Sunday, July 03, 2011

"Send in the Clowns"


Stephen Sondheim was born to a Jewish family in New York City, to Etta Janet (née Fox) and Herbert Sondheim. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and later, after his parents divorced, on a farm near Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Herbert, his father, was a dress manufacturer and Foxy, his mother, designed the dresses.

As an only child of well-to-do parents living in the San Remo on Central Park West, he is described in Meryle Secrest's biography, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, as having had an isolated and emotionally neglected childhood. While living in New York, Stephen Sondheim attended the Ethical Culture affiliated Fieldston School. Later, Sondheim attended the New York Military Academy and George School, a private Quaker preparatory school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he wrote his first musical ("By George!"). He also spent several summers at Camp Androscoggin. He graduated from George School in 1946.

Sondheim traces his interest in theatre to Very Warm for May, a Broadway musical he saw at age nine. "The curtain went up and revealed a piano," Sondheim recalled. "A butler took a duster and brushed it up, tinkling the keys. I thought that was thrilling."

When Stephen was ten, his father, a distant figure, abandoned him and his mother. His father sought custody of Stephen, but because he had left Fox for another woman (Alicia), his efforts failed. Herbert and Alicia had two sons together.

Stephen famously despised his mother; he once wrote a thank-you note to close friend Mary Rodgers that read, "Dear Mary and Hank, Thanks for the plate, but where was my mother's head? Love, Steve." When his mother died in the spring of 1992, he did not attend her funeral. His mother was allegedly psychologically abusive and distant, using Sondheim as a form of replacement for his father. Sondheim recalls "She would hold my hand in theatres." Sondheim said, "My mother was very angry at my father for leaving her, and she used me as a whipping boy. And she also had a set of values that even at that age I knew were suspect, in that she liked celebrities and money a lot. And, in a way, it was lucky for me, because I never would have met the Hammersteins if she hadn't liked celebrities. They had a son my age, Jamie, and we became fast friends, and that's how I sort of got adopted by them."

A Little Night Music, a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, involves the romantic lives of several couples. Its title is a literal English translation of the German name for Mozart's seranade, Eine kleine Nachtmusik. The musical includes the popular song "Send in the Clowns".

4 comments:

Gary Freedman said...

"Herbert, his father, was a dress manufacturer and Foxy, his mother, designed the dresses."

Striking coincidence:

In Clifford Odets' play Paradise Lost, the characters Sam Katz and Leo Gordon are women's handbag manufacturers. Sam Katz runs the business, while Leo Gordon designs the ladies' handbags. Katz and Gordon live in the same residence.

Gary Freedman said...

Meryl Secrest, who wrote a biography of Stephen Sondheim, also wrote biographies of Leonard Bernstein and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

(I used to work at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia (1974) with Catherine Ingraham, a great-granddaughter of Wright's. I think Ingraham thought I would do something important some day. Ha!).

Meryl Secrest resides in Washington, DC.


I think this is the same Catherine Ingraham:




http://www.gsd.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/faculty/details.cgi?faculty_id=1421

Gary Freedman said...

My 1997 letter to Elizabeth Wright Ingraham:







http://dailstrug.blogspot.com/2010/04/notable-architect-frank-lloyd-wright.html

Gary Freedman said...

"Stephen famously despised his mother; he once wrote a thank-you note to close friend Mary Rodgers that read, 'Dear Mary and Hank, Thanks for the plate, but where was my mother's head? Love, Steve.'"

The analyst in me sees a possible expression of an erotic attraction. In Strauss's opera Salome the title character is sexually attracted to John the Baptist. When he rejects her, she demands (and gets) John the Baptist's severed head on a plate.