Stephen Sondheim and the Re-Invention of the Modern Musical


I’d been hoping that by now someone would have done the wide-ranging and magisterial piece, after Stephen Sondheim’s death was announced at the weekend, locating him in the history of the theatre musical and explaining his impact. If they have, I haven’t seen it. So I’m going to try to piece some of it together from the articles that I have seen.


Sondheim was close to the Hammerstein family, and was to a large extent mentored by Oscar Hammerstein, after he became friends at school with Oscar’s son Jamie. So he was steeped in some of the great traditions of the American musical. Jay Nordlinger mused on this in The New Criterion:

When I was young, I read the memoirs of Pablo Casals: Joys and Sorrows. I’m going from memory, but I think he said something like this: “When I look at the fisherman kids, on the wharves of Barcelona—deprived of an education, made to work from early boyhood—I think, ‘Which of them is Mozart? Which is Beethoven? How much talent is going undetected and undeveloped?’”

“Hogwash,” I thought. “None of those fisherman kids is a Mozart or a Beethoven. Talent will out. The cream will rise to the top. You can’t suppress it, no matter what.”

I don’t know… What if Leopold Mozart had been a baker? Would Wolfi have been the best baker in all of Austria?

Sondheim said that if Jamie’s father had been a geologist, “I probably would have been a geologist too.”


Sondheim was probably his own fiercest critic. In his book, Finishing The Hat, published in 2010, he famously reflected on his disappointment with the lyric he wrote at the age of 25 for ‘I Feel Pretty’, in West Side Story. You’d imagine that most lyricists who’d come up with a lyric as memorable as ‘I Feel Pretty’ would keep quiet about their reservations, of course, but this is what he told CBS:

“What had happened was simply that it was my first show, I wanted to show off, I wanted to show that I could rhyme,” Sondheim said to us in an unaired portion of his 1988 profile.

“It’s alarming how charming I feel,” Sondheim remarked to correspondent Bill Whitaker in 2020. “Can you imagine a Puerto Rican girl who’s just arrived in the country and she’s singing it’s alarming how charming I feel?”


The song was dropped from the 2020 revival of West Side Story, which is a benefit of outliving your collaborators. Mind you, he also had reservations (also in Finishing the Hat) about the famous couplet in the Rodgers and Hart standard ‘My Funny Valentine’, “Your looks are laughable./ Unphotographable.”

His critique:

“Unless the object of the singer’s affection is a vampire,” he said, “surely what Hart means is ‘unphotogenic.’ Only vampires are unphotographable, but affectionate ‘-enic’ rhymes are hard to come by.”


He spent his life in musical theatre, and he was also a fan, encouraging others (like Jonathan Larson, who died at 35 before his musical Rent opened). At the Washington Post Alexandra Petri reflected on Sondheim and the song:

“A song exists in time,”… A song is delivered in time, and it has only as long as it lasts to tell you what it is trying to say, whether you hear it or not. It can’t be too clever, and it can’t be too dull. It has to land on your ear as a surprise. If it contains jokes, they have to rhyme. (If it contains rhymes, words that are spelled differently are funnier, Sondheim thought, than words that are spelled the same.) And it doesn’t hurt if it’s hummable. The song has to take the character singing it somewhere. It has to be essential to the show. “If you can take the song out,” Sondheim said, “and it doesn’t leave a hole, then the song’s not necessary.”

There’s a note on a blog post at the LRB saying that Sondheim once turned up at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond to watch a show written by one of their members. He just seemed to love theatre, which is one of the reasons he kept writing right up until his death.

Hits and misses

Sondheim was human—he was discouraged by his failure with Anyone Can Whistle, after three early successes. But instead, he left Broadway to work in the more left-field off-Broadway theatres. By his late 70s, he was able to be phlegmatic about this in a conversation with the New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich.

It wasn’t about being ‘ahead of the audience’, he said, it was more than it takes audiences time to get used to a style or an approach or a subject matter. But the fact is that a lot of his musicals closed early and lost money. Even the stage version of West Side Story, remembered as a hit, made money—on Sondheim’s account—only because the cast was so young they were on minimum rates.

As theatre director Jim Petosa told Chris Slattery at Everything Sondheim.

“When his work was fresh and new it would often be ahead of the audience’s ability to take it in,” said Petosa, who recalls watching a preview of Sweeney Todd at the Uris Theatre where “easily 50% of the audience bailed” at intermission in clear discomfort.… “People come to Sondheim and develop an appreciation for him over time,” he observed. “I think sometimes the first taste can be acidic, in a form that had grown up giving people a sense of comfort.”

Cultural moments

When Obama awarded Sondheim the Presidential Medal, he summarised his body of work like this:

“As a composer and a lyricist, and a genre unto himself, Sondheim challenges his audiences,” Obama said. “His greatest hits aren’t tunes you can hum; they’re reflections on roads we didn’t take, and wishes gone wrong, relationships so frayed and fractured there’s nothing left to do but send in the clowns.

Although his career stretches back to the 1950s, his work becomes darker and more complex in the 1970s, broadly from his work with Hal Prince, starting with Company in 1970. Historically—taking a broad brush view—the musical had generally been light, even optimistic, often escapist. This shift didn’t come from nowhere, however; it was prefigured by West Side Story, with its big public ideas, Bernstein’s rich jazz-inflected score, and its lack of a happy ending.

By the time we get to the 70s, the mood has changed. Society has become darker, and social relationships had become more complex. Both of these changes are reflected in the kind of work that Sondheim brough to his musicals. One piece, by Narelle Yeo in The Conversation, noted that he was expert at portraying complex women. Yeo points to the character of Mrs Lovett, Sweeney Todd’s business partner and accomplice, for example, and ‘I’m Still Here’, from Follies, which can be thought of a song about the challenges of staying in theatre as an older woman actor.

Creating the audience

It’s not just the subject matter, though. The music is also more complicated. The audience has to work a bit harder. But by the 1970s, the explosion of recorded music meant that audiences were also more musically literate. Robert McLaughlin talks about this in his book on Sondheim:

Stephen Sondheim, more than any other composer, lyricist, or playwright, has stretched the horizon of expectations for the musical theater and in the process not only created a new kind of musical but also a new kind of audience for musicals.

Of course, without Sondheim, someone else might have found a path to re-invigorate the stage musical. We don’t know what happened in that parallel world where Jamie’s father was a geologist and not one of America’s best popular composers. But the stage musical could also have died on the vine, as the cinema musical largely did for several decades after the 1960s.

Either way, without Sondheim you probably don’t get Evita, or Chess, or Les Miserables, or Hamilton. And, without trying to extrapolate this too far, you don’t get the buoyant theatre sector we’ve seen on Broadway or in London’s West End, where it’s been the musicals that have been the big crowdpullers.

A Top Ten

Playbill magazine re-published a 2013 article that listed their view of Sondheim’s Top Ten songs. The criterion was songs that worked out of the context of the musical they first appeared in.

Spoilers, but the number one is ‘Send In The Clowns’, one of the few songs from more recent musicals that has escaped from genre into popular culture. The video quality is appalling here, but the sound works fine.

A shorter version of this article is also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.

This post was previously published on The Next Wave Futures with a Creative Commons License.


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