Stephen Sondheim: A Private Public Figure

Published in: May-June 2022 issue.


FOR A MAN of many words, Stephen Sondheim (1930–2021) rarely gave interviews. When he did, he spoke eloquently and intensely about the craft of composition, the life of the theater, and the true depth of humanity that he wrestled with in writing his musical works. The composer passed away at the age of 91 last November, leaving behind a huge body of work that’s credited with “reinventing” musical theater in the U.S., filling Broadway theaters (and many others far from Broadway) for many decades, as it still does today.

            In reading the multitude of obituaries and memorials on Sondheim, one is struck by how little has been said about his personal life. Despite his seismic presence in the theater community, a life in the public spotlight never appealed to him. He kept his personal affairs so private that one collaborator early in his career concluded that he was asexual.

            In her comprehensive biography of the composer, author Meryle Secrest discussed his struggle with his identity as a gay man and the social pressures of the times. “I was never easy with being a homosexual, which complicated things,” Sondheim admitted in an interview with Secrest. To be sure, social attitudes and his own self-acceptance evolved over the years. During his long life he witnessed homosexuality move from being classified as a mental illness to being seen as a social disorder and, finally, to the state of general acceptance that we have today, ratified by the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015.

Stephen Sondheim explaining the music in Into the Woods
for a Musical Theatre International Conversation piece.

            Coming of age at a time when homosexuality was medically diagnosed as a disease, Sondheim underwent psychotherapy, which seemed the only solution. He had seen his fellow West Side Story collaborators all grappling with their sexuality as gay men. Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Leonard Bernstein all underwent some form of psychotherapy related to their conflicted sexual feelings. The latter two were said to have attended daily sessions. For Laurents, there was shame attached even to attending such sessions. Sondheim, on the other hand, was curious about where psychotherapy could lead him. He continued to date women well into his thirties, never coming to terms with his true self. Instead, he seems to have ignored it entirely, repressing any temptation for a romantic liaison with another man—or so it appeared.

            He officially came out at around age forty but waited until he was 61 to live with another man. This was Peter Jones, a fan of Sondheim who’d met him shortly after Assassins opened. The two lived together in Sondheim’s Turtle Bay house for several years before separating in 1999. Little has been written about Peter Jones, who remained involved in the theater as a music director and composer.

            It was with Jeff Romley that Sondheim found true companionship. They married in 2017 and lived together until the composer’s death. “[He] is a great joy in my life,” Sondheim recounted. “Once I had tasted the joys of living with someone, I wanted to live with someone else.” Romley himself was a theater professional, working as a theater rep for the William Morris Agency before producing and working on shows such as The Producers and Porgy and Bess. A glimpse into their relationship is provided by home videos of Romley and Sondheim on vacation in Europe. Romley holds the camera at times, prompting the master wordsmith to describe the sights. “This is the Forum,” Sondheim points at the bustling Italian square before looking at Romley behind the camera. A giddy smile comes across his face: “A funny thing happened here.”

            Over the years, Sondheim’s works have gained a following within the LGBT community. Gay men have adopted songs written for Sondheim’s female characters as anthems for explaining their own feelings toward another man, such as “Losing My Mind,” a lament by a person who’s hopelessly in love. In the most recent revival of Company, Sondheim worked closely with the show’s director to update the married couples (and their respective songs) to more modern sensibilities. Director Marianne Williamson and Sondheim transformed Amy into Jamie, played to chaotic perfection by Matt Doyle, turning “(Not) Getting Married Today” into a gay declaration. And this wasn’t the first time Sondheim depicted a gay story in his shows. During the rewrites of Bounce/Road Show/Wise Guys, he and collaborator John Weidman decided to re-assign the love song “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened to Me” from the older brother and his lady friend to the younger brother singing it to his male love interest.

            Stephen Sondheim died in Jeff Romley’s arms on November 26, 2022. The cause was cardiovascular disease. He left us just days before the release of the film tick, tick…BOOM!, which memorializes Jonathan Larson’s deep debt to Sondheim. The aforementioned revival of Company is set to run on Broadway through the end of this year. It is far from the last revival of his many great musicals that we can anticipate as the years roll merrily along.


Jackson Cooper, gift manager at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, is an adjunct instructor at the U. of North Carolina, Greensboro.


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