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How Williams College sparked Stephen Sondheim's career

Obit Stephen Sondheim

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the songwriter who reshaped the American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century, has died at age 91. Sondheim's death was announced by his Texas-based attorney, Rick Pappas, who told The New York Times the composer died Friday, at his home in Roxbury, Conn.

In 2010, Stephen Sondheim, then almost 80 years old, took the stage at Williams College's Chapin Hall.

"Williams changed my life," the 1950 graduate said in an interview captured by the North Adams Transcript.

Sondheim, the beloved and decorated Broadway songwriter, died Friday at age 91. His prolific, decadeslong career in musical theater included works such as "West Side Story," "Sweeney Todd" and "Into the Woods."

'A different idea of what a musical can be': Berkshires reflect on Stephen Sondheim's work and legacy

That career began, in no small part, in the Berkshires.

Sondheim arrived at Williams at age 16, according to a profile in the college's magazine. At the time, he wanted to be a mathematician, he said in a 2020 interview with Williams professor Omar Sangare. 

"I'm really interested in number theory," Sondheim said.

Then he took a music elective with professor Robert Barrow.

"I was so taken with the music professor ... that I decided to major in music, and to write as much as I could," he said. "Since I loved the theater, [musical theater] was my way of putting the two things together."

It was Barrow's view of music — not romantic, but structured and logical — that touched Sondheim.

"I, of course, had been brought up to think of music as inspirational, as the kind of thing where you're staring out of your New York penthouse and you look over the city and suddenly a little birdie comes to your shoulder and goes, 'Bah-duh-duh-duh,'" Sondheim recalled. "Robert Barrow said, 'I'll tell you what music is about. It's about a scale.' ... It just opened my eyes. That's what an education should do."

At Williams, Sondheim joined the theater group Cap & Bells and put on the group's first ever musical, "Phinney’s Rainbow," with his original songs.

"I had to fight my way to get permission to do a musical there," he said. "They thought that was ... not within academic standards."

His next show in the college's Adams Memorial Theatre was "All That Glitters," an original musical adaptation of the play "Beggar on Horseback."

Oscar Hammerstein, his mentor, had "outlined a course" for Sondheim, giving him assignments to create musicals out of various pieces of written work — and ultimately to write his own original musical. "All That Glitters" was the first step in that series.

"Oscar had been a mentor to me, so I wasn't just feeling my way in the fog," he said. "I knew something about where I was going and what I was doing."

In a happy coincidence, renowned composer Cole Porter lived on a Williamstown estate near the college. Sondheim trekked through dirty snow about a mile to the house, took off his shoes and played barefoot for Porter, who, Sondheim says, actually improved upon one of his songs.

"That's a memorable day," Sondheim said, smiling. 

In his telling, he thrived academically at Williams.

"I loved learning," Sondheim said. "Once you know how to learn things, I don't think you have to be educated anymore. Williams was very good at that."

When he graduated, the college awarded him the Hutchinson Prize for Composition, which he employed to study with composer Milton Babbitt.

"I wanted to learn compositional technique, and that's what I learned from him," Sondheim told NPR's "Fresh Air." "We had four-hour sessions once a week and we would spend the first hour analyzing songs by Jerome Kern or by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson — the classic songs of the American theater and American movies."

From there, his career took off. At age 27, less than a decade out from Williams, he had his first Broadway musical: "West Side Story."

Sondheim's time

A decade after Sondheim's interview in Chapin Hall, the college set up a series of performances to celebrate the composer's 90th birthday.

Music professor W. Anthony Sheppard planned a campuswide tribute, including a symposium, performances, a Cap & Bells performance of Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," and a theater department production of "Our Time," a new play that considered what Williams College had been like in the postwar years when Sondheim attended.

That last element included Sangare's prerecorded video interview with Sondheim.

"How did you get to Williams?" the interview begins.

"By car," Sondheim replies.

The coronavirus pandemic struck just on the heels of the celebratory weekend. Less than two weeks later, the students were gone, the campus was quiet and the Adams Memorial Theatre had gone dark.

In the final minutes of his 90th-birthday interview, Sondheim seems to acknowledge that a Williams degree guarantees altogether very little when the going gets tough.

"I wish I had something smart to say," he tells the interviewer. "It's a difficult world. A college education, particularly a good liberal arts education, is not a shield. But [it's] something helpful."

Francesca Paris can be reached at fparis@berkshireeagle.com and 413-447-7311, ext. 239.

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