by Bruce EderAccording to most critics and theater historians, Stephen Sondheim (born 1930) stands among Broadway show composers and lyricists not only as the greatest of his generation but as the only great one of his generation. There may be many reasons why Broadway failed to produce consistently great writers to follow the Rodgers & Hammersteins and Lerner & Loewes of the '40s and '50s, but the fact remains that though he operates without serious competition, Sondheim clearly ranks with such masters, as well as with the Jerome Kerns and Irving Berlins of an even earlier generation. Sondheim became a protégé of Hammerstein's after befriending the lyricist's son in school, but he got his first big break when he was hired to write lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's score for West Side Story (1957), which turned out to be one of the biggest hits and most memorable works of its time. This led to a lot of lyric-writing work, though Sondheim always wanted to write music as well. Nevertheless, he worked with Jule Styne on Gypsy (1959), another enormous hit, and would later agree to do the same with Richard Rodgers for the unsuccessful Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965). Before that, however, Sondheim scored his first success as composer and lyricist with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). It was his last hit until Company (1970), a show about contemporary life and mores that did much to revolutionize the Broadway musical and, as Hammerstein's '50s shows had, move it more toward serious and exotic subjects. Since that time, Sondheim's shows have been amazingly daring in terms of subject matter, with unusual musical ideas and stunningly original lyrics. But they have not always been big hits and have marked a time in theater when Broadway show music became a marginalized art form in terms of popular culture. Nevertheless, Sondheim's shows of the '70s and '80s are benchmarks of the genre: Follies (1971) brought together aging follies girls for a look at middle-aged American life; A Little Night Music (1973) is based on Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night and contains Sondheim's sole hit song, "Send in the Clowns"; Pacific Overtures (1976) ambitiously took on the subject of Japanese-American relations; Sweeney Todd (1979) was an operetta based on the British grand guignol tale of a murderous barber; Sunday in the Park with George (1984) was a biography of impressionist painter Georges Seurat; and Into the Woods (1987) wove together children's fairy tales with the theories of psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. In 1991, Sondheim wrote his first off-Broadway musical, Assassins, a short piece about presidential killers. He also turned more to films (he had written a score for Stavisky in the '70s), writing songs for Madonna in Dick Tracy in 1990 and working on an original movie musical. But his next work to appear was a Broadway musical, Passion, in 1994. He was occupied in the 1990s teaching and overseeing various productions of his existing work, but he also prepared a new musical, which, after many delays and title changes, was scheduled to be staged in 2003 under the name Bounce.