Stephen Sondheim: the composer's best musicals

We name the best musical theatre productions created by Stephen Sondheim, either as a composer or lyricist

Published: November 26, 2021 at 11:53 pm
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Stephen Sondheim changed the face of musical theatre across the world, thanks to his iconic scores, lyrics and unique collaborations with other leading composers. His unequivocal command of humour and language made for some of the best loved turns of phrase ever performed on stage, and across his 60-year career he helped transform theatre and push the boundaries of what was possible.

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What are the best musicals by Stephen Sondheim?

Company

The 1970 musical comedy Company pivots around the character of Robert, a single man unable to commit to a relationship. He is surrounded by married couples, friends and ex-girlfriends, whose lives, relationships and complications we follow throughout the course of the musical. They are all brought together by Robert's 35th birthday. Initially written as a play, Sondheim was brought in to build a musical.

If you're not familiar with the musical itself, you might recognise the manic song 'Getting Married Today', in which the character of Amy sings 69 words in 11 seconds. It's a challenge for any performer – and an absolute riot for audience members.

West Side Story

Sondheim's collaboration with Leonard Bernstein when he was just 27 not only helped launch his career, but has remained some of his best loved work. As a lyricist on West Side Story, he created iconic songs such as 'Tonight', 'Somewhere' and 'America'. He might have come to personally regret the lyric 'It's alarming how charming I feel' in Maria's song 'I Feel Pretty', but it's safe to say we all forgive him.

As well as an Academy Award-winning 1961 film adaptation, West Side Story is about to be reincarnated again – this time in a Hollywood blockbuster directed by Steven Spielberg. Sondheim was involved with the recording process of this new adaptation of West Side Story. He joined the music supervisors in the vocal booth during filming. ‘Stephen Sondheim is a genius – a word I use very rarely,’ says Tony Kushner, the playwright who has written for the screenplay for this new West Side Story adaptation for the big screen.

Into the Woods

Into the Woods is based around several Brothers Grimm fairy tales, all of which have been knotted around one another to great narrative effect. Protagonists include Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (and the Beanstalk), Rapunzel and Cinderella. The finely crafted music and lyrics are as witty and tightly packed as the plot, with musical motifs returning time and time again.

As well as numerous West End and Broadway revivals, Into the Woods received a film adaptation in 2014, starring Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and James Corden.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A character made popular in the 'penny dreadfuls' of the Victorian era, Sweeney Todd is a murderous barber. In Sondheim's musical adaptation, Todd lives above a pie shop owned by one Mrs Lovett, with whom he schemes mercilessly. It's received Broadway and West End runs, concert productions with the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, and a production by the English National Opera.

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Like all good Sondheim musicals, Sweeney Todd has received a hit film adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the roles of Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett.

Authors

Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.

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