Presidential Medal of Freedom Honoree Stephen Sondheim

By Victoria Mariconti

On Monday November 24, the 18 recipients of the 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom gathered in the White House East Room to be honored by President Barack Obama. Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was conspicuously absent: for undisclosed reasons, Sondheim could not attend the ceremony and deferred his award until next year. Nonetheless, a profile for this illustrious member of Phi Beta Kappa (Williams College, 1949) is long overdue. Sondheim’s music and lyrics, featured in acclaimed Broadway musicals such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Broadway Production 1962), Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), and Into the Woods (1987), have become a defining part of the American soundscape. 

Born on March 22, 1930 in New York City, Stephen Joshua Sondheim displayed an early aptitude for music. As a child he studied piano and organ, and he absorbed his first lessons in musical theatre from family friend and Broadway luminary Oscar Hammerstein II. When Sondheim graduated magna cum laude from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1950, the Hutchinson Prize, a fellowship to study with modernist composer Milton Babbitt, awaited him. For the next seven years, Sondheim supported himself by contributing music and lyrics to various projects for Broadway and Hollywood. 

In 1957, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein helped Sondheim secure his footing on Broadway. Bernstein invited the younger composer to be the lyricist for a show that would become one of the most iconic American musicals of the past century: West Side Story. Sondheim initially hesitated when offered the opportunity, but as he explained in an interview to James Lipton for The Paris Review:

“Oscar [Hammerstein II] advised me that the job would be an extraordinary opportunity to work with men of such ability, talent, and imagination as Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Arthur Laurents. So I took it. And he was right.” 

It would not be long before Sondheim’s name was mentioned in the same breath as his mentors and employers.

Shortly after West Side Story, Sondheim fulfilled his yearning to compose a full-length, Broadway-caliber show. The comedy A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum opened in 1962, and all musical and lyrical details were the product of Sondheim’s imagination. The show ran just shy of 1,000 performances in its premiere production and won the 1962 Tony Award for Best Musical. These results were prophetic: since then, Sondheim’s creativity has been recognized by eight Tony Awards, including one for lifetime achievement, eight Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, and a year of celebratory concerts and ceremonies in honor of his eightieth birthday in 2010. 

In further reflection on his career, Sondheim published two books in 2010 and 2011: respectively, Finishing the Hat, and Look, I Made a Hat. Together, both comprise the complete set of Sondheim’s published lyrics from 1954 to 2011. The lyrics are elaborated, as the subtitle explains, with “Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany.” 

Countless revivals of Sondheim’s musicals on Broadway, off-Broadway, by amateur companies, and by collegiate and high school theatre departments have disseminated the composer’s infectious melodies and clever lyrics into many Americans’ cultural parlance. Hollywood, too, recently joined the celebration of Sondheim’s legacy with feature-length productions of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and Into the Woods (2014). Rumors of Sondheim’s next project have circulated throughout the New York City media, but dates and other details have not been confirmed. Regardless of whatever may follow, Sondheim’s legacy has been long secured by more than 60 years of creative genius, revolutionary productions, and A Little Night Music.  

Selected Interviews:

The Paris Review:

Play Bill: 


Victoria Mariconti is a senior at Boston College majoring in music. She became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. Boston College is home to the Omicron of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.