After an afternoon-long tutorial, he learned, according to Mr. Sondheim’s account, more about the craft than most songwriters learn in a lifetime. Hammerstein laid out for him a way of writing exercises: to compose a good play in a musical; Adapt a fluffy play into a musical; Adapt a story from another medium into a musical; And, finally, write a musical from your own original story. This was done by the young Mr. Sandheim, a project which led him to graduate from Williams College in Massachusetts, where he completed his theatrical work with serious composition studies under Robert Barrow, an intellectually stringent specialist in harmony, by whom Mr. Closing the lesson, as he put it, “that art is work and not inspiration, that invention comes with craft.” Mr. Sondheim would later study independently with Milton Babbitt, the avant-garde composer.
Mr. Sandheim’s first professional show business work was not in the theater at all; By the agency that represents Hammerstein, he was hired to write for a 1950s television comedy, “Taper,” about a soccer banker haunted by a pair of urban ghosts. (Much later, Mr. Sondheim wrote a wadonite film script, “The Last of Sheila,” with actor Anthony Perkins; it was produced in 1973 and directed by Herbert Ross.) In the 1950s, he became a connoisseur of Word play. And puzzles, and an inventor of elaborate games. From 1968 to 1969, he created cryptic crosswords for New York magazine.
His relationship to theatrical misdirection and mystery was acknowledged by his friend, the playwright Anthony Schaefer, who based the cunning revenge in his play “Sleuth” partly on Mr Sandheim. (The play was once tentatively titled “Who’s Afraid of Steven Sandheim?”)
Breaking into Broadway
Mr. Sandheim was in his early 20s when he wrote his first professional show, a musical called “Saturday Night,” which was an adaptation of “Front Porch in Flatbush,” a play by Philip G. And Julius j. Epstein. He got the job of writing the lyrics and the music, after the composer Frank Loser refused. The show was scheduled to be staged in 1955, but the producer, Lemuel Ayrs, died before he could finish raising the money for it, and production was halted. The show was presented until 1997, by a small company in London; Subsequently, it was released in Chicago and finally had its New York premiere in 2000, off Broadway at the Second Stage Theater.
Mr. Sandheim was not going to take any of his first Broadway gigs, “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” because he felt he was a composer, not just a lyricist – “I enjoy writing music much more than lyrics,” He confesses in “Complete the hat.” He, however, agreed to both on the advice of Hammerstein, who told him that he would benefit from working with the like Bernstein; Laurents, (who wrote the book) and the director Jerome Robbins, in the first instance, and of writing for a star like Ethel Merman in the second, though it was she who wanted a more experienced Broadway hand, Jule Styne, As the composer.
For the first time since “Gypsy” Mr. Sandheim would have written lyrics for another composer: an unhappy collaboration with Richard Rodgers, “Am I Mr. Waltz?” Based on Laurent’s play “The Time of the Cuckoo.”