Happy Birthday Stephen Sondheim!

Theatre and Performance
March 23, 2020

22 March 2020 marked the 90th birthday of Stephen Sondheimarguably one of the most influential musical lyricists and composers of the 20th century.  

Poster advertising Putting It Together
Poster advertising Putting It Together (Stephen Sondheim revue), Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City, 1993. Museum no. S.1033-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sondheimis responsible for some of the most iconic musicals of our time, including Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Into The Woods, Follies, Company, Sunday in the Park with George and Assassins as well as writing the lyrics for both West Side Story and Gypsy. 

To celebrate his birthday, here are some Sondheim highlights from the Theatre and Performance Collection for you to enjoy. 

Premiering in 1973, A Little Night Music is based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night and follows the romantic entanglements of the actress Desirée Armfeldt in Sweden around 1900Composed entirely in ¾ (waltz) time, it features one of Sondheim’s best-known songs, ‘Send In The Clowns’. 

Photograph of the production of A Little Night Music
Photograph of the production of A Little Night Music, Adelphi Theatre, London, with Jean Simmons, Joss Ackland, David Kernan, Liz Robertson, Diane Langton and Hermione Gingold, 1975. Photographed by Douglas H Jeffery. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This costume was worn by Jean Simmons as Desirée in the original West End production at the Adelphi Theatre, London. The designer Florence Klotz received a Tony award for her designs, one of three she won for collaborations with Sondheim and producer Hal Prince. The colour scheme for the production was primarily Scandinavian ice blue, but during the climactic dinner party scene, all performers exploded into colour with Desirées red dress chosen to reflect her scandalous status within society.  

Costume worn by Jean Simmons in Stephen Sondheim's musical A Little Night Music
Costume worn by Jean Simmons in Stephen Sondheim’s musical A Little Night Music, Adelphi Theatre, 1975. Museum no. S.54-1992. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The roots of Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be found ithe penny dreadful story first published in the 1840s, but it was Christopher Bond’s play adaptation at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1973 that inspired him to set it to musicFollowing the tale of a murderous barber avenging the death of his wife and the imprisonment of his daughter, Sweeney Todd is Sondheim’s darkest, bloodiest and most operatic score. 

This set model was designed and made by Anthony Ward for the 2011 revival (staged by the Chichester Festival Theatre and later transferred to the Adelphi Theatre, London), starring Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd and Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett.  

Set model for the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Set model for the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, designed by Anthony Ward, 2011. Museum no. S. S.3789-2015. Given by Anthony Ward. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In this production, the setting was moved from the 1840s to the 1930s, another era of significant poverty, unemployment and social inequality. Ward designed a 20th-century factory with two levels to separate the upperclass characters from the lowerclassHe also made an aesthetic reference to Sondheim’s score – the hanging lamps against the metal framework appearing like musical notes‘The whole point of [Sweeney]’ said Sondheim is that it’s a background score for a horror film … It had to be unsettling, scary, and very romantic.’ 

Into the Woods debuted at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1986. A blend of several Brothers Grimm and Samuel Perrault fairy tales, the musical explores familial relationships, good versus evil and the consequences of wish fulfilment. 

London’s Royal Opera House staged a revival in 2007, with set and costume design by Lez BrotherstonBrotherston is one of Britain’s most interesting and prolific designersoften working with Matthew Bourne’s dance company New Adventures for which he designed Swan LakeEdward Scissorhands and CinderellaThe Royal Opera House production mixed opera singers, musical theatre actors as well as film and television actors, including Clive Rowe (The Baker), Anne Reid (Jack’s Mother), Lara Pulver (Lucinda) and Gary Waldhorn (the Narrator)Re-conceived for the ‘black box’ Linbury Studio rather than a large-scale proscenium stage, Brotherston infused the magical setting with a mirrored ceiling and a touch of the gothic. 

Costume design by Lez Brotherston for Rapunzel in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical Into the Woods
Costume design by Lez Brotherston for Rapunzel in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods, the Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, 2007. Museum no. S.142-2008. Given by Lez Brotherston. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Inspired by a photograph of Norma Desmond standing in the rubble of the Roxy Cinema, Sondheim composed what is now considered one of the defining musicals of the century: FolliesSet at a reunion of the ‘Weissman’s Follies’ revue, old rivalries, secret regrets and past transgressions are brought to light and characters come face to face with their younger selves. As much about the folly of the American Dream as the folly of youth, Follies features standout musical numbers from Sondheim’s canon such as ‘Broadway Baby’, ‘I’m Still Here’ and ‘Losing My Mind’. 

This 2017 revival (staged again in 2018/2019) by the National Theatre won several Olivier Awards, including Best Costume design for Vicki Mortimer. Mortimer drew extensively from historical resources to create spectacular outfits for the young showgirls. This headdress was worn by the young version of Stella Deems and was inspired by designs from the 1920s and 1930s, drawing particular inspiration from Ziegfeld Follies and Folies Bergère. 

Headdress designed by Vicki Mortimer
Headdress designed by Vicki Mortimer and worn by Leisha Mollyneaux as young Stella Deems in the National Theatre’s Follies, 2017. Museum no. S.783-2019. Given by the National Theatre. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Companywhich premiered in 1970, was Sondheim’s first collaboration with producer Hal Prince and the first to earn him a Tony nomination for music and lyrics. The musical was ground-breaking for its subject and structure. The show is formed of a series of vignettes between perpetual bachelor ‘Bobby’ and five couples in his circle who encourage him to settle down. 

The 2018/19 revival introduced two gender swaps to the musical with Sondheim’s approval, casting ‘Bobby’ as a woman (now ‘Bobbie’) and changing ‘Amy’ to ‘Jamie’, establishing one couple as gay. Bunny Christie, the designer, is acclaimed for not only designing the physical world but also the psychological. Bobbie’s loose red dress reflects her confidence and freedom but also puts her at odds with her surroundings, which are often claustrophobic and cast in muted coloursDirected by Marianne Elliott and starring Rosalie Craig as ‘Bobbie’ and Patti LuPone as ‘Joanne’, it won four Olivier Awards (including for set design) and transferred to Broadway. 

Red dress worn by Rosalie Craig in the musical Company
Red dress worn by Rosalie Craig in the musical Company, designed by Bunny Christie, Gielgud Theatre, 2018/2019. Museum no. S.780-2019. Given by Elliott & Harper Productions.

To learn more about the V&A National Collection for the Performing Arts, visit our website. 

If you are interested in discovering more musical objects in the collection you can Search the Collections or browse our A-Z of Musical Theatre. 

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