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.
David LaFontaine is a professor at Massasoit Community College, where he teaches in the English Department.