Stephen Sondheim’s Pivotal Relationship with Oscar Hammerstein
Stephen Sondheim, who died recently at the age of 91, grew up in a highly dysfunctional home. The man who was to become the central figure in the American Theater for six decades was raised in an atmosphere of material privilege laced with significant emotional turmoil.
Sondheim’s father, Herbert, was a clothing manufacturer and his mother, nicknamed Foxy, was a designer. Their marriage was toxic: the neurotic Foxy loved her husband, but Herbert was married to his career. Sondheim later guessed that it was a marriage of convenience on his father’s part because “he needed a designer.”
The family lived in New York’s venerable San Remo apartments on Central Park West, where Sondheim said he was an “institutional child. I was brought up by a cook, a nanny or boarding school or camp…it was an environment that supplied you with everything except meaningful human contact. I had no sense of family at all.”
When he was ten, Sondheim’s parents divorced, much to Foxy’s chagrin. She was saddled with raising a child she did not want. (Years later, in a note composed on the eve of her open heart surgery, she wrote to Sondheim: “The only regret I have in life is giving you birth.”) Serious pathology.
The divorce settlement provided Foxy enough funds to purchase a home near Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in the heart of pastoral Bucks County. It was four miles from Highland Farm, the home of Broadway lyricist supreme Oscar Hammerstein (Showboat, Oklahoma, and Carousel) and his wife Dorothy.
In March of 1942, when Sondheim, age 12, began regularly visiting the Hammerstein home, he discovered what “family” was — he developed a relationship with Oscar, the man who became his surrogate father and inspiration for creative composition.
Initially, Sondheim’s connection was with Jamie Hammerstein; the boys were only a year apart and both loved competitive games. Soon, however, Sondheim became a full-fledged member of the household. “I infiltrated the family,” he chuckled.
Oscar, who had lost his parents at an early age, related to Sondheim’s plight — it was a natural mentoring relationship. It was also the luckiest break in Sondheim’s life to that point.
“Unexpected significant moments,” Sondheim wrote later, “which happen entirely by chance, keep life surprising and sometimes change its direction permanently.” Moving to Bucks County “led to my meeting Oscar and finding a channel into the work I was meant to do.”
Sondheim always pointed out that it was Hammerstein’s force of personality that figured into his eventual vocation– “I was always interested in imitating Oscar. If he had been an archeologist, I would have become an archeologist.”
Since Hammerstein was the foremost Broadway lyricist of the time, Sondheim gravitated in that direction. In 1946, he and two friends composed a sprawling, three-act, twenty-song, fifty-cast-member musical, By George — it chronicled campus life at George School, the nearby college preparatory academy all three attended.
Sondheim had lofty expectations when he gave the material to Hammerstein for review: he asked for a professional opinion, not one based on personal ties. Hammerstein did just that. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever read,” he told a crestfallen Sondheim. “I didn’t say it doesn’t show talent. But it’s just terrible. If you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you.”
The two poured over the libretto for hours, line by line. “It was a step-by-step guide to everything I needed to know,” Sondheim reported. “I have never forgotten a word he said.”
About that tutorial, Sondheim told The Paris Review: “I probably learned more about writing songs that afternoon than I learned the rest of my life. He taught me how to structure a song, what a character was, what a scene was; he taught me how to tell a story, how not to tell a story…from then on, until the day he died, I showed him everything I wrote.”
The personal and professional bond between the pair continued until Hammerstein passed away at 65 in August of 1960.
At his final birthday party, Hammerstein gave photos of himself to the assembled family, which included Sondheim. In an awkward moment, Sondheim asked Hammerstein to sign the picture — “it was like asking your father for an autograph,” Sondheim said.
Hammerstein hesitated and then inscribed it, “smiling the whole while, like the cat who ate the cream,” Sondheim remembered. It read, “For Stevie, my friend and teacher.”
The teacher reference came from a lyric Hammerstein wrote for The King and I — “By your pupils you’ll be taught.”
A few years ago, Sondheim was asked what he would say to Hammerstein if the two had one more chance to talk. In hushed tones, Sondheim replied, “I would ask him, are you proud of me?”