Stephen Sondheim: Guide to his 18 shows
Stephen Sondheim is an American composer and lyricist that has been active in musical theatre since 1954. With a catalogue including West Side Story, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd, Sondheim was once named one of the greatest lyricists ever by Cameron Mackintosh.
During his career, Sondheim has won 39 awards across ceremonies including the Tony Awards, the Grammy Awards and even gained entry to the American Academy of Arts and Letter. In 2014, he became a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame, joining lyricists Tim Rice and Stephen Flaherty. In 2015, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
All works that Sondheim has been involved in can be found and listened to below.
Saturday Night (1954)
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. 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)
The musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story’s lyrics have become some of the most well-known in musical theatre. Featuring songs such as “I Feel Pretty”, “Somewhere” and “America”, the musical follows the love story between Tony and Maria, who belong to different groups in New York City. Their relationship brings the Sharks and Jets to loggerheads in a dance-packed extravaganza.
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”, the musical recently enjoyed a 2015 revival at the Savoy Theatre starring Imelda Staunton as pushy mother Rose, who picked up the Olivier award for best actress.
One of the iconic motherly roles in theatre, read all about Mama Rose and even more incredible mums in West End productions.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962)
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! When the show premiered in London, Frankie Howerd played the lead role.
Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
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)
After the death of long-time collaborator Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers enlisted the help of Sondheim to write the lyrics for Do I Hear a Waltz? Following Leona Samish on her first trip to Venice, the story tells of her blossoming relationship to Renato di Rossi and how she matures in her Italian surroundings. It’s not easy for her, but going to Italy changes Leona for the better.
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 surrounded by married or engaged couples who cannot hold down a steady relationship. Whilst the couples envy his commitment-free lifestyle, his desire to meet someone for a loving companion grows.
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)
Set in Sweden in 1900, A Little Night Music centres around Desirée Armfeldt, a beautiful actress with adoring men around her. With the potential for romance to blossom around her, there’s also plenty of jealousy, feuding and inevitable heartbreak. Featuring the Sondheim classic “Send in the Clowns”, the musical, Sondheim won best book for the musical at the 1973 Tony Awards. Catherine Zeta-Jones also starred in the 2009 Broadway revival.
The Frogs (1974)
Adapted from an Ancient Greek comedy, The Frogs was first performed 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 themselves pitted against William Shakespeare. Although wacky, the show calls on audiences to take action for what they believe in.
Pacific Overtures (1976)
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. Mixing imperialist stories with American culture, Pacific Overtures is a male-heavy production, with women only featuring in the last song.
Sweeney Todd (1979)
The infamous demon barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd’s story is best told in this Sondheim classic. Murdering those who grace his chair, the musical is full of pies that aren’t what they initially seem and plenty of killing! The jury is still out as to whether Sweeney Todd really existed, but one thing’s for sure, productions of Sweeney Todd continue to scare audiences today!
Merrily We Roll Along (1981)
Franklin Shepard’s tale as a successful composer is told in reverse chronology in Merrily We Roll Along. Starting at the top of his career, the musical looks at the price of fame, fortune and friendship as Shepard’s life isn’t as wonderful as it is initially presented.
Sunday in the Park with George (1984)
Using the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by George Seurat as the muse, Sondheim fictionalises painter George Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George. With 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. Sunday in the Park with George was notably performed in 2017, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford.
Into the Woods (1987)
One of the most famous Sondheim works, Into the Woods combines stories of fairytale classics including Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk into a musical that’s bewitchingly good. 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”, Into the Woods was adapted for film in 2014, starring James Corden and Meryl Streep.
Focusing on those who attempt to assassinate presidents of the United States, Assassins takes on the American President and shoots the American Dream in the forehead. Chanting their motto “everybody’s got the right to be happy”, it is a musical that dramatises political stories across decades from the assassinator’s point of view, culminating in the death of John F. Kennedy.
In a one-act musical that Sondheim won best book for at the 1994 Tony Awards, Passion centres on manipulating relationships. Inspired by 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.
Bounce later retitled Road Show is a musical set in America from the gold rush to the housing boom throughout the 20th century. The plot follows two brothers Addison and Wilson as they make financial gains while heading east. Even though they strike while the iron’s hot, the chase to own more isn’t always done legally and they’re left in a financial pickle with their fraudulent business.
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