An afternoon tutorial followed, teaching him, from Mr. Sondheim’s account, more about the trade than most songwriters learn in their lifetime. Hammerstein gave him a path of writing exercises: adapting a good piece to a musical; adapt an imperfect piece into a musical; adapt a story from another medium into a musical; and, finally, write a musical from your own original story. This is what the young Mr. Sondheim did, a project that led him to his graduation from Williams College in Massachusetts, where he supplemented his theatrical work with a serious study of the composition under the direction of Robert Barrow, an intellectually rigorous specialist in harmony, from which Mr. Sondheim gleaned the lesson, as he put it, “that art is a work and not an inspiration, that the invention comes with craftsmanship. Mr. Sondheim would later study independently with Milton Babbitt, the avant-garde composer.
Mr. Sondheim’s first professional work in the spectacle was not in the theater at all; Through the agency representing Hammerstein, he was hired to write for a 1950s television comedy, “Topper,” about a low-budget banker haunted by a pair of urban ghosts. (Much later, Mr. Sondheim wrote a script for a crime film, “The Last of Sheila,” with actor Anthony Perkins; it was produced in 1973 and directed by Herbert Ross.) In the 1950s, he was become a connoisseur of puns. and puzzles, and an inventor of elaborate games. From 1968 to 1969, he created enigmatic crosswords for New York magazine.
His affinity for theatrical errors and mystery was recognized by his friend, playwright Anthony Shaffer, who based the artfully vengeful cuckold in his play “Sleuth” in part on Mr. Sondheim. (The play was once tentatively titled “Who’s Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?”)
Break into Broadway
Mr. Sondheim was in his twenties when he wrote his first professional show, a musical called “Saturday Night”, which was an adaptation of “Front Porch in Flatbush”, a play by Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein. He got the job, to write both words and music, after composer Frank Loesser turned him down. The show was scheduled to premiere in 1955, but producer Lemuel Ayers died before he was done fundraising for it, and production ceased. The show was presented only in 1997, by a small company in London; it then appeared in Chicago and eventually had its New York premiere in 2000, Off Broadway at the Second Stage Theater.
Mr. Sondheim was loath to take one of his first Broadway gigs, “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” as he felt he was a composer, not just a lyricist – “I like to write music much more than lyrics. “, he confessed. in “Finishing the Hat”. But he accepted both on the advice of Hammerstein, who told him he would benefit from working with people like Bernstein; Laurents, (who wrote the book) and director Jerome Robbins at first, and writing for a star like Ethel Merman in the second, even though it was she who wanted a more experienced Broadway hand, Jule Styne, as the composer.
Only once after “Gypsy” did Mr. Sondheim write lyrics for another composer: an ill-fated collaboration with Richard Rodgers, “Do I Hear a Waltz? “, Based on Laurents’ play” The Time of the Cuckoo “.