Born March 22nd, 1930, Stephen Sondheim seemed destined to become one of America’s most beloved figures in American theater. When he was only ten years old, he moved with his mother to the Pennsylvanian countryside. There, he became neighbors and friends with the family of Oscar Hammerstein II. In his teens, Sondheim began writing musicals. When he showed Hammerstein his work, the famed lyricist explained that it was awful – but he also told him why it was awful. An amazing mentorship began. Hammerstein provided him one-on-one instruction and advice and gave Sondheim difficult yet creative challenges which honed the young artist’s songwriting skills.
In 1956, Sondheim was chosen to write the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Soon after, he created the lyrics for the amazingly successful Gypsy. By the early 1960s, Stephen Sondheim was ready for his compositions to premiere on Broadway. Today, he is beloved among sophisticated audiences and performers alike.
Here is a list of my favorite musicals by Stephen Sondheim:
#1) Into the Woods
I had the pleasure of watching the original Broadway production when I was 16 years old. At the time, I absolutely loved the first act, which plays like a wonderfully crafted and complex fairy tale comedy, ideal for the entire family. During the second half, however, I was quite disturbed by all the chaos and death. The story became too much like real life. And, of course, that’s the point of the show, a transition from fantasy to reality, or from adolescence to adulthood. Gradually, after listening to the soundtrack, and growing a bit older myself, I have come to love and appreciate both acts of this fun and fascinating musical.
#2) Sweeney Todd
It’s difficult to find a more violent musical than Sweeney Todd. And it’s difficult to find a more haunting melody than Sondheim’s “Johanna Reprise,” a hypnotic song that mixes beauty, longing, and murder. This is the story of a demented barber who seeks revenge, but goes way too far, driven mad in his lust for bloodshed. (It’s one thing to reap vengeance; it’s another thing to stuff people into meat pies.) Despite the carnage and cannibalism, there is a dark, infectious humor throughout Sweeney Todd, elevating this dreary story to genius.
#3) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
If you’re looking for a show that has a simple, laugh-out-loud happy ending, then Stephen Sondheim’s first success as composer/lyricist is the musical for you. During the show’s test run in Washington, D.C., Forum received negative reviews and apathetic reactions from the audience. Fortunately, director and self-proclaimed “play doctor” George Abbott suggested that they scrap the opening song, “Love Is in the Air.” Sondheim agreed and created the bouncy, hilarious number, “Comedy Tonight.” The new opening number energized Broadway audiences, eliciting laughter (and long lines at the box office).
#4) Sunday in the Park with George
Filled with beautiful songs and exquisite sets, Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George was inspired by the artwork of Georges Seurat, in particular his painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” I love stories that examine the lives of artistic geniuses – even if their history is fictionalized a great deal, as is the case with Sunday in the Park with George. The first act focuses on Seurat’s passions: his art and his mistress. The second act transitions to the 1980s, showing the struggles of a modern artist, George (the fictional grandson of Seaurat).
Whenever I’m working on a creative project that takes a lot of concentration, I inevitably start to sing “Putting It Together,” one of my favorite Sondheim tunes, and an insightful commentary on the artistic process.
For me, this is the most “Sondheimish” of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals. The lyrics are funny, complicated, and emotional. Each song is like a cathartic experience for the characters. The basic premise: It’s Robert’s 35th birthday. He is still unmarried, and tonight all of his married friends will be throwing him a party. In the process, Robert analyzes his life and the relationships of his friends. It ran for 705 performances on Broadway, and earned six Tony Awards.
So, why do I have it as my 5th favorite Sondheim musical? Perhaps it’s simply a personal thing. When I was a kid, listening to show-tunes such West Side Story and Sound of Music, I was vaguely familiar with Company. I liked the songs, but I could not connect with the characters. I assumed that when I became an adult that things would change, that I would eventually like to drink coffee, discuss real estate, and behave like the characters in Company. None of those things happened. Despite my own short comings, I still enjoy the songs and the non-linear storytelling style of Company.
Of course, there are many other great Sondheim works that didn’t make my personal list. Musicals such as Follies and Assassins never struck a chord with me. Tony Award winning Passion almost made my list, but because I’ve watched the video and not a live production, perhaps I wasn’t as entranced by the show as others have been. And what about Merrily We Roll Along? Although it flopped on Broadway, some would argue that it features Sondheim’s most heartfelt songs.
Share your thoughts about Stephen Sondheim’s musicals in our Plays / Drama Forum.