Collecting the Stage: Stephen Sondheim

In our 80 years as a company, Swann has always been an auction house dedicated to niche markets with specialists who are experts in their respective fields, but often our sales cross categories building bridges among our auctions for collectors and (Swannies) alike. Below, Jennifer De Candia in our Vintage Posters department finds her love of Broadway reflected in two of the house’s auctions this season — with material related to Stephen Sondheim on offer in our June 9 sale of Illustration Art and in Fine Books & Autographs happening June 16.

Swann Salutes Stephen Sondheim

On November 26, 2021, Stephen Sondheim, one of the most influential creators in American musical theatre, passed away at 91. Mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II at a young age, he first debuted on Broadway in 1957, as the lyricist for West Side Story. His career in theatre, film and television spanned 65 years and earned him eight Tony Awards, an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. As both composer and lyricist, he wrote 14 shows, winning Tony Awards for Best Original Score for Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Into the Woods, and Passion. His work changed the trajectory of the American musical and is performed both in New York City and in countless regional productions every year.

Sondheim Illustrations — Sweeney Todd

Featured in our June 9 auction was an illustration by Al Hirschfeld depicting the cast of the original 1979 production of Sweeney Todd. This image was originally published in the New York Times on February 25, 1979, shortly after previews began for the show. It accompanied an article discussing the production, which included an interview with Sondheim about the musical.  

Hirschfeld’s image depicts an amalgamation of scenes from the murderous musical, rather than one singular moment on stage—Sweeney (played by Len Cariou) cuts into the dead Pirelli (Joaquin Romaguera) as Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury) looks on. Judge Turpin (Edmund Lyndeck) and Beadle Bamford (Jack Eric Williams) stand in judgment, while young lovers Anthony (Victor Garber) and Johanna (Sarah Rice) embrace. The number “5” next to Hirschfeld’s signature indicates the number of NINA’s hidden in the image. In tribute to his daughter Nina, who was born in 1945, Hirschfeld hid her name in the lines of his drawings. If you look closely, you’ll see one of the NINA’s hidden in the fringe of Mrs. Lovett’s shawl (I’ll let you find the other four yourself). In addition to the illustration, this lot also contains a bound copy of the musical score, which was presented to the show’s producers as a gift from the printers.  

While Sweeney Todd is one of my favorite musicals, my connection to this piece is also personal. My grandfather was a security guard for the Uris Theatre for several years, and he worked there during the run of this production. When my grandfather was able to bring my mother to work, she would watch the rehearsals rather than the ticketed performances—much like Hirschfeld did when he was preparing a sketch.

Related Reading:

Sondheim Autographs — Sunday in the Park with George & Gypsy

Additionally, our June 16 Fine Books and Autographs sale features a lot containing two Playbills signed by Sondheim—one for the 1973 West End production of Gypsy: A Musical Fable and another for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning production of Sunday in the Park with George. Sondheim wrote the lyrics for Gypsy, and wrote both the lyrics and music for Sunday in the Park with George.

The 1973 production of Gypsy starred Angela Lansbury, who had previously originated the role of Cara Hoover Hopper in the short-lived 1964 production of Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle. This production of Gypsy would not only eventually lead to Lansbury’s record-breaking fourth Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, but also another future collaboration between the star and composer/lyricist. While in London to see Lansbury in the starring role of Mama Rose, Sondheim attended a play at the Theatre Royal Stratford East— Christopher Bond’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd, which would serve as the basis for Hugh Wheeler’s book for the 1979 musical.

Marco Tomaschett, Autograph Specialist, on Collecting Sondheim Autographs:

Two factors have combined to contribute to a recent increase in interest in Stephen Sondheim autographs: his death after a long and productive life, and the re-opening of the world’s theaters after the pause imposed by the pandemic. Sondheim’s autographs are still relatively attainable, and as many of his themes are likely to increase in importance in the future (such as poverty and racism in Sondheim’s Broadway debut, West Side Story—adapted into Academy Award-winning films in 1961 & 2021), it may well be an optimal moment to begin or expand your collection.

Sondheim & Hirschfeld at Auction… & the Great White Way

While our galleries may be the only place bidders can buy these pieces of Broadway history, you can also catch glimpses of them uptown in the theatre district:

The marquee of the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on 43rd St. displays the composer-lyricist’s larger-than-life autograph, bearing the same signature S’s as the ones on the Playbill for “Sunday in the Park with George”. Originally known as the Henry Miller’s Theatre, it was re-named the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in 2010, in honor of his 80th birthday.

And two blocks up on 45th St. is the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where the lights above the marquee are fashioned after this 1980 self-portrait by the illustrator. The lights of the arm blink on and off, as if the artist is drawing himself in real-time. The theatre was originally known as the Marin Beck Theatre, but was re-named the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in honor of his 100th birthday. It is the only Broadway theatre named after a visual artist.

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