Written By: Eileen Daspin

The following is adapted from LIFE’s new special issue on West Side Story, is available online and at retail outlets nationwide.

It was the kind of break most any songwriter in 1957 would have killed for: the chance to work with Leonard Bernstein on a Broadway-bound musical based on Romeo and Juliet. But Stephen Sondheim, who died on Nov. 26, 2021 at age 91, was never just any songwriter. When he was 25 years old, with the barest experience, only arm-twisting by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, convinced him to accept the offer. “I didn’t want to do it,” Sondheim remembered later, but “[Oscar] said…this is the chance to work with real professionals…” And so, “I said okay. And that’s how I got the job.”

To describe Sondheim as a precocious talent would be stating the obvious. He completed his first full musical, By George, a comic take on high school, at 15 and enlisted Hammerstein, the father of a friend, to critique it. As a college undergrad, Sondheim adapted a George S. Kaufman play as a musical and completed four other musicals of his own. One of his earliest professional jobs was composing songs for Saturday Night, a work by twin screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein of Casablanca fame. 

But for all of Sondheim’s success, as his career progressed, his work got darker, less commercial, and less popular with broad American audiences. Company, from 1970, about a womanizer, was told in out-of-chronological order. Pacific Overtures, from 1976, about the westernization of Japan, originally was presented in Kabuki style. And then there’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, from 1979, about revenge and cannibalism. His work was less like that of his musical theater contemporary, glitzmaster Andrew Lloyd Webber, than the poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman, wrote critic Adam Kirsch in the Wall Street Journal earlier in 2021. “Sondheim’s sense that we reveal ourselves in what we don’t say and do—that slips and silences can be as important as full-throated declarations—is another thing that he shares with writers of his generation,” wrote Kirsch. 

It’s unlikely Sondheim would have disagreed, at least when it came to the kind of writing that interested him. He had dismissed the lyrics of West Side Story favorites such as “I Feel Pretty” as embarrassing, and the lyrics of “Tonight,” the iconic fire escape duet between Tony and Mary, as artificial. In an interview on 60 Minutes in 2020, when West Side Story was being revived on Broadway, Sondheim told Bill Whitaker he wished he’d never written the line from “Tonight,” Today the world was just an address. It was too “fancy” for a tough-guy teen, Sondheim said. As for “I Feel Pretty,” the composer in a different interview complained that it, too, did not align with the character: “She’s a Puerto Rican street girl. She should speak in street poetry.” 

However he felt about the lines, they are part of one the most beloved shows in the history of Broadway, and of the rich and complex legacy of a true titan of the stage.

LIFE’s special tribute issue West Side Story: The Sharks, the Jets, a Romeo and Juliet, which chronicles the show’s journey from stage to screen, is available for purchase online.

Cover image by TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

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