Stephen Sondheim – His Early Life And Incredible Career

9th May 2022

Stephen Sondheim – His Early Life And Incredible Career
Georgia Carter

Georgia Carter

Oh what a pure joy to write about the legend that was American lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim. We lost a true lyrical star in November 2021 at the age of 91. Are you wondering what musicals did Stephen Sondheim write and how did he change musical theatre? Then you will love this article. We will commemorate his work, his music and lyrics that so many people know and keep his spirit alive somehow. His light shines on, still inspiring so many now and for a long time to come. 

Stephen Sondheim’s Early Career 

Stephen was known for this range of musicals, which he wrote and composed, from ‘West Side Story’ to ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Into the Woods’. It all started in 1930, March 22nd, when Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born in New York City. His parents; his father, a dress manufacturer and his mother, a dress designer. However, they divorced and he moved to Pennsylvania with his mother. As a young boy, playing both the organ and piano, and also song writing were all passions of his. 

If we have anybody to thank for Sondheim’s genius and sparking it to become the flame we know of throughout his career, then it is Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein was the creative brilliance behind ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Show Boat’, ‘South Pacific’ etc. 

In the town of Doylestown where Sondheim lived, Hammerstein became his mentor, and tutored him in all things lyricism and composition. Hammerstein would give honest feedback to Sondheim’s pieces and also allowed him to work as an assistant for the 1947 production of ‘Allegro’, which Richard Roger collaborated on and only fuelled Sonheim’s passion further. 

Musical By Musical

Now if someone told you to put Stephen Sondheim musicals ranked in order of their success, it would be a tall order, so I am going to start with ‘West Side Story’ in 1957 and make my way to what was his most recent musical, that of ‘Bounce’, later retitled ‘Road Show’ in 2003. 

West Side Story 

If we are to ask what was Stephen Sondheim’s first musical, then it has to be West Side Story, the contemporary musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet, which he worked on as a lyricist with Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents in 1957. This was a sensation and an utter success on Broadway. As we know today, this has now been adapted by Steven Spielberg which has the same undercurrents running through the film whilst similarly to Sondheim’s piece is relevant for a modern audience. Its vibrancy, color and humanity is at the center of the film and I think Stephen would be proud of the new take on the vision he helped to create. 


This story focuses on a mother, Gypsy Rose Lee, helping her two daughters become stars in show business. It is one of the iconic motherly roles in theatre and had a very successful revival in 2015 in which Imelda Staunton played the titular role. Sondheim teamed up with composer Jule Styne and was first performed in 1959. 

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

In 1962, this musical opened on Broadway and ran for nearly 1,000 performances, and won a Tony award. This farcical show was based on plays written by Plautus, and starred Zero Mostel. Sondheim showed his comedic strengths in this musical and was a hit! A slave helps his owner get the girl and so in the end he is granted his freedom. 

Anyone Can Whistle

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, this show which started Angela Lansbury’s acting and singing career in 1964 is a political satire about conformity and the ostracisation of those considered ‘other’ in society. A three-act musical set in a fictional town where the government controls everything, even the miracles, it is fast paced and comedy ensues. 

Do I Hear A Waltz? 

In 1965, Richard Rogers and Sondheim worked together on this musical which tells the tale of Leona on her first trip to Venice. She falls in love with Renato di Rossi and how Italy changes her for the better. 


One of Sondheim’s most well-known musicals, this was first performed in 1970 and it was revived with gender reversed roles in London in 2018 with Rosalie Craig in the titular role and Patti Lupone as Joanne.  A ‘rethought’ version of Company compared with the original production and was a hit. A single man, Bobby living in New York is surrounded by couples who cannot hold down a steady relationship. Sondheim won a Tony award in 1971 for his work. 


In 1971, Sondheim composed the music and lyrics for this show about Buddy and Sally Durant Plummer and Benjamin and Phyllis Rogers Stone, two couples who reminisce over the ‘Weismann’s Follies’ at a reunion. It is a homage to the Ziegfeld Follies and early Broadway. 

A Little Night Music

A period comedy-drama that included the hit song ‘Send in the Clowns’, performed in 1973. Desiree Armfeldt is a beautiful actress who always getting the attention of the men around her, which in turn leads to jealousy, heartbreak and quarrels. In 2009, Catherine Zeta-Jones performed in the Broadway revival. 

Sweeney Todd

Another acclaimed hit, in 1979, Sondheim created the lyrics for the demon barber of Fleet Street, which was then adapted into a film starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Sondheim was the lyricist, composer and playwright for this particular production. Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel performed at English National Opera in 2015. 

Merrily We Roll Along

Franklin Shepard’s tale as a successful composer is told in reverse chronology in Merrily We Roll Along. Starting at the top of his career, the musical looks at the price of fame, fortune and friendship as Shepard’s life isn’t as wonderful as it is initially presented. 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along was adapted from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Sunday In The Park With George

In the 1980s, Sondheim collaborated several times with playwright/director James Lapine. Their Sunday in the Park with George, which opened in 1984, was inspired by the iconic painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat. He would rather just paint than have to face the world around him. It was performed in 2017 starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford.

Into The Woods

Another critically acclaimed masterpiece in 1987 was Into The Woods, which uses Brothers Grimm fairy tales to tell the story. Over 3 days, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and The Beanstalk, Cinderella are all incorporated into this production. The plot follows a baker and his wife in their wish to have children and a witch who decides their fate – played by Meryl Streep in the 2014 film – so there is bound to be some agony for all of the characters. 


Bounce later retitled Road Show is a musical set in America from the gold rush to the housing boom throughout the 20th century. The plot follows two brothers Addison and Wilson as they make financial gains while heading east. Even though they strike while the iron’s hot, the chase to own more isn’t always done legally and they’re left in a financial pickle with their fraudulent business.

Final Thoughts 

Well, we hope that you found this article about Stephen Sondheim fun to read and if you want to read more about musicals, here is one about Bob Fosse or Jerome Robbins

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