Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim | What is Sondheim’s Connection to Fairfield, Iowa?

Randy West (left) worked with the illustrious composer Stephen Sondheim during a Phoenix workshop production of Merrily We Roll Along.

Stephen Sondheim was born in New York City, March 22, 1930. From an early age, the young Sondheim was obsessed with music, puzzles, and mathematics. But his was not a happy home. When he was 10, his parents divorced and he went with his mother to live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where many entertainers had country homes.

Poet to Playwright

Luckily for lovers of American musical theater, the young Sondheim’s neighbor was Jimmy Hammerstein, son of the great Oscar Hammerstein, who was just embarking on such iconic musicals as Oklahoma and South Pacific with his partner Richard Rodgers. While the Sondheim home was rather cold and difficult, the Hammerstein home was warm and full of supportive love. It was there that Sondheim decided he wanted to create musicals. He has said over the years that if “Oscar had been a geologist, I would have wanted to be one as well.”

A Stellar Career

As Stephen Sondheim began to grow as a creative force, he literally changed the course on contemporary musical theater. Sondheim wrote the lyrics to West Side Story (1957), and Gypsy (1959) before becoming the most significant composer/lyrist of the last 45 years with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Do I Hear a Waltz (1964), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1983), Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1990), Passion (1994), Saturday Night (1997), and Road Show (2008). He has won more major awards (Tonys, Oscars, and even a Pulitzer Prize and the Medal of Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts) than any other composer/lyrist by far.

How I Got to Know Sondheim

In 2006 the Arts and Convention Center in Fairfield, Iowa, was moving toward completion of its complex, which included a 522-seat theater. I was functioning as the Artistic Director, and the Board of Directors inquired if there was any chance I could ask Stephen Sondheim if we could possibly name the building in honor of him. I had worked with Steve Sondheim when I was the Theatre Coordinator for the City of Phoenix. George Furth and Stephen Sondheim used a Phoenix production of Merrily We Roll Along as part of the workshop process. I had been allowed to work in collaboration with Steve and George for six months as we prepared Merrily for its next workshop

Over the years, I’ve stayed in contact with Stephen Sondheim. The truth is, it would be difficult to find a Sondheim “true believer” with more zeal than I have for Steve, both as an artist and a person. When I was a Musical Theater professor, my students accused me of burning incense at “Stephen Sondheim’s altar” as I have always purported Sondheim as the single most important force in musical theater. 

The artistic vision that had been created for the newly formed Way Off Broadway (WOB, the theater’s residential company) was closely aligned with Sondheim’s. This vision involves supporting the creation of “New Work” and training the next generation of musical theater talent. With deep admiration and respect for Sondheim, I crafted a request as best as I could, submitted it, and waited. 

Fortunately, Stephen Sondheim said yes. The brand-new 520-seat theater that opened with a gala celebration in December 2007 was named the Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts. Through WOB it houses this new vision for professional musical theater in the Midwest.  

And that is how a small but culturally important town in Iowa became the home of the Sondheim Center, which celebrates all types of fine and performing arts in the Midwest as well as hosts a vast variety of community events. So happy birthday, Stephen Sondheim, and may you celebrate 80 more! Thank you for caring about the arts in the Midwest.

Randal K. West is Artistic Director for Way Off Broadway, info@wobroadway.com

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