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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 (born March 22, 1930 in New York City) is one of the 20th Century's most respected composers of musicals.

He's won seven Tony Awards, an Academy Award, several Grammy Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize. Having the benefit of being mentored by the legendary Oscar Hammerstein, he 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, which he went on to lampshade in such works as Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George.



  • 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)
  • 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)
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  • 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. Sondheim's only screen writing 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)
    • In 2008 Bounce was re-worked, with some songs removed and others added, one character entirely cut, and the plot rewritten; the resulting piece is now called Road Show and it opened off-Broadway in November 2008, directed by John Doyle.

Sondheim has also done 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."
  • All Musicals Are Adaptations: Averted; he's worked on several shows with completely original stories and characters (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 plays like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The Frogs, Company and especially in the second act of Into the Woods.
  • Counterpoint Duet: BIG fan of this, puts 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. I’m 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
  • Lyrical Dissonance
  • Patter Song: Uses 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 vs. Cynicism: Very cynical in most cases
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: More often inverted than played straight. Often he'll complete the rhyme, but in a way you'd never guess. Or he'll 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 unapprecatively to his signature style.
    Krusty: Hmm, complex harmonies, intricate lyrics, pithy observations on modern life, what is this junk? Where’s the zazz? Just do what you did in Cats.
    Sondheim: I didn’t write Cats.


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