Stephen Sondheim, the world-renowned composer and lyricist who brought to life works such as "West Side Story" and "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," walked into Pickard Theater Tuesday night to a sold-out house of approximately six hundred people.

Deemed "the greatest and perhaps best-known artist working in musical theatre" by the New York Times, Sondheim spent an hour and a half discussing and reflecting on his life as an esteemed figure in the business.

Associate Professor of Music Vineet Shende and Professor of Theatre and Dance Davis Robinson facilitated the question-and-answer style discussion with Sondheim. The talk was sponsored by the Donald M. Zuckert Visiting Professorship Fund, which aims at drawing specialists in government or the arts to campus.

After working alongside equally prolific artists such as Leonard Bernstein, Ethel Merman, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Milton Babbitt among others, Sondheim has been inspired by a variety of compositional and lyrical legends.

"I think teaching is a sacred profession," said Sondheim. "When I went to Williams I was inspired by a teacher who reduced music to the components of what makes art. I found it so thrilling that I decided to major in music."

"Oscar Hammerstein II adopted Sondheim as his surrogate son and became the father that [he] didn't have, both as a family friend but also as a composer," said Robinson.

"Like a sponge," he continued, "Sondheim soaked in the advice and knowledge Hammerstein had to offer," and went on to compose some of the most notable works in musical theatre.

Aspiring to become the youngest individual to write a Broadway musical, fifteen-year-old Sondheim created "By George" and brought it to Hammerstein for advice. After admitting to Sondheim that it was terrible, Hammerstein took the time to tell him what needed improvement and proceeded to explain how to better it, line by line.

"He treated me like a young playwright who came by his office," Sondheim said. "He treated me like an adult and a professional."

Sondheim later acknowledged the extent to which Hammerstein was an influential figure in his life, noting, "If Oscar was a Geologist, I probably would have been a Geologist too."

At age 25, Sondheim worked alongside Leonard Bernstein, writing the lyrics for "West Side Story." By 1962, at age 32, he had produced both music and lyrics for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." In 1979, Sondheim added "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" to his already impressive resume. Now at 81 years old, Sondheim has created over twelve world-renowned works

With eight Tony Awards, multiple Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award, Sondheim is one of the most decorated men in the history of musical theatre.

"Pre-Sondheim you had this notion that a musical had to be about a man and a woman falling in love," said Shende. "[But] starting with 'West Side Story,' he opened the pathways up to allow musicals to have a much wider range of what their subject matter could contain."

When presented with the question of why he attended a small liberal arts college and what he received from it, Sondheim responded, "I deliberately picked a small college because I wanted that individual, one-on-one relationship with my professors. Education is just about learning to learn. I think a small college is really important."

An enthusiastic standing ovation transpired after Sondheim finished speaking.

"It's a rare opportunity and a pretty big honor for Bowdoin to get Stephen Sondheim; he doesn't do a lot of these things," said Shende.