Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Happy 90th Birthday! Why We Love Stephen Sondheim

Today, the almighty composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim turns 90 - happy birthday from all of us at BroadwayWorld! Here, BWW reviewers share some of the reasons why we adore his work.

Kerrie Nicholson: Sondheim is my favourite composer - his work always challenges me to think more deeply about life, people and the relationships we have. I haven't ever seen it, but my favourite lyric in all musical theatre (a bold claim, I know!) is from Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George: "However you live/There's a part of you always standing by/Mapping out the sky".

As a creative person, that line always speaks to me, and I get a lovely chill every time I hear it. Here's one of my favourite performers, Julian Ovenden, singing the song it comes from, "Finishing The Hat".


Fiona Scott: Sweeney Todd was my first professional gig in a pit orchestra at Perth Theatre in 2012 - playing waltz off-beats for ten minutes in "A Little Priest" at the end of Act I is quite the arm workout on violin!

I also loved seeing the gender-flipped Company at the Gielgud and the questions it poses about our fascination about other people's love lives. I do hope the Broadway production is able to reopen soon.

I'd say West Side Story is my favourite. We played the symphonic dances when I was in Perth Youth Orchestra, and in the past few years alone I've seen it at the Bishopsgate Institute and the John Wilson Prom. There are certain parts of the score where I stop breathing. Just stunning.


Gary Naylor: I'd seen Blood Brothers and Miss Saigon and liked neither. But my life changed in the mid-80s when I saw Guildford School of Acting's production of Sweeney Todd. Called upon to "Attend the tale...", I did and, within minutes, the possibilities of musical theatre were suddenly laid before me.

I'll skate over a West End production of Sunday in the Park with George and fast-forward to the famous Pie Shop Sweeney I saw in my home district, Tooting. I was as blown away (almost literally by Jeremy Secomb) as anyone and felt a flush of civic pride when the great man himself showed up.

It's not even my favourite Sondheim. A Little Night Music may lack the ferocious energy of the demon barber, but, for those of us at an age when we can look back wistfully but only look forward with trepidation, it's a beautiful thing. I saw it above a pub in Walthamstow, and, as perhaps only great theatre can do, was sent back a hundred years and east a thousand miles to be bathed in the glorious midsummer light of rural Sweden.

If "Send In The Clowns" doesn't yet prick a tear in the corner of your eye, even as you smile in recognition, it will... it will.


Laura Fuller: One of my favourite performances of Sondheim's work is Elaine Stritch performing "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company - unparalleled in my opinion.

As a huuuuge Sondheim fan, it's impossible to choose a favourite lyric. But one that really speaks to me is from "Move On", from Sunday in the Park with George: "Stop worrying where you're going/Move on/If you can know where you're going/You've gone/Just keep moving on." A wonderful lesson about pushing forward, learning from 'failure' and keeping the faith.

And the song finishes with: "Anything you do/Let it come from you/Then it will be new/Give us more to see." A beautiful lyric that highlights the importance of individuality and originality, and how something will always be unique if it comes from you. Wonderful.


Verity Wilde: I'll admit it: I was a sceptic. My gateway obsession was a jukebox musical and I didn't see what the fuss was about - all those weird intervals and nothing you can sing easily when you've got as bad a voice as me. "Go see Sondheim live," the message boards told me.

My first was Sweeney Todd with Jason Donovan on tour in Birmingham. It was not a success. But I persevered. I bought expensive CD cast albums and slowly something happened. Then I saw Sunday in the Park with George, and it clicked: I was a convert.

I'm still angry that the Caroline O'Connor Gypsy didn't go any further than Leicester. I went back to Sweeney Todd (the transfer of the Chichester production, so much better) and tried to get to anything I could reasonably afford. Last year, I did Company in the afternoon and Follies in the evening. What a turnaround. Now the roles are reversed and I'm the one preaching the genius of Sondheim. I appreciate the irony. Thank you for the music, even if I was too foolish to appreciate it at first.


Aliya Al-Hassan: I am notorious among my friends and family for my hard-hearted refusal to cry at films, plays and musicals.

One notable exception is "Somewhere" from the musical West Side Story and it is Sondheim's lyrics that wrench at my cold heart! I think anyone who has ever loved or been loved can relate to them.

As with much of Sondheim's work, the lyrics themselves are deceptively simple, but this belies how they cut straight to the innocence and intrinsic hope of the song.

The manner in which the song is delivered offstage is beautiful and really makes you listen to the lyrics. And when Maria tragically sings the first few lines as Tony dies in her arms, well - you can hear my sobbing from the foyer!


Marianka Swain: It seems we've finally ditched the false dichotomy of musical theatre - that if your lyrics are complex and sophisticated, your work must be passionless; that if you tackle huge ideas, rich existential and moral questions, you can only reach the head and not the heart. I won't drink to that!

Two recent, and I think definitive, Sondheim productions in London have demonstrated, yet again, that his ambition, intelligence, wit and philosophical searching are equally matched by the tenderness, rage, pain and longing of his characters. Yes, Dominic Cooke's Follies at The National Theatre and Marianne Elliott's gender-swapped Company in the West End are richer and more creatively daring than many shows we see, but they also have a heartbeat, blood pumping, a soul.

So many great numbers in both - Rosalie Craig, never better, as a Bobbie battling herself in "Being Alive"; Imelda Staunton and Joanna Riding giving very different, both powerful, readings of "Losing My Mind"; Janie Dee's glittering fury in "Could I Leave You?"; Tracie Bennett's roar of defiance, "I'm Still Here"; and Jonathan Bailey's show-stopping freakout in "Getting Married Today".

But just pipping them all is Patti LuPone's scalpel-sharp "The Ladies Who Lunch" - each line piercing her own armour, revealing a well of emotion, and making us all reckon with the roles we play, the masks we don, and the patterns we can break, if only we have the courage.


Featured on Stage Door

Shoutouts, Classes, and More from Your Favorite Broadway Stars

Related Articles View More UK / West End Stories

More Hot Stories For You