You can't talk about the great composers, lyricists, and playwrights of musical theatre history without mentioning Stephen Sondheim. On November 26, the legendary musician passed away at 91 years old, sparking an outpouring of memories and tributes from the Broadway community. On Sunday (November 29), several Broadway stars even gathered in Times Square to sing "Sunday" from Sondheim's show Sunday In the Park With George. It's clear he was very loved, and will be greatly missed.
Even if you have little interest in musical theatre, it's likely you've heard one of Sondheim's great songs at one point or another. While so many golden age musicals are light, bubbly, and classy, Sondheim is credited with "reinventing the American Musical" by introducing unexpected and darker themes into his compositions. His instrumental arrangements are known for their wonderful richness - as well as how often they twist and turn. There's a reason why musical theatre actors are told never to use Sondheim songs in auditions unless specifically asked: they can be challenging even for expert piano accompanists to play.
Sondheim's many accolades include eight Tony Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2008), an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Laurence Olivier Award, and a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. After 91 years, he's left quite a legacy in American theatre, as well as pop culture history.
In honor of the legend, we're paying our respects to Stephen Sondheim with a top 10 list of his greatest musicals. For this list, we're including any show where Sondheim got credit - even if he was just a lyricist and not a composer. Without further ado, let's raise the curtain on our countdown!
Follies premiered on Broadway in 1971. All of the music and lyrics were composed by Sondheim while James Goldman handled the book. This musical tells the story of a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre that's scheduled for demolition. The past performers of the "Weismann's Follies," a musical revue (based on the Ziegfeld Follies), reunite and the musical dives into two couples' unhappy marriages while showing off some fantastic dance numbers by former showgirls.
While Follies is a not-so-mainstream work by Sondheim, it is known for its 11 Tony nominations and 7 wins. The original production was the second-most costly performed on Broadway to that date and ran for over 500 performances. The musical has had a number of major revivals, and several of its songs have become standards, including "Broadway Baby," "I'm Still Here," "Too Many Mornings," "Could I Leave You?", and "Losing My Mind."
9. A Little Night Music
This dreamy musical is inspired by the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night and involves the romantic lives of several couples. The title is actually an English translation of the German name for Mozart's Serenade No. 13, K. 525 (Eine kleine Nachtmusik). The musical includes the popular song "Send In the Clowns," which Frank Sinatra would later make famous with his beloved rendition.
Since its original 1973 Broadway production, A Little Night Music has enjoyed professional productions in the West End, by opera companies, in a 2009 Broadway revival, and regional groups across the world. It was adapted for film in 1977, with Harold Prince directing and Elizabeth Taylor, Len Cariou, Lesley-Anne Down, and Diana Rigg starring. It also won the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book.
8. Merrily We Roll Along
This show is basically the Memento of musical theatre, as it moves backwards in time to tell its story. Merrily We Roll Along tells the story of three friends and how their lives and friendship change over twenty years. It focuses primarily on Franklin Shepard, a once-talented composer of musicals who, over those twenty years, abandons his friends and songwriting career to become a producer of Hollywood movies. The musical begins in 1976 at the friends' lowest moment, and gradually moves back until 1957, at their youthful best.
The show premiered in 1981 to widely negative reviews after a chaotic string of preview performances. However, after extensive re-writes and great off-Broadway revivals, the show has been hailed as a classic in more recent years. Notable songs include the title number, "Old Friends," and "Now You Know."
In recent pop culture history, Merrily We Roll Along was heavily featured in Greta Gerwig's 2017 Oscar-nominated film Lady Bird. Additionally, Richard Linklater is currently filming a movie adaptation of the musical in real time over the course of the next 20 years.
This Sondheim show is his most "criminally" underrated work - pun intended! Some may think Assassins is a bit too high-concept for a Sondheim musical, but it has so much depth, historical truth, and commentary about the failures of American capitalism that it's a surprise the show isn't produced more today.
Premiering on Broadway in the 90s, Assassins uses the framing device of a sinister carnival atmosphere to portray a group of historical figures who attempted (successfully or not) to assassinate Presidents of the United States. The show doesn't take away from the group's wrongdoings, but it does attempt to give figures like John Wilkes Booth and Squeaky Fromme a little more empathy. The score is written to reflect both popular music of the various depicted eras and a broader standard of "patriotic" American music. Notable hits include "Everybody's Got the Right," "Another National Anthem," and "Unworthy of Your Love."
Given the controversial subject matter of the show, it's no surprise the original 73-show production received mixed reviews from critics. Assassins would become more favorable in 2004, when the show was revived on Broadway with Neil Patrick Harris as The Balladeer. That production received five Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.
Company is a 1970 musical comedy with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by George Furth. The story revolves around Robert (a single man unable to commit fully to a steady relationship), the five married couples who are his best friends, and his three girlfriends. Company is a concept musical composed of short vignettes, presented in no particular chronological order, linked by a celebration of Robert's 35th birthday.
This was the musical that really defined Sondheim, since many consider it among the first to deal with more adult themes. As Sondheim put it, "Broadway theater has been for many years supported by upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems. These people really want to escape that world when they go to the theatre, and then here we are with Company talking about how we're going to bring it right back in their faces."
His strategy worked, as Company was nominated for a record-setting 14 Tony Awards, and won 6. Company has enjoyed several revivals, and beloved numbers include the title song "Getting Married Today," "Ladies Who Lunch," and the classic tune "Being Alive." In recent film history, that last song was sung by Oscar-nominated actor Adam Driver in the critically-acclaimed Netflix film Marriage Story.
5. Sunday In the Park With George
Who knew you could make a successful musical about the painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte? Thanks to some great wordplay, composition, and James Lapine's playwriting talent, Sunday In the Park With George is hailed as one of Sondheim's best.
The musical revolves around George, a fictionalized version of pointilist painter George Seurat, who immerses himself deeply in painting his masterpiece. It also involves his great-grandson (also named George), a conflicted and cynical contemporary artist, and his longtime mistress, Dot.
The original Broadway production opened in 1984 and starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. The musical won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, two Tonys for design (and a nomination for Best Musical), numerous Drama Desk Awards, the 1991 Olivier Award for Best Musical, and the 2007 Olivier Award for Outstanding Musical Production. There's also been several revivals, including a 2005–06 U.K. production first presented at the Menier Chocolate Factory, its subsequent 2008 Broadway transfer, and a 2017 Broadway revival with Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford.
Everything comes up roses whenever this show is produced! Sondheim did not handle the score for Gypsy, but he did contribute the lyrics for this 1959 smash hit. It's his literary genius that makes tunes like "Let Me Entertain You," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," and "Rose's Turn" respected works in the overall catalogue of Broadway.
Gypsy is loosely based on the 1957 memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. It focuses on her charismatic mother, Rose, who attempts to raise two daughters who will perform onstage and - hopefully - become famous. Gypsy casts an affectionate eye on the hardships of show business life, and the character of Rose is now considered one of the best-written roles in musical theatre. It takes real divas - like Patti Lupone, Angela Lansbury, and Bette Midler - to play her well.
While the original production of Gypsy never took home any Tony Awards (it was nominated for 8), the show has received a multitude of revivals. It eventually received some love in 1989 with a Tony Award for Best Revival and in 2016 with an Olivier Award for Best Revival.
3. Into the Woods
Once upon a time, Sondheim teamed up with James Lapine to deliver this classic 1987 musical about several intertwining Brothers Grimm fairy tales. The result was three Tony Awards - Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason) - in a year dominated by Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera.
Into the Woods is beloved for its even mix of comedy and tragedy and mainly tells the tales of three protagonists: Cinderella, Jack (from Jack and the Beanstalk), and a childless baker with his wife. Along the way, other kooky characters come into the mix, such as Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and a cranky witch who's just mad someone stole her greens.
The musical has been revived several times, with a 1988 U.S. national tour, a 1990 West End production, a 1997 tenth anniversary concert, a 2002 Broadway revival, and a 2010 London revival. It was even produced within Central Park in 2012 as part of New York City's outdoor "Shakespeare in the Park" series.
In recent years, Into the Woods has been known for its Disney film adaptation, directed by Rob Marshall and released in 2014. It stars many big names such as Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, and Chris Pine, and grossed over $213 million worldwide. It also received three Academy Award and three Golden Globe nominations.
2. Sweeney Todd
If you're looking for a dark show perfect for Halloween that's not Nightmare Before Christmas, we recommend Sweeney Todd: the bloody and masterful Sondheim musical about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Based off the 1973 stage play of the same name, Sweeney Todd tells the tale of a cold barber who arrives in London looking for revenge against a judge, who falsely charged him to life in prison and eventually raped his wife. With the help of the zany-yet-motherly Mrs. Lovett, the two open a meat pie shop that, well...doesn't serve the kind of meat you think it would.
What makes Sweeney Todd so amazing is its courage in using dissonant harmonies within musical numbers, fantastic storytelling, and some jokey bits that help brighten the mood in the midst of penny dreadful themes. Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway in 1979 and in the West End in 1980. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical and Olivier Award for Best New Musical and has since had numerous great revivals, as well as a critically-acclaimed film adaptation directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp with Helena Bonham Carter.
Many people who aren't strictly into musical theater love this show, as evidenced by its appearances in pop culture. Who can forget that episode of The Office where Andy brought his production of the show into Dunder Mifflin, or when the cast of Hamilton created their own version of the opening number for the 30th annual Easter Bonnet competition?
1. West Side Story
It took three musical theater titans to create the behemoth that is West Side Story: composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents, and our beloved Sondheim, who contributed the lyrics.
While some may say West Side Story doesn't count as a Sondheim musical because it wasn't his alone, we believe the classic New York City tale about the Jets and Sharks wouldn't nearly have the same astounding legacy if it weren't for his lyrical genius. Who can forget those beautiful words, "Maria! I've just met a girl named Maria," or, "There's a place for us / somewhere a place for us / peace and quiet and open air / wait for us somewhere."
West Side Story is based off Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and is actually considered Sondheim's Broadway debut, since his first musical Saturday Night didn't make it to Theatre Row due to the death of its lead producer. For his first Broadway show, Sondheim did a damn good job: the original 1958 production of West Side Story was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and won two. It's also received numerous critically-acclaimed revivals and movie adaptations: including the Best Picture-winning 1961 film with Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer and an upcoming Stephen Spielberg adaptation.
While we're so sad to lose Sondheim, we know there's a place for him in musical theatre history, and we can't wait to re-watch his masterpiece on December 10!
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Article Image: Stephen Sondheim posing for a photo while smoking, taken around 1970. (RR Auctions [Available through Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.)