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Music / Stephen Sondheim

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"Audience enters into the brand new underground Henry Miller Theater, soon to-be-christened the STEPHEN SONDHEIM THEATER. It is under-attended, more modern than you're comfortable with, and requires you to travel deeper down than you think you ought to.

Good job with the naming, Roundabout."

Stephen Sondheim (March 22, 1930 Ė November 26, 2021) was one of the 20th Century's most respected composers and lyricists of musicals. He won seven Tony Awards, an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize.

Having the benefit of being mentored by the legendary Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim began on Broadway as a lyricist and then began writing his own music. Critics of his work complain that the songs are too complex and unhummable, something that he went on to lampshade in such works as Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George.

Sondheim also appears as a character in the musical tick, tick... BOOM! (which was a tribute to him by admirer Jonathan Larson) and its film adaptation, where he's played by Bradley Whitford. The latter contains a Voice-Only Cameo of him and was released one week before his passing.

He shared a birthday (born 18 years earlier) with Andrew Lloyd Webber, of all people.


  • Saturday Night (1954, though unproduced until 1997) (book by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein)
  • West Side Story (1957) (music by Leonard Bernstein; book by Arthur Laurents; directed by Jerome Robbins — the 1961 and 2021 films reprised his songs)
  • Gypsy (1959) (music by Jule Styne; book by Arthur Laurents; directed by Jerome Robbins)
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) (book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart; directed by George Abbott)
  • Anyone Can Whistle (1964) (book by Arthur Laurents; directed by Arthur Laurents)
  • Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965) (music by Richard Rodgers; book by Arthur Laurents; directed by John Dexter)
  • Evening Primrose (1966) (made for ABC TV) (teleplay by James Goldman, based on the short story by John Collier)
  • Company (1970) (book by George Furth; directed by Hal Prince)
  • Follies (1971) (book by James Goldman; directed by Hal Prince)
  • The Last of Sheila (1973) — not a stage musical; not a musical at all in fact. It's a 1973 theatrical feature film that he co-wrote the screenplay for with Anthony Perkins. Sondheim's only screenwriting credit.
  • A Little Night Music (1973) (book by Hugh Wheeler; directed by Hal Prince)
  • The Frogs (1974, revived in 2004) (play by Aristophanes)
  • Pacific Overtures (1976) (book by John Weidman; directed by Hal Prince)
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) (book by Hugh Wheeler; directed by Hal Prince)
  • Merrily We Roll Along (1981) (book by George Furth; directed by Hal Prince)
  • Sunday in the Park with George (1984) (book by James Lapine; directed by James Lapine)
  • Into the Woods (1987) (book by James Lapine; directed by James Lapine)
  • Assassins (1990) (book by John Weidman; directed by Jerry Zaks)
  • Passion (1994) (book by James Lapine; directed by James Lapine)
  • Bounce (2003) (book by John Weidman; directed by Hal Prince)
    • Reworked as Road Show in 2008, directed by John Doyle.

Sondheim also composed the movie scores for three films: Warren Beatty's Reds, Alain Resnais' Stavisky, and Tim Burton's 2007 film version of Sweeney Todd. His collected lyrics (with his comments and recollections) have been published in two volumes: Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat.

Tropes used frequently in works by Stephen Sondheim include:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Any Sondheim musical will include this, with lines like "I feel fizzy and funny and fine," "The realities remain remote," "The bong of the bell of the buoy in the bay," and the infamous "That's the puddle where the poodle did the piddle."
    • Into the Woods has an awesome example, when one character says of an ailing cow "Her withers wither with her."
  • All Musicals Are Adaptations: Averted; he worked on several shows with completely original stories and characters, including Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies, and the second act of Sunday in the Park with George.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Almost always Played for Laughs. Used to great effect in Sweeney Todd, The Frogs, Company, and especially the second act of Into the Woods.
  • Counterpoint Duet: BIG fan of this, put it in almost all his shows, and sometimes going one step further and making it into a trio, quartet, quintet, sextet, septet, or an ensemble number with as much as 8-part counterpoint!!
  • Deconstruction: Present to some degree in most of his works, most notably the following:
    • Into the Woods (fairy tales)
    • Pacific Overtures (the sort of East-meets-West story best represented by The King and I)
    • Assassins and Road Show (the American Dream)
  • Deadpan Snarker: See the entry under A God Am I.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Follies, Pacific Overtures, perhaps to a lesser extent Company
  • Downer Ending: Assassins, West Side Story (inherent in the source material), Merrily We Roll Along (subverted in that it's placed at the beginning), Sweeney Todd, Follies, Evening Primrose.
    • Some stagings of Gypsy, notably the 2008 production starring Patti LuPone.
  • A God Am I: Played with, in the number written for the revue Sondheim On Sondheim, aptly titled God. Specifically the song deals with the manner in which people deify Stephen and his works.
    Sondheim: And these are my toenail clippings. Iím thinking of sending them to the Smithsonian.
    Ensemble: Or to use his nickname, God!
  • Gossipy Hens: Most of the minor characters in Sunday in the Park with George, and some Gossipy Roosters in the form of the soldiers in Passion.
  • Leitmotif: Sweeney Todd has many recurring motifs, almost in the style of an opera. Other musicals make use of repeated or developed themes, like a seven-note motif in Into The Woods that recurs several times and provides the main melody for two different songs ("Stay With Me" and "Giants in the Sky").
  • Love Hurts: His musicals are full of unhappy marriages, romances that end in tragedy, and songs about the pain of unrequited love ("Send in the Clowns," "Losing My Mind," "Unworthy of Your Love," "Loving You").
  • Lyrical Dissonance: A frequent trope in his work is for a character to claim one thing in the lyrics, while the music or orchestration clearly suggest they're lying or in denial.
  • Pastiche: A major part of his musical style is homaging or parodying other musical styles. The patter section of the first song in Anyone Can Whistle is a pastiche of composer/arranger Kay Thompson; the waltzes in A Little Night Music are in the style of Maurice Ravel, and in Follies many of the songs imitate specific composers and lyricists; for example, Sondheim has explained that "Losing My Mind" is based harmonically on "The Man I Love" by George Gershwin, but the lyric is in the style of Dorothy Fields.
  • Patter Song: Used these often in his musicals, such as "Getting Married Today" in Company, "The Contest" in Sweeney Todd, and "Now" in A Little Night Music.
  • Reconstruction: Arguably, Passion, of the archetypal love epic.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: He's got several — "Epiphany" from Sweeney Todd, "Getting Married Today" from Company, "Live, Laugh, Love" from Follies, "Franklin Shepard Inc." from Merrily We Roll Along, and "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy.
    • And really, any song containing the word "Ballad" in Assassins.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Very cynical in most cases
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: More often inverted than played straight. Often he'd complete the rhyme, but in a way you'd never guess. Or he'd stuff in a bunch of internal rhymes where no other songwriter will dare.

Works by Stephen Sondheim without their own pages provide examples of:

  • Camp Gay: In "The Boy From...", the narrator describes the young man she has a crush on, completely oblivious to the implications of his flamboyant dress sense and effeminate mannerisms.
  • Cut Song: The revue Marry Me A Little was made entirely from his Cut Songs.
  • Downer Ending: Evening Primrose.
  • Never Speak Ill of the Dead: Inverted in his books of collected & annotated lyrics, where he writes frank and incisive commentary about other lyricists' work, but only ones already dead. In his own words:
    Speaking ill exclusively of the dead seems to me the gentlemanly thing to do. The subject cannot be personally hurt, and his reputation is unlikely to be affected by anything you say, whereas publicly passing judgement on living writers is both hurtful and stifling.
  • No Song for the Wicked: Surprisingly, the villain in Evening Primrose (Ms. Munday) did not receive a song of her own, most likely because it was only written to fit within an hour of television broadcast time. Many fans think that if Evening Primrose were to be expanded for stage, Ms. Munday should deserve a song.
  • Overly Long Name: In "The Boy From...", a parody of "The Girl From Ipanema", the young man in question hails from Tacarembo la Tumba del Fuego Santa Malipas Zacatecas la Junta del Sol y Cruz. And at the end of the song, he moves to Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrndrobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.
  • Self-Parody:
    • Sondheim joined forces with Andrew Lloyd Webber for "Hey Mr Producer", a tribute concert to Cameron Mackintosh. They performed a duet riffing on their songs "Send In The Clowns" and "Music of the Night", all while playfully ribbing Mackintosh.
    • For the retrospective Sondheim on Sondheim, he wrote a new song: "God"
    • In his Simpsons appearance, Krusty reacted rather unappreciatively to his signature style.
      Krusty: Hmm, complex harmonies, intricate lyrics, pithy observations on modern life, what is this junk? Whereís the zazz? Just do what you did in Cats.
      Sondheim: I didnít write Cats.