Stephen Sondheim, an icon in the world of musical theater has died. He was 91.
American composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim is one of the most influential figures in American musical theater. He wrote the lyrics and music for many Broadway classics including “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “Company,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Sweeney Todd.”
He was born on March 22nd 1930 to a school teacher father who had also written Broadway shows himself under the name George S. Kaufman. Growing up he showed an early aptitude for music and would go on to write over 25 musicals himself with lyrics or music or both until his death at 91 years old.
Stephen Sondheim, an American composer and lyricist, has died at age 91. His best known works include West Side Story, Into the Woods, and Company.
Making a list of Stephen Sondheim songs you’ll never stop playing on the day of his death is asking for a debate, and I’m up for it.
I invite you to read every obituary and morsel of historical information about Sondheim, who died at the age of 91. I can only say that there is Sondheim music in my thoughts nearly constantly, on some level; it takes practically little to wake it up and have it tripping over my lips while I clean the dishes or drive my vehicle.
I wasn’t a big fan of Sweeney Todd since it terrified me. I was a firm believer in the Company. When I was babysitting in high school, I watched a VHS recording of Into The Woods, and I’ve never forgotten how much I enjoyed it. Follies was introduced to me by a great friend. After a professional setback, I emailed another acquaintance a clip from Sunday In The Park With George.
I encourage you to listen to mine, but also to adore yours, regardless of how you first heard them.
10 Stephen Sondheim Songs that Will Never Stop Being Great
1-Into The Woods’ “Ever After”
The magic of Into The Woods is that the first act is like a traditional fairy tale with happy endings, but the second act confuses them all: individuals become unfaithful, die, and cease loving one other in the same manner.
“Ever After” serves as a link between both parts, appearing at the close of the first act and seeming to be a type of ending if you don’t pay attention.
“Journey finished, everything is fixed, and it’s not just for today/but tomorrow and extended, ever after,” it says explicitly.
Regrettably, you begin to suspect that something is wrong.
But it’s partially because Sondheim had a knack of composing these incredibly diabolical, almost thrown-off tunes that I refer to as Bernadettes — as in, “I’m quite sure only Bernadette Peters can sing that precisely properly.”
And “Ever After” has a lot of them, with whimsical rhyming that reminded me of Hamilton when I first watched it.
“I had everything but beauty,” the witch sings, “I had power, and a daughter like a flower on a tower.”
2-West Side Story’s “Jet Song”
He simply composed the lyrics, I understand. The music was composed by Leonard Bernstein. And I know he’s expressed dissatisfaction with the lyrics on occasion. But, long before I was ready for the emotional notes of Company or the second act of Into The Woods, I spent hours upon hours at home listening to the cast recording of West Side Story.
I was apparently unprepared as a little kid for the themes of bitterness and closeness that abound in his other writings, but murder, on the other hand, I could handle just well. I’ll always give the cast recordings I listened to as a youngster, long before I understood anything about composers, credit for my love of musical theatre in general — this one, Annie, A Chorus Line (presumably those themes were also fine?). And, although I’ll never cease admiring the pathos and scope of some of them as an adult, this was child music for me.
3-“Finishing The Hat,” says the author.George’s Sunday in the Park
What better way to close than with Sondheim’s own song about creation’s power and cost?
songs by stephen sondheim
Finishing The Hat and Look, I Made A Hat were the titles of his two coffee-table volumes of songs.
There are some incredible movies of Sondheim coaching young musicians that appeared on television many years ago, and watching how he would correct a breath or the tiniest point of pronunciation — softly, sweetly, but firmly — demonstrates how serious he was about what he created.
“Finishing the Hat” has some of George’s signature gestures, notably the small bauble that repeats when he sings “window.”
But, more than anything, I see this song as the product of a writer who was forceful and exacting, and who regarded creative as a completely engrossing experience, whether it was creating a song, a picture, or a hat.
4-Company’s “Getting Married Today”
I’m not sure why, but Ari Shapiro dropped by my desk one day while I wasn’t there and left me a message when we were all still working in person at the NPR headquarters. I came up here to recite the words to “I’m Not Getting Married” from memory for you, and you chose to leave. What could possibly be more vital, I ask? – Guess (which also happens to be the final word in another Sondheim song). (Do you know which one?)
“Getting Married Today” is a song in which a lady expresses her extreme anxiety on the day of her wedding, constantly saying that she would not marry after all. (Before ultimately changing her mind.) It’s a song that doubles as a sports event, since the assault of rapid-fire words earns you bragging rights, as this note says. But, lest you think it’s all nonsense, consider Beth Howland’s performance in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary, when she rips through it like a champ. Album by the Original Cast: “I don’t want to offend you,” Sondheim tells her, “but I’d love to have the music.” a stephen sondheim evening
5-Company’s “Being Alive”
Many Sondheim fans identify as Sweeney Todd, Sunday, or Follies aficionados.
I am, above all else, a Company guy.
Bobby’s narrative closes with this climactic acknowledgment that what is terrible about intimacy is also what is valuable about it. He is surrounded by couples and is profoundly suspicious about marriage.
“Someone who needs you too much/knows you too well/pulls you up short/makes you go through hell.”
Unlike many Sondheim songs, which swirl and shift, this song primarily repeats and grows as Bobby is spurred on by his buddies.
Along the way, it drops gems like “someone to suffocate you with love.”
What about that bridge, huh?
“Confuse me with praise, ridicule me with praise, use me, change my days”?
It’s a very powerful mix of a huge, massive musical moment with a seemingly simple phrase like “vari my days.”
6-A Little Night Music’s “Send In The Clowns”
On this hill, I shall die: Few songs have received such a shabby treatment as “Send In The Clowns.” People used to assume it was a goofy easy-listening track since it was a pop smash for Judy Collins and had “clowns” in the title, but it’s really — like so much of Sondheim — quietly, hauntingly heartbreaking. Seek for one of Dame Judi Dench’s performances, which bring out the anguish in this narrative of two individuals who think they have wasted their chance. The clowns are all about silliness and folly, and the visuals are consistently devastating: “Finally, I’m on the ground/you’re in mid-air.”
7-“Could I Leave You?,” Follies
When Ari’s remark said that “guess” is the final line of another Sondheim song, he was referring to “Could I Leave You?” up at #1.
If you want your musicals… well, angry, both in terms of passion and, at times, frenzied energy, Follies is a fantastic choice.
This song gives a lady the opportunity to finally tell her husband how much she despises him, but possibly because Follies is so much about the stage, it starts out as a much more traditional love ballad, thematically evocative of “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot.
Let’s just say it doesn’t conclude on the same emotional note.
8-“Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You?,” Company
As I previously said, I adore Company. And one of the things I love about it is that, although Bobby seems to appreciate the worth of marriage through the eyes of his friends in the end, his friends do not spare their “extra” unmarried buddy.
Bobby sings this very cheery “ports in a storm/comfy and cosy” business about how close they all are, and then they join in and sing about how much they love him, and soon we arrive at: “Who is a flirt, but never a threat/Reminds us of our birthdays which we always forget?” Sondheim always hides a knife in a cupcake, so of course you get Bobby singing this very cheery “ports in a storm/comfy and cosy Bobby is complimented for helping with dishes, never grumbling, listening to others gripe, and keeping their secrets hidden from one other – his pals are drawing inspiration from his singleness, even as they stress about it and strive to alter him.
9-“No One Is Alone,” Into The Woods
This unassuming title belongs to a song on the reality that we are seldom as solitary as we feel, as the title suggests. However, since Sondheim is Sondheim, it emerges at a time of tremendous sadness, and it casts this reality as both solace and warning. It means that you will not be alone since others will be there to adore you. It also suggests that you are not alone, therefore be aware of the implications of your actions. “If you move a finger or even the tiniest phrase, something will linger — be heard.”
I am not alone
I am not alone
Sometimes I feel like no one understands me
There’s too many voices in my head and I can’t find peace
I’m stumbling and I’m crawling and feeling like nobody cares about me
But I know that we’re all here trying with our flaws and we all live with different fears
I am not alone
We all need strength to carry on, to make it through the days and nights
We’re looking for someone to call our own, someone who will be there when we need them most with certainty and faith
I know sometimes it feels like no one is there for you and that’s sad and that’s tough and that’s really rough
But you’re not alone, we’re all in this together, we’re all here loving you, we’re all here here for
10-“Move On,” Sunday In The Park With George
A lady comes to a disappointed artist and encourages him to keep working on his paintings. It would be all too easy for this song to devolve into a motivational lecture, but one of Sondheim’s many strengths was his knowledge of creation itself, which is why he makes such a charming character in the recently released Tick Tick… Boom.
George doesn’t only need encouragement; he also needs to be reminded that striving to create beauty is risky, but that an artist perseveres anyway. It speaks specifically to creative insecurity: “Stop worrying if your vision is new/let others make that decision, they usually do.” A soaring duet that originally brought together Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, two Sondheim muses, it speaks with specificity to creative insecurity: “Stop worrying if your vision is new/let others make that decision, they usually do.”