On Nov. 26, 2021, legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim passed away. The quintessential voice of the American musical, the 91–year–old writer had seemed like an impenetrable force. Nobody was prepared to lose one of theatre’s most revered figures, and he left Broadway devastated in his wake.
Credited with reinventing the American musical, Sondheim had a career that spanned nearly seven decades, winning eight Tony Awards, seven Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2015, Barack Obama named him a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contributions to theatre. Best known for his witty lyrics and challenging the conventions of the musical comedy, his repertoire includes American classics from West Side Story to Sweeney Todd to Into the Woods.
In tribute to one of Broadway’s most enduring voices, here are some of Sondheim’s finest works as a composer and lyricist.
West Side Story (1957)
Sondheim's ambitious Broadway debut, West Side Story, may just be his most–loved work. The musical sees a contemporary Romeo and Juliet struggle amid a turf war between two New York City gangs, the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Jets member Tony falls in love with the sister of the Sharks leader, Maria, and a poignant star–crossed lovers story ensues; however, withstanding its romanticism, it’s really a tragic story about society and class in New York City, handling the complexities of immigration and racism in the 1950s. Though Sondheim later expressed disappointment in his lyrics, the work’s audacious score offers a glimpse into the Sondheim today renowned for his clever wordplay. The witty “America” is a particular standout indicative of a legendary career to come.
Another product of young Sondheim, this gusty work is often hailed as one of the greatest American musicals of all time. It’s considered to be the pinnacle of the book musical, which emerged in the mid–20th century, integrating music, lyrics, and book into a cohesive narrative that evokes complex emotions. In Gypsy, two sisters, June and Louise, are pushed to perform by their overbearing stage mother, Rose, who lives vicariously through her daughters. With Jule Styne, Sondheim paints Rose as one of the most complex characters to ever take on the Broadway stage; she undeniably torments her daughters, but there’s a nuanced vulnerability to her character that allows you to sympathize with her. In fact, her show–stopping final number, “Rose’s Turn” is arguably the peak of the eleven o'clock number and an extraordinary early effort of the lyricist.
The first work of the legendary Prince–Sondheim partnership, Company sees Sondheim take his first swing at commercializing the concept musical, a genre that plays as more of a blunt character study than a coherent narrative. The composer and lyricist would become the face of the form, which, following Company (a work that was incredibly successful), he would continue to explore with works such as Follies. The musical follows Bobby, a perpetual bachelor, through a series of vignettes as he looks in on his friends’ romantic relationships, and the loose plotline is connected by his 35th birthday. Sondheim himself referred to the work as a show about “upper–middle–class people with upper–middle–class problems” and the musical would shoot his career to new heights and cement him as one of the rawest talents of his generation. "Another Hundred People" is generally regarded as one of his best songs.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979)
Sweeney Todd is Sondheim at his most experimental. The show, which is easily the composer's darkest, is a haunting mediation on a Victorian–era barber based on Christoper Bond’s 1973 Sweeney Todd; it sees the title character go on a vengeful killing spree after a judge ruins his life. The risky production may be Sondheim’s greatest accomplishment—the operatic thriller was met with widespread acclaim and is generally considered his most powerful work; its complex music and interwoven motifs offer a scalding commentary on the Industrial Revolution and dehumanization. Sondheim’s stunning score pays tribute to Bernard Herrmann, an American film composer in the 1950s, and almost every moment of the show is underlined by Sondheim’s genius—the vast majority of dialogue is sung.
Sunday in the Park with George (1984)
Sunday in the Park with George centers on a fictionalized Georges Seurat, a French pointillist painter and the artist behind A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which the audience sees him strive to complete. Sunday strikes as a particularly autobiographical work of the late composer as he muses on the artist as an observer versus the artist as a participant. It begs the question: What is the appropriate balance? Sondheim would later title his memoir “Finishing the Hat” after the song of the same name in Sunday. A poetic masterpiece, the musical would go on to win the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making it one of only ten musicals to do so to date. In Sunday, Sondheim writes that “there are only two worthwhile things to leave behind when you depart this world of ours: children and art” and he certainly built up an impressive repertoire—it certainly seems like “white, a blank page or canvas, [was] his favorite.”
Into the Woods (1987)
Perhaps Sondheim’s most accessible work, Into the Woods samples several Brothers Grimm fairy tales—Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood to name a few—as it explores the notion of a happily ever after (and what comes after). Each of these stories is bound together by a baker and his wife, who set out on a quest to reverse a curse on their family that has made them infertile. Sondheim’s witty lyrics and propensity for motifs are as ingenious as ever within the musical’s simple themes, which explore wishes and their consequences, as well as interpersonal relationships. One of his most commercially successful works, Into the Woods is as beloved as it should be—Sondheim’s ability to weave disparate characters together is impressive and the opening number is especially brilliant.
With a Company revival on Broadway and West Side Story remake hitting theaters this December, Sondheim is most certainly still at the forefront of the theatre world—his memorable work has been honored for decades. In fact, Sondheim’s legacy is best depicted by his own words. In Into the Woods’ “Children Will Listen” the musical theatre titan writes “Sometimes people leave you / Halfway through the wood / Do not let it grieve you / No one leaves for good.” Sondheim is a force that will not soon be forgotten; he lives on through his art and through the pure magnitude of what he has left behind.