I read the news yesterday about Stephen Sondheim’s death. Like many others, I was saddened and shocked, even though he was 91.
But the first thing I thought of was not his music, not his Broadway shows. It was his relationship with Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein was a lyricist who co-wrote, with Richard Rogers, South Pacific, Oklahoma and The King and I, among other standards of the American musical theater.
He was also a surrogate father to Stephen Sondheim.
Sondheim talks about this often in the many interviews he did over the years. Here’s one I like especially, with Adam Guettel, a composer and Richard Rogers’s grandson. In this interview, and in so many of the others — which are always fascinating — he speaks of Oscar Hammerstein’s influence and of his generosity. He met Oscar and his wife Dorothy in Pennsylvania where his mother had gone to live after divorcing Sondheim’s father. Sondheim became friends with the Hammerstein’s son, and so that’s how he got to know Oscar and Dorothy. He liked being with them, he said, because they were a family. He didn’t have a family. They became his.
He wanted to do what Oscar did. And because Oscar was involved with music, that’s what Sondheim decided he wanted to do. “If Oscar had been a geologist, I would have been a geologist,” he has said.
But Oscar wasn’t a geologist. He wrote lyrics to music. And that’s how Sondheim got his start, writing the lyrics to West Side Story and then to Gypsy before going out on his own to write both the words and the music from then on.
He has said that Hammerstein taught him everything he needed to know about writing for the musical theater in one afternoon.
I love hearing Sondheim speak about his relationship with Oscar Hammerstein. Everything about it is hopeful, encouraging, and optimistic. Hammerstein lived long enough — he died in 1960 — to see West Side Story and Gypsy, but not any of Sondheim’s musicals in which he wrote both the music and the lyrics. Still, he knew his protégé was well on his way. When Sondheim asked Hammerstein to inscribe a photo of himself, Hammerstein wrote, “For Stevie, my friend and teacher.”
What moves me about this relationship is that this shows you can find the father you need in your life. Maybe your actual father can’t, or won’t, give you what you need, but there may well be another father out there, waiting for you. Someone who, though not tied to you by blood, nevertheless will treat you like his own son. Who sees you. Who will give you the love you require.
Stephen Sondheim found his father.