Credit: The Irish Times

A toast to Sondheim and his contribution to musical theatre

By Micaela Levesque

In light of his recent passing, Micaela reflects on the prolific career of musical genius Stephen Sondheim.

It’s impossible to look back at the state of theatre in 2021 without honoring the passing of Stephen Sondheim. Discussing modern musical theatre in general is impossible to do without acknowledging the impact of Sondheim’s work. Mentored by musical theatre legend Oscar Hammerstein (of Roger and Hammerstein fame), Sondheim went on to be an innovator of the musical theatre genre. He broke convention by writing musicals about oftentimes mundane members of society and changed the form with concept musicals such as Company and Assassins. His emotionally complex characters and equally complex vocal lines have made his characters dream roles for many theatre performers. 

During his life, Sondheim wrote nearly 20 full length musicals many of which have become household titles. Along with his composing work, Sondheim was a lyricist for the classic musicals Gypsy and West Side Story. Whether through the Tim Burton adaptation of Sweeney Todd or through Meryll Streeps’ rendition of the Witches Song from Into the Woods, even the most theatre averse members of society have likely heard his work in some capacity.

If you’ve never consciously been aware that you’re listening to Stephen Sondheim, now is a great time to go back and give him a listen. In 30 years, you’ll be able to tell the kids of the musical theatre scene that you were alive at the same time as the legendary Sondheim. It’ll be a flex, I promise. 

To get you started, check out our  top three songs to properly acquaint yourself with Stephen Sondheim: 

1. Prelude: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd from Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street (In concert with The New York Philharmonic) 

We should start at the beginning. Or at least, a beginning. This number opens one of Sondheim’s most culturally well known plays. You’ve likely heard of the comedic horror from it’s Tim Burton adaptation starring Johnny Depp. This version is from a performance that was marketed as a staged reading (where the actors read from scripts in front of the orchestra) but the cast surprises the audience by turning it into a fully produced musical with choreography, costumes, and a set. It captures some of the surprise and magic that comes with seeing Sondheim performed live. The power! The unsettling pauses! And the surprise! (Which was a genuine shock to the live audience). It’s everything that’s wonderful about seeing Sondheim live. Just trust me. 

2. Your Fault from Into the Woods 

Stephen Sondheim was king of the patter song. A patter song is a type of piece that was common in operettas (particularly the comedic operettas of Gilbert and

Sullivan) that is characterized by a rapid pace and chattering lyrics. The looping words often come with a character experiencing similarly swirling emotions. See if you can hear the patter of this piece from the fairytale inspired musical Into the Woods… and stumble over your words once it’s stuck in your head…

3. Being Alive from Company 

Company follows Bobby, a single man on his 30th birthday. Upon recognising that all of his friends are now happily married, Bobby reevaluates his relationship with love and sex, culminating in this number. After years of choosing to be alone, Bobby must make the decision to accept being loved and being known. Or, as Sondheim describes it, Being Alive. It’s an amazing example of the emotionally complex topics that Sondheim is able to explore with lyrical ease.From here, you should be ready to take a deep dive into the rest of Sondheim’s work. Or, if these weren’t your cup of tea you can take a leap forward and appreciate the work of Sondheim’s proteges. Give Rent a listen and hear Sondheim’s influence in the cadence and lyrics of Jonathan Larson or watch Tick, Tick… Boom! on Netflix to catch Lin Manuel Miranda’s direction of Larson’s life (with a cameo from Sondheim himself). Regardless of how you go forward, listening to musical theatre will never be the same without the musical talents of Stephen Sondheim.


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Owen Lock

RoDgers and Hammerstein!