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Stephen Sondheim wrote some of the most celebrated lyrics in American musical theater. In this lesson, learn about his life and explore his style of writing, then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Stephen Sondheim

Send in the clowns. Four words.

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Send in the clowns. It sounds so simple, but it is undoubtedly one of the most powerful lyrical sentences in the history of Broadway. It’s that moment when you realize that it’s all gone wrong, that’s it’s all just been one big joke, and there’s nothing left to do but accept the follies of your choices. Man, that got deep.

Well, that’s what happens when you’re looking at the lyrics and music of Broadway lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim is one of the most influential composers and lyricists in the history of American musical theater, and it’s not hard to see why. Just send in the clowns.

Biography

Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim was born in 1930, in New York City, but he moved to Pennsylvania when he was about 10 years old after his parents divorced. Sondheim did not have a great relationship with his parents, but soon after moving to Pennsylvania, he met Broadway lyricist and producer Oscar Hammerstein II.

Yes, that Oscar Hammerstein, as in the duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein that created such masterpieces as The Sound of Music. Anyway, Hammerstein became a father figure to Sondheim and taught him about Broadway musicals.By 23, Sondheim had written his first Broadway musical, entitled Saturday Night, but the show was canceled after the producer unexpectedly passed away. Sondheim’s next major project, and his first commercial success, was a Romeo-and-Juliet-style love story, set in an ethnic blue-collar New York slum. It was called West Side Story.

Sondheim wrote the lyrics, and the play premiered in 1957. This is one of those ‘and-the-rest-is-history’ kind of moments. Not everything Sondheim did over the next half century was well received, but he went on to create some of the most popular musicals ever to appear on Broadway.

Lyrics and Influence

From the 1950s and into the 1990s, Stephen Sondheim was one of the defining contributors to American musical theater. He commonly wrote both the music and lyrics for his shows, giving him complete control over the sound, and was known to write songs to match the specific talents of his favorite actors and actresses.

Sondheim’s lyrics, in particular, are known for being almost conversational in nature, using breathing, musical breaks, and various tempos to create natural and dramatic pacing.Look at these lyrics from Into the Woods. Yeah, he wrote that one too.You’re so nice.

You’re not good, You’re not bad, You’re just nice. I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right. I’m the Witch.The words themselves seem so simple, so conversational. But look at the repetition of syllables and sounds. Beyond making for a catchy tune, it reflects the mindset of the witch, a character being driven crazy by her failed attempts to shield her daughter from the world and her role in the plot. The lyrics feel circular, as if the idea just keeps rolling around in the witch’s mind.

That’s the sort of personal, dramatic emotion you can expect from a Stephen Sondheim musical.The result of Sondheim’s style was to create characters, plots, and music that were unbearably moving and relatable. Here, let’s try something. I’m going to show you two sets of lyrics, but not tell you anything about them. Take a minute and read these, and as you do, notice how much you can tell about the characters.

Maria,the most beautiful sound I ever heardMaria, Maria, Maria, MariaAll the beautiful sounds of the world in a single wordMaria, Maria, Maria, Maria,Maria, Maria, MariaI just met a girl named MariaAnd suddenly that name will never be the same to meMaria, I just kissed a girl named MariaAnd suddenly I found how wonderful a sound can be-=-=-=-Not a day goes by,Not a single dayBut you’re somewhere a part of my lifeAnd it looks like you’ll stay.As the days go by,I keep thinking,’When does it end?Where ‘s the day I’ll have started forgetting?’But I just go onThinking and sweatingAnd cursing and cryingAnd turning and reachingAnd waking and dyingYou feel for them, right? You get a sense of their emotions and thoughts, their struggles, and triumphs, and it’s not just from the words themselves. The repetition of words, the generally short phrases, the focus around emotion-driven themes; Sondheim’s lyrics constantly capture the feeling that you are in a character’s mind. You’re not listening to them sing as much as hearing their thoughts.Those lyrics (on the left) are from West Side Story, sung by Tony after he has fallen in love with a girl from a rival gang. The other lyrics are from Merrily We Roll Along, and is sung by the character Beth, who divorces a man she still loves but who had an affair.

These are very different characters, but we understand them just from reading these lyrics. And if you really want to love these characters, check out these songs with actual music sometime.It’s no surprise that a great number of Stephen Sondheim’s plays are now considered classics of American musical theater.

Let’s look at just a few of the major ones. Gypsy, produced in 1959, tells the story of a mother and her daughters struggling through the hardships of show business. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1962, is the low-brow comedy of love and freedom in ancient Rome. Other classics include A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and Assassins. You’ve probably heard of a few of these.

Stephen Sondheim has been awarded eight Grammys, eight Tonys, an Oscar, a Pulitzer Prize, and even the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award the president can bestow upon a civilian in the United States. Sondheim’s lyrics redefined musical theater and gave us all characters to love, hate, and empathize with – from the demon barber of Fleet Street in Sweeney Todd to Maria in West Side Story to the clowns that appear when everything else is lost in A Little Night Music.

Lesson Summary

Stephen Sondheim, born in 1930, is one of the most influential Broadway composers and lyricists in the last half century. Sondheim was heavily influenced by his mentor, Broadway producer and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, and he himself rose to be a prominent figure in musical theater. Sondheim’s music and lyrics help create personal, relatable, and dramatic figures and are characterized by a nearly conversational flow, stemming from the use of music and lyrics to reflect emotional states. Sondheim was responsible for several classic works of musical theater, ranging in themes and sounds from West Side Story to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to Sweeney Todd. Sondheim’s music and lyrics helped define American musical theater over the last half century.

Guess there’s no need to send in the clowns!

Lesson Outline

Sondheim lyrics in West Side Story
westsidestory
Stephen Sondheim one of the most influential composers and lyricists in the history of American musical theater
Oscar Hammerstein II part of the duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein that created The Sound of Music and mentor to Sondheim
West Side Story Sondheim wrote the lyrics of this Romeo ; Juliet retelling
Into the Woods Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics
Merrily We Roll Along sung by the character Beth, who divorces a man she still loves that had an affair
Gypsy produced in 1959, it tells the story of a mother and her daughters struggling through the hardships of show business
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum from 1962, this is the low-brow comedy of love and freedom in ancient Rome
A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and Assassins the creator of these works, Stephen Sondheim has been awarded eight Grammys, eight Tonys, an Oscar, a Pulitzer Prize, and even the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of the lesson, you could reasonably be expected to:

  • Specify some of the highlights in the life of Stephen Sondheim
  • Recognize the importance of Sondheim’s work to Broadway Theater
  • Recite lyrics from some of his works
  • Name some of his best-known musicals

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