical theater has been Sondheim’s life, officially beginning with the triumph of West Side Story in 1957, but really stretching back to the dreams of his youth. In the closet for much of his sixty-year career, often defensive about the subject of homosexuality, he nevertheless consciously chose to form creative partnerships with a host of gay people, many of them the greatest composers, lyricists, directors, and actors on Broadway. Sondheim reconfigured the American musical into a serious art form, and his personal odyssey as a gay man inspired him creatively.
Origins & Arrivals
Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born in New York City on March 22, 1930, the only child of affluent parents who divorced when he was ten. He believes he might have succumbed to depression had it not been for a friendship that began in the summer of 1941 with the Hammerstein family, who lived near Sondheim on the bucolic Highland Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “Dorothy and Oscar Hammerstein became my surrogate parents during my teen years,” says Sondheim, “and that’s essentially how I became a songwriter, because I wanted to do what Oscar did.” During his four years as a student at the George School, Stevie, as he was then called, often spent entire summers at the Hammerstein farm.
The opening of the musical Oklahoma! on Broadway in 1943 forever changed the landscape of American musical theatre. While the historic Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership unfurled a series of classic shows, Hammerstein became Sondheim’s most important teacher. In addition to his lessons in the art of songwriting, Hammerstein also taught through the example of his shows that the Broadway musical could be a serious art form. In Oklahoma!, Laurie experiences sexual harassment. In Carousel (1945), a musical Stevie greatly admired, an unhappy marriage is featured and the hero, Billy Bigelow, commits suicide.
In 1946, at the age of only sixteen, Sondheim enrolled at prestigious Williams College, located in picturesque Williamstown, Massachusetts. It was then an all-male institution of about 1,000 students. Initially an English major, Sondheim soon changed to the study of music and began composing in earnest. He was praised for his acting in plays at Williams, where theater flourished. Photos of Sondheim from this period show a handsome young man with a charming smile, thick, dark hair, and smooth skin; he could almost have been movie star material. His college years were genuinely happy, and he was extremely popular. But he was secretly becoming aware that his sexual attraction was mostly or exclusively directed toward other males. “I was sexually very late blooming,” he later said. “I think people tried to make passes at me and I didn’t know what they were doing.” He remained a virgin throughout his Williams years and graduated magna cum laude in June 1950.
After college, Sondheim began to pursue his dream of writing the music and lyrics for a Broadway musical before he reached thirty. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s he made a series of connections with Broadway luminaries who nurtured his genius. Many of the doors that opened for him during this period were unlocked by other gay men. In the summer of 1955 he met playwright Arthur Laurents, who introduced him to Leonard Bernstein. The two men eagerly brought Sondheim aboard the West Side Story creative team, joining director–choreographer Jerome Robbins. When West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theater on September 26, 1957, Sondheim was suddenly a force to be reckoned with on Broadway.
His second Broadway musical flowed from the first. Robbins and Laurents both wanted Sondheim to write the lyrics for Gypsy (1959), despite the objections of its star, Ethel “the Belter” Merman, who thought him a nobody. But Sondheim got the gig, and his lyrics for “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn,” among other hits in composer Jule Styne’s score, were instrumental in winning Merman the best reviews of her career. An intriguing aspect of the show was that the main character, Rose, mother of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, was a lesbian, something buried deeply within Laurents’ book.
Broadway in the ’50s and ’60s was a mecca for gays and lesbians from all over the U.S. Sondheim became a true New Yorker, and he formed lasting friendships with other men like himself, including Larry Kert, the original Tony in West Side Story, and actor Anthony Perkins, who was acclaimed for his starring role in Hitchcock’s Psycho. But it’s unlikely that he had a sexual relationship with any of his intimate male friends from this period. In his memoir Original Story By, Arthur Laurents, a close friend for many years, describes Sondheim as being defensive and frightened about his homosexuality in the late 50s and early 60s. Sondheim does not dispute this characterization but emphasizes the sociological difficulties of the era: “I don’t think I knew more than maybe four homosexuals in the fifties and sixties who were openly so.”
Sondheim even considered marriage, notably to the actress Lee Remick, who had been nominated for an Oscar for her poignant performance in the film The Days of Wine and Roses (1962). Remick also starred in the offbeat Sondheim musical Anyone Can Whistle, which opened to disastrous notices in 1964, closing after only nine performances. (The show has since become a minor cult classic). Lee Remick ultimately married the English director Kip Gowans, in 1970, but she stayed on intimate terms with Sondheim until her untimely death from cancer in 1991. She had known he was gay from the earliest years of their friendship, and if they had chosen to marry it would have been a platonic partnership.
Company and A Little Night Music
The musical that signaled the beginning of the unique role Sondheim would play in the American musical theater was Company, directed by Harold Prince, which premiered on Broadway on April 26, 1970. The musical proclaimed liberation from Broadway conventions: structurally plotless and decidedly provocative in its depiction of marriage and human sexuality. Although Sondheim had scored a major success in 1962 with writing both music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a heterosexual romp that was already dated a decade later, it was in Company that he finally found his unique voice. The show triumphed at the Tony Awards, and Sondheim won his first Tonys, one each for music and lyrics.
Company begins with a surprise 35th birthday party for Bobby, the handsome, charming, and enigmatic hero. In his emotional ambivalence and isolation, Bobby is an autobiographical portrait of Sondheim, who had recently turned forty. Although Robert has short-lived affairs with women, such as the stewardess April, his deepest feelings of attraction are to married couples. The famous opening song “Company,” a tour de force, establishes Robert’s unconventional emotional life. All characters except Robert sing: “Bobby, come on over for dinner!/ We’ll be so glad to see you!/ Bobby, come on over for dinner!/ Just be the three of us,/ Only the three of us!/ We looooove you!” This song suggests that when Bobby spends the evening with a married couple it will culminate in a sexual threesome. In 1970, the concept of a ménage à trois was appealing to liberated heterosexuals—and a clever way of introducing homosexuality to the Broadway public. Sondheim, however, was often prickly and defensive in interviews when asked whether Bobby was meant to be seen as gay or bisexual. Perhaps he felt that such questions would lead to more questions about his own sexual orientation.
In 1995 there were several important revivals to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Company. Sam Mendes directed a production in London that added a whole new scene between Robert and Peter, who is recently divorced from Susan. After prodding Robert into admitting that he has had some homosexual encounters in the past, Peter makes a sexual overture.
Sondheim has remained personally involved with Company over the years, serving as consultant on various revivals and recordings, and revising song lyrics. The musical touched him deeply, and he was sometimes observed brushing tears from his eyes while listening to performances of Bobby’s final song, “Being Alive.” A Sondheim classic, the song is a poetic expression of the heart’s yearning for love: “Someone to crowd you with love,/ Someone to force you to care,/ Someone to make you come through,/ Who’ll always be there, as frightened as you,/ Of being alive/ Being alive, being alive, being alive.” Sondheim was sexually active by this time, but emotionally he was essentially alone. “Being Alive” throbs with romantic and existential yearning, and in its autobiographical resonance the song is almost unbearably poignant.
A Little Night Music, the third musical in the partnership between Sondheim and Prince, following the success of Company (1970) and Follies (1971), premiered on February 25, 1973. Sondheim’s waltz-like score is ingeniously constructed: all the songs’ time signatures are in multiples of three (for instance 3/4 time or 6/8 time). Sondheim had fallen in love with movies as a youth, and this obsession paid off handsomely when, after being inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of A Summer Night (1955), he suggested to Prince that they adapt the story, which is set in turn-of-the-century Sweden. Bergman gave his blessing to the project, allowing Sondheim and Prince to use anything they chose from his film except for the title. The new title was an English translation of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
A Little Night Music made a lasting impact on music history through the sensational popularity of the song “Send in the Clowns,” Sondheim’s greatest hit. Gerald Nachman writes in his book Showstoppers!: “It is Sondheim’s only song to make the charts in his sixty-year, seventeen-show career, recorded by more than nine hundred singers after [Judy] Collins’ signature version, with a nice boost from Frank Sinatra.” Beautifully melodic and richly orchestrated, “Send in the Clowns” is a haunting expression of unconventional romantic feelings and the pain of rejection. The song is sung by the main character, Désirée Armfeldt, a stage actress who has chosen not to marry, instead having affairs with various men over the years. She sings the song to Fredrik, a married man she loves and is trying to persuade, unsuccessfully, to leave his wife. “Isn’t it rich?/ Isn’t it queer,/ Losing my timing this late/ In my career?/ And where are the clowns?/ There ought to be clowns./ Well, maybe next year.” For a wordsmith like Sondheim to have used the culturally loaded word “queer” cannot have been an accident. Contemptuous of mainstream sexual and social mores, Désirée has been enormously appealing to gay and lesbian theatergoers over the years.
Judy Collins’ recording of the song won the 1975 Grammy for Song of the Year. The song received another boost with the release of the film version of A Little Night Music in 1977, featuring Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Désirée. While much of the film, directed by Hal Prince, is off the mark and curiously static, Taylor sparkles in this, her only screen musical. When she sings “Send in the Clowns” in a gorgeous red gown resplendent with jewels, she creates a classic cinematic moment. Already an icon in the gay community, Taylor enhanced her status with this film.
It remained for Barbra Streisand to have the final word on “Send in the Clowns.” While working on 1985’s The Broadway Album, she confided to Sondheim during a phone conversation the she “never understood the song. What would you think about writing a second bridge that would kind of tell us more about this relationship?” Anyone else would undoubtedly been ignored, but Sondheim complied with some additional lyrics that render Barbra’s version unique.
Merrily We Roll Along and Into the Woods
Merrily We Roll Along is Sondheim’s most underrated musical. With an exuberant score written in the style of pop songs, Merrily is a refreshing, idealistic, and tuneful contrast to the violence and depravity of Sweeney Todd (1979). But when it opened on Broadway on November 16, 1981, the reviews were virtually all harsh, and most audiences were disapproving. When the show closed after only sixteen performances, making it a colossal financial disaster, it spelled the end of the Prince-Sondheim partnership, which had changed Broadway musical history.
Ironically, and certainly not by design, the musical’s two main characters are creative partners destined to split apart: Franklin Shepard, a composer, and Charley Kringas, a lyricist. The close bond between two artists was autobiographically meaningful for Sondheim, who since his twenties had forged close working relationships with other men, most of them gay.
In the musical, the partnership between Franklin and Charley may be interpreted as being underpinned by strong yet unacknowledged homosexual feel- ings between the two men. Early in their career, when they are still idealistic, they write and perform a song titled “Good Thing Going.” The romantic lyrics and tone of this duet make it sound like the two men are in love, notwithstanding that both Charley and Frank end up married to women. Both sing: “And while it’s going along,/ You take for granted some love/ Will wear away./ We took for granted a lot,/ And still I say:/ It could have kept on growing,/ Instead of just kept on.”
The love between Charley and Frank cannot be sustained, nor can their songwriting partnership endure. As Frank pursues the American dream of financial success, power, and prestige, he pulls away from Charley. Frank ends up with two failed heterosexual marriages, several mistresses, and a spiritual void. Merrily We Roll Along is a commentary on the hollow lifestyles of upwardly mobile Americans in the 20th century. The arc of the musical suggests that if Franklin and Charley had remained together, they would have preserved their artistic souls as well as finding personal happiness.
After the musical’s failure on Broadway, Sondheim sank into a deep depression, taking what had happened to heart, seeing himself as a misunderstood artist surrounded by hostile critics and philistines in the audience. His health was an ongoing concern. In 1979, just after the opening of Sweeney Todd, he had suffered a severe heart attack. Fears about his mortality were heightened by the loss of Hal Prince, an ostensibly straight man who may have abruptly severed his partnership with Sondheim in part due to homophobia.
Into the Woods premiered in New York on November 5, 1987, after having been workshopped at the Off-Broadway theater Playwrights Horizons. It marked Sondheim’s second collaboration with director and writer James Lapine, who was nearly twenty years younger. Sondheim and Lapine were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1985 for their first venture, Sunday in the Park with George, based on the life and art of the French painter Georges Seurat.
Inspired by the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, Sondheim suggested to Lapine that they write a “quest musical.” Turning to fairy tales, they decided that they would “mash” several fairy tales together while adding some new characters, all unified by a journey into the dark woods. Tales by the Brothers Grimm were adapted, and for psychological realism, Sondheim and Lapine looked to the theories of Carl Jung as expounded in works such as Man and His Symbols.
Fairy tale characters in Into the Woods include Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack (of beanstalk fame). But parents who took their children to see Into the Woods should have been forewarned: the musical is as disturbing as it is enchanting. The musical features graphic sexual themes, tormented family relationships, and a bleak second act in which a female Giant kills several of the principal characters. The happily ever after that people have come to expect never comes.
Most shocking of all is the macabre adventure of Little Red Riding Hood, who is no longer a little girl but a teenager curious about sex. Played by Danielle Ferland in the 1987 production, Riding Hood has bouncing blonde curls and a provocative way of walking, like a very young Marilyn Monroe. The Wolf is instantly drawn to the young woman when he meets her alone in the woods, except that his plans conflate eating the girl with raping her. While singing the song “Hello, Little Girl,” as twisted a song as anything from Sweeney Todd, the Wolf parades around the stage with his genitals visibly protruding from his nude, hairy body.
The character most strongly associated with a lesbian identity is the Witch, especially as played by Meryl Streep in the 2014 film version. Streep’s Witch delights in frightening the other characters and in mocking their hypocritical actions and values. The Witch’s appeal to gay and lesbian theatergoers goes beyond her contempt for tradition, however.
The Witch is passionately attached to Rapunzel, whom she has adopted as a daughter but to whom she feels a strong erotic attraction. She sequesters Rapunzel from the world in a lonely tower and is openly hostile to any prince who might romance the young woman. When Rapunzel defies the Witch by running off with one of the princes, Rapunzel ends up being killed by the Giant. Had she stayed true to the Witch, she might have lived. Vengeful and domineering, the Witch gives voice to the authors’ anger at the falseness of fairy tales with their happy endings. Sondheim and Lapine give the Witch the final song in the musical, the beautifully expressive “Children Will Listen.”
In the film version, Meryl Streep sings the song in a light but lovely soprano, with her voice carrying over a panoramic shot of the woods, now glistening and green with a new day: “Careful the spell you cast,/ Not just on children./ Sometimes the spell may last/ Past what you can see/ And turn against you.” Was Sondheim thinking about all the lies that children destined to grow up gay were taught by their parents and elders during the era in which he was young? Into the Woods is by no means a repudiation of fairy tales, but the authors do advocate changing the way these tales are told. Those changes have everything to do with telling the truth about family life, love, and sexuality.
Passion and Sondheim’s Love for Peter Jones
While writing Passion, the most lushly romantic score of Sondheim’s career, his life changed dramatically at the age of sixty when he fell deeply in love with Peter Jones, a man about thirty years his junior. Peter Jones was an intensely cerebral vegetarian interested in New Age theories about the universe. His relationship with Sondheim was tumultuous and made the latter quite emotionally vulnerable.
The timeline of the love affair is intertwined with the history of Passion. Sondheim and Jones exchanged wedding rings on January 15, 1994; Passion premiered in New York ten months later. Passion is based on the 19th-century novel Fosca by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti, which centers on a woman (Fosca) in her twenties who has been disfigured by epilepsy. She falls obsessively in love with a soldier named Giorgio who, in turn, is having an affair with Clara, a married woman. The Italian director Ettore Scola adapted Fosca into a film titled Passione d’Amore. Sondheim saw the film in 1983 and was so moved by the characters that he decided to make it into a musical.
The musical score is unlike any other Sondheim musical, and it bridges the divide between opera and musical theater. With no overture and no intermission, Passion is an unceasing flow of singing. Sondheim said of the show: “I always describe it as one long rhapsody. … It’s all about yearning between two people.”
If theatergoers were surprised by the beauty of Sondheim’s music, many were positively shocked by the sexual explicitness of the opening love duet, “Happiness,” sung by Giorgio and Clara. In the opening scene, an opulent red curtain parts to reveal Clara and Giorgio naked in bed together. In a bold stroke of tone painting, the drums crescendo to depict Clara’s orgasm.*
In the love duet “Happiness” one senses a wholly new Stephen Sondheim. The song mirrors the joy that suddenly came into Sondheim’s life because of Peter Jones. Clara sings: “All this happiness/ Merely from a glance/ In the park./ So much happiness,/ So much love.” Giorgio replies: “I thought I knew what love was.” Much as Clara and Giorgio elicit our sympathy, it is the tormented Fosca who’s at the heart of Passion and most closely mirrors Stephen Sondheim. Because of her appearance, Fosca is fearful of being rejected by Giorgio. Sondheim at sixty must have felt vulnerable to being passed over by Jones, who was still in his prime.
Fosca journeys from self-loathing and despair to a proud declaration of her love for Giorgio, just as Sondheim made a similar journey as a gay man. When Fosca sings of the depth of her love for Giorgio, one senses that Sondheim is coming out to the audience: “Loving you/ Is not a choice/ And not much reason to rejoice/ But it gives me purpose,/ Gives me voice,/ To say to the world:/ This is why I live./ You are why I live.” Sondheim and Peter Jones stayed together for several years before breaking up, but Sondheim would never be the same, and in a good way. When his biographer Meryl Secrest conducted extensive taped interviews with him in preparation for her 1998 biography, Sondheim was, for the first time in his life, open and forthcoming about his sexuality.
Sondheim in the 21st Century
Passion marked the end of the Sondheim era that began with Company in 1970. It is fitting that his last great musical should have been so intensely personal in inspiration, but it is also sad that he was not able to harness this new flood of emotionalism in subsequent musicals. His last significant show was Road Show (2008), a chronicle of Wilson and Addison Mizner, two brothers born in the 1880s.
Sondheim’s theatrical presence, however, has never been stronger, both on Broadway and in theaters across America due to a plethora of revivals of many of his seventeen musicals. Shows like Company and A Little Night Music are regularly treated to lavish new productions, and musicals that were not initially successful, such as Anyone Can Whistle, have now become popular. Often Broadway is illuminated with two or three Sondheim musicals playing at the same time. Sondheim’s reputation as a major force in 20th-century musical theater is secure. To top it all off, a Sondheim protégé, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has created a national sensation with Hamilton.
Beyond the many revivals, what makes Sondheim so perennially fresh and exciting in the 21st century is the profile he has finally assumed as an openly gay composer, a man willing to talk about his evolution as a gay man. Not far from his 90th birthday, the ongoing legacy of his musicals, his peerless history of creative connections with other gay artists, and his compelling personal story make him an enormously powerful role model for gay and lesbian artists, writers, and musicians.
* Passion can be seen in its entirety on YouTube, in the film of the play made by PBS. Marin Mazzie as Clara has a beautiful soprano voice, and she seems perfectly comfortable singing while naked, her breasts clearly visible. Giorgio, played by the handsome Jere Shea, also has considerable exposure, and his hairy chest is prominently featured as he embraces Clara while fumbling with the sheets.
David LaFontaine is a professor at Massasoit Community College, where he teaches in the English Department.