Stephen Sondheim, 91. “Two of the hardest words in the language to rhyme are life and love.”

Stephen Sondheim, the central figure in contemporary American musical theater.,has died at age 91. His works include: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Into the Woods” and “Passion.”

obituary in New York Times

obituary in Washington Post

“Thanks for everything we did
Everything that’s past
Everything’s that’s over
Too fast.
None of it was wasted.
All of it will last:
Everything that’s here and now and us together!” — from Anyone Can Whistle

(Tweeted hours before the news of his death):

Stephen Sondheim’s Musicals

Girls of Summer (1956) Sondheim composed the title song in this straight play by N. Richard Nash.

Saturday Night (1954, produced 1997): Book by Julius and Philip Epstein
Set in Brooklyn, Saturday Night tells the story of middle-class bachelor friends who want a life that’s more than working in Brooklyn. But, as they learn quickly, trying to get rich quick isn’t easy. Stephen Sondheim’s first musical was expected to open in 1954. However, due to the lead producer’s death, it was not produced and was first performed in 1997 in a student production in London.

West Side Story (1957): Music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents, directed by Jerome Robbins. Sondheim is the lyricist.
The musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story’s lyrics have become some of the most well-known in musical theater. Featuring songs such as “I Feel Pretty”, “Somewhere” and “America”, the musical follows the love story between Tony and Maria, who are associated with rival gangs — he, the Jets, ethnically ambiguous but basically white; she, the Sharks, made up of young people who migrated from Puerto Rico.

Gypsy (1959): Music by Jule Styne, book by Arthur Laurents, directed by Jerome Robbins. Sondheim is the lyricist.
Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy focuses on Rose who raises two daughters for a career in showbusiness. With a soundtrack including “Rose’s Turn” and “Everything’s Coming up Roses”,

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962): Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, directed by George Abbott
Created with inspiration from the ancient Romans, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum bases its characters name from the Latin derivatives. Packed with puns and comedic elements, the story tells of Pseudolus, a Roman slave who wants to gain freedom by helping his slave owner get the girl he wants. Dealing with Roman senators and typical Roman soldiers, he eventually gets his freedom and everyone gets a happy ending!

Anyone Can Whistle (1964): Book and direction by Arthur Laurents
Starting Angela Lansbury’s theatre career, Anyone Can Whistle is a three-act musical set in an imaginary American town that has gone bankrupt. The town’s money is in the hands of mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper. With officials and townspeople trying to save the town, everything gets better once the mayor whistles.

Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965): Music by Richard Rodgers, book by Arthur Laurents. Sondheim is the lyricist.
After the death of long-time collaborator Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodger senlisted the help of Hammerstein’s protégée Stephen Sondheim to write the lyrics for Do I Hear a Waltz?   Leona Samish takers her first trip to Venice, where she becomes involved in a blossoming relationship with Renato di Rossi, maturing in her Italian surroundings. Sondheim said that working with Rodgers was one of the most miserable experiences of his career.

Company (1970): Book by George Furth
Sondheim received the Tony Award for best lyrics in 1971 for his work on Company. The story follows Robert, a single man in New York, friends with married couples, who cannot hold down a steady relationship. The couples envy his freedom, but he starts to have second thoughts.  

Follies (1971): Book by James Goldman
With Sondheim’s music and lyrics, Follies tells the story of Buddy and Sally Durant Plummer and Benjamin and Phyllis Rogers Stone, two couples who reminisce over the ‘Weismann’s Follies’ at a reunion. Standing in a crumbling theatre, audiences follow the couple’s younger days into the present. With a score including “Losing My Mind” and “Broadway Baby”, Follies is a poignant musical reflecting on past Broadway eras.

A Little Night Music (1973): Book by Hugh Wheeler
Set in Sweden in 1900, A Little Night Music centers around Desirée Armfeldt, a beautiful actress with adoring men around her. With the potential for romance to blossom, there’s also plenty of jealousy, feuding and inevitable heartbreak. Featuring the Stephen Sondheim classic “Send in the Clowns.”, the musical won best book for the musical at the 1973 Tony Awards. 

The Frogs (1974): Book by Burt Shevelove (2004 version book by Nathan Lane)
Adapted from an Ancient Greek comedy, The Frogs was first performed in the swimming pool at Yale University in 1974 before it was first performed on Broadway in 2004. With Greek philosopher Dionysus attempting to bring back George Bernard Shaw, Shaw then finds himself pitted against William Shakespeare.

Pacific Overtures (1976): Book by John Weidman
Dramatising Japan becoming a Western country in the late 19th century, elements of Japanese theatre are fused with the Broadway style. This production was the first time Sondheim worked with director Hal Prince. The story tells the unlikely friendship between the samurai, Kayama, and the Americanised fisherman, Manjiro.

Sweeney Todd (1979): Book by Hugh Wheeler
The demon barber of Fleet Street murders those who grace his chair and gives them to Mrs. Lovett to turn into pies. 

Merrily We Roll Along (1981): Book by George Furth
Franklin Shepard’s tale as a successful composer is told in reverse chronology along with the three friends with him he started, suggesting there’s a heavy price of fame, fortune.

Sunday in the Park with George (1984): Book and direction by James Lapine
Using the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by George Seurat as the muse, Stephen Sondheim fictionalises painter George Seurat in Sunday in the Park with GeorgeWith a blank canvas to work with, the story makes it clear that George enjoys working with paint to create a life that he wishes he could live in, rather than face the world around him. It’s the only one of Sondheim’s musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Into the Woods (1987): Book and direction by James Lapine
The musical combines stories of fairytale classics including Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk into a musical. Set over the course of three days, the plot follows a baker and his wife in their wish to have children, but with a witch deciding their fate, going deeper into the woods isn’t always a happy adventure. With songs including “On the Steps of the Palace” and “No One is Alone”, 

Assassins (1990): Book by John Weidman
It portrays nine of the 13 people who tried to assassinate presidents of the United States (four of them successfully), from John Wilkes Booth (Abraham Lincoln) to Lee Harvey Oswald (John F. Kenny)

Passion (1994): Book and direction by James Lapine
 Inspired by the 1981 film Passion of Love, the musical starts with Giorgio and Clara in a happy relationship until Giorgio is sent to a military outpost. Questioning their relationship, Giorgio fears his life will never go back to how it was.

Road Show (2008): Book by John Weidman (formerly titled Bounce, Wise Guys, and Gold!)
The musical is inspired by the true-life adventures of two brothers Addison Mizner and  Wilson Mizner from the beginning of the twentieth century during the Klondike gold rush to the Florida real estate boom of the 1920s

Work in progress with David Ives, which was initially entitled Buñuel then Square One, which Sondheim in September, 2021 said had already had a workshop, and “with any luck, we’ll get it on next season.”


The videos are in roughly chronological order by the date of the show in which the song debuted

from the movie version of A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to the Forum, the first Broadway musical for which Sondheim composed the music

from Company:.

Here’s Sondheim rehearsing “Getting Married Today” from Company with the original singer, Beth Howland

from Follies

from A Little Night Music

from Sweeney Todd

from Into the Woods

1993 Kennedy Center Honors

from Company

My Twitter pals favorite Sondheim lyrics:

“Loving You” from Passion:
Loving you is not a choice,
It’s who I am.
Loving you is not a choice
And not much reason to rejoice,
But it gives me purpose
Gives me voice to say to the world:
This is why I live
You are why I live.

“I’m Still Here” from Company:

Good times and bum times
I’ve seen ’em all and, my dear
I’m still here
Flush velvet sometimes
Sometimes just pretzels and beer
But I’m here

I’ve run the gamut, A to Z
Three cheers and dammit, c’est la vie
I got through all of last year
And I’m here
Lord knows, at least I’ve been there
And I’m here
Look who’s here
I’m still here

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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