The Complete Stephen Sondheim Repertoire And How To Watch

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When Stephen Sondheim died at age 91, the composer-lyricist left behind a tear-stricken theater community and a cultivated garden of classic musicals that have been loved, examined, adapted, and revived. The apprentice of Oscar Hammerstein II was lauded for his lyrical dexterity and empathetic embrace of human contradictions, as well as his role in reinventing the form of commercial musical theater. Sondheim left his indelible thumbprints in the theater community and in movie contributions, be it cinematic adaptations of his work or in creating music for film (see: "Dick Tracy," "The Birdcage," and "Stavisky"). 

We compiled a chronological list of his major musical theater projects (one television musical included), along with behind-the-scenes insights, notable reimagined revivals, where to watch available productions and film adaptations, and upcoming movie adaptations. Expect a plethora of his quoted insights — and complaints — from both of his "Collected Lyrics" volumes: "Finishing the Hat" and "Look, I Made a Hat."

Saturday Night (1954)

Skipping over Stephen Sondheim's nonprofessional college musicals, "Saturday Night" is a peculiar case to kickstart this chronological list. Our list will often denote significant premiere years for each musical, but their timeline placement might be blurred by historical factors. 

Circumstances denied "Saturday Night" its original Broadway premiere, and thus Sondheim's professional debut, when lead producer Lemuel Ayers died. Sondheim fondly reflected on "Saturday Night" as his "baby pictures." He said, "There are some things that embarrass me so much in the lyrics — the missed accents, the obvious jokes. But I decided, Leave it. It's my baby pictures." "Saturday Night" was written in traditional Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II form, but the production excluded one musical tradition at the time: No chorus, with every member of the cast distinct. Sondheim suspected that it would have been understood as a (proto) chamber musical: " 1952, nobody was taking musicals seriously enough to label them 'chamber,' 'concept,' 'meta-musical.'" Laced in are familiar tunes such as the "Wedding March" and "Chopin's Death March."

In the "Saturday Night" book by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (based on their play "Front Porch in Flatbush"), Gene is a Wall Street broker in 1929 who is searching for excitement in Manhattan. Then, his get-rich-quick scheme backfires. With Sondheim's permission, "Saturday Night" finally received its world premiere staging at the London Bridewell Theater in 1997. It got its New York premiere at the Off-Broadway Second Stage Theater in 2000, running for 45 performances.

West Side Story (1957) and (2021)

Stephen Sondheim journaled that "West Side Story" is about the collaborative art of theater rather than the sociological and racial commentary ascribed to its lyrics and Arthur Laurents' book. This notion was challenged by everything from revivals to the 2021 Stephen Spielberg movie adaptation. Conceived as a "Romeo and Juliet" set in 1957 New York and centering around gang rivalry, the Jets (white Americans) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants) plot a rumble. But a star-crossed romance sparks between Tony, a Jet, and Maria, the sister of the Shark leader.

"West Side Story" was innovative for Jerome Robbins' kinetic choreography laced into Leonard Bernstein's rich orchestrations. The original Broadway show owes its ascension to classic status to the critical success of the 1961 film adaptation directed by Robert Wise and Robbins. "West Side Story" has been revived and adapted to film twice, with rewritings that strive to evolve it from its stereotypical depictions of Puerto Ricans. The revisions have received critiques from critics of Puerto Rican descent.  

The 2021 Spielberg adaptation (pictured above) is available at various digital retailers. A 2020 Broadway multimedia revival, directed by Ivo van Hove, dismantled its familiar choreographic and set elements, utilizing a giant screen and projections. The production was criticized for elements that included an incongruent illustration of racial solidarity, hiring a lead accused of sexual misconduct, and amplifying graphic sexual violence.

Gypsy (1959)

Although "Gypsy" is based on the 1957 memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, the show spotlights her domineering mother Rose, who would become one of the most wildly frustrating yet compelling mothers in musical theater. Originated by Ethel Merman, Rose shoved her hopes and dreams on her two daughters, June and Louise, and vigorously fought for their place on the vaudeville stage since the early 1920s. Years later, their usual act grows stale, and June breaks from Rose's grip. Rose then transfers her hopes to the backgrounded and plain Louise.

It was a professional concern for Stephen Sondheim that he might get ensnared into exclusively writing lyrics and never composing for musicals. However, writing lyrics to Jule Styne's music, with vaudeville and burlesque style, became his exercise in writing for stars, not to mention for larger-than-life dimensional characters like Rose. With many distinguished successors to Merman shouldering Rose, "Rose's Turn" is highly remembered as a meltdown showstopper — yet the applause and ovations are technically supposed to be confined to Rose's delusions.

The 1961 film adaptation starring Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell is available on Prime Video and Apple TV. The 1993 made-for-TV film starring Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb is available on BroadwayHD and Apple TV. The Chichester Festival Theatre production, directed by Jonathan Kent and starring Imelda Staunton, was recorded in 2015 and broadcast on the BBC. It is available on Tubi, DVD, Blu-ray, Prime Video, and Apple TV.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962)

Plucked like geese feathers from the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" — with the book written by Burt Shevelove — sprouts a river of irreverence and spells out that it is "comedy tonight, tragedy tomorrow" in the opening. Steeped in pre-Christian ancient Rome, the slave Pseudolus (originated by Zero Mostel) schemes to buy his freedom. The opportunity arises when the son of his master falls for a courtesan in the neighboring brothel. But she is due to marry a brutal, and hammy, Roman conqueror. Entanglements, slapstick, mistaken identities, and misunderstandings that lead to suicide attempts abound.

After Stephen Sondheim feared being pigeonholed as a just-lyricist title, this comic musical finally brought him the debut of his composer-lyricist credit. Since this was a farce where one-dimensional characters are cornered into conundrum after conundrum and no need for morals; there was more freedom to be irreverent as opposed to the relevant point a to point b progression. Although, the incessantly self-contained nature of the numbers exhausted Sondheim, who worried about his "tutored style" being cramped. 

Mostel reprises Pseudolus in the 1966 film adaptation directed by Richard Lester. Jack Gilford (Broadway) and Leon Greene (West End London production) also recreate their stage roles. It is available on Prime Video and Tubi.

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Anyone Can Whistle (1964)

In "Finishing the Hat," Stephen Sondheim likened "Anyone Can Whistle" to "wittily making fun of the teacher as well as our fellow students." Situated in a fictional American town, Arthur Laurents' book is remembered for its absurdist convolutions. But together, Laurents and Sondheim set out to craft one of the few politically provocative productions of its time, defying the commonly understood order of the commercial theater scene the year the more upper-class and friendlier "Funny Girl" and "Hello Dolly" were playing. However, it didn't last over its 12 previews and nine performances. 

As protestors lash out against shoddy conditions, the corrupt mayor Cora (originated by Angela Lansbury) needs a miracle to replenish any life in this bankrupted town. Then, the miracle arrives in form of a water-sprouting rock, a sure tourist attraction. In the midst of the farcical antics, a nurse and doctor fall in love. By Sondheim's own admission, the act-one finale "Simple" was his first substantial attempt to unify song within musicalized dialogue and action. He also concurred with criticism that it exemplified him condescendingly overstepping the "very thin line between smart and smart-ass."

Most recently a concert was staged by MasterVoices and performed at Carnegie Hall in March 2022. The musical has acquired cult-classic status and perhaps symbolizes the seeds of Sondheim's eventual ambitions as a composer-lyricist. 

Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965)

"Not a bad show, merely a dead one," Stephen Sondheim reflected in "Finishing the Hat." The Oscar Hammerstein II apprentice forging a musical with the late Hammerstein's partner was apparently not a stimulating nor profitable creative partnership. Based on Arthur Laurents' own play, "The Time of the Cuckoo," "Do I Hear a Waltz?" concerns a thirty-something Leona Samish (originated by Elizabeth Allen), an American secretary, vacationing in Venice and then falling for the married Renato Di Rossi (originated by Sergio Franchi). Ultimately, she returns to America disillusioned. The show ran on Broadway for 220 performances.

When Sondheim's mentor Hammerstein died, Mary Rodgers approached Sondheim to write the lyrics and collaborate with her father Richard Rodgers — frequently immortalized as double-billed with Hammerstein — for "Do I Hear a Waltz?" Although Sondheim writing the lyrics first sounded like musical freedom, he was frustrated by Rodgers' refusal to rewrite the resulting "stiff" music with little flexibility. Writing the number "What Do We Do? We Fly!" about the horrors of air travel, Sondheim seized "chances for humor ... for this show were in short supply." Though Sondheim ultimately complimented Rodgers' compositional work and Laurents' libretto, he ruled it as, what Mary Rodgers taught him, a "Why?" musical: a respectable show from a respectable source, but can't warrant its existence. (Yes, he notes the irony of Mary Rodgers convincing him of this collaboration.)

Evening Primrose (1966)

A made-for-TV musical film, "Evening Primrose" is the musical anomaly on this list with scarce stage adaptations. Based on John Collier's short story, "Evening Primrose" was part of the television anthology series "ABC Stage 67" and was filmed in an actual Manhattan department store. Poet Charles Snell (Anthony Perkins) sequesters himself in a department store after closing so he can escape the noise of society and write his sonnets in peace. Then, he finds a secret group who have resided in the store for years. The rigid leader Miss Monday (Dorothy Stickney) lets him stay on the condition that he writes poetry. He ends up falling for Ella (Charmian Carr), Miss Monday's sheltered maid. The two lovebirds scheme to escape to the world beyond and reclaim the sight of the sky, but they have to evade the mysterious Dark Men.

To a modern audience, it comes off as a vintage "Twilight Zone" episode with simmering and shadowy suspense. It culminates into a haunting twist ending, surreally buttered with fluttery Sondheim numbers like the wistful "I Remember." "Evening Primrose" received its first professional staging in London as a "Lost Musicals" series. "Evening Primrose" is available on Prime Video.

Company (1970)

"Company" was where Stephen Sondheim found his musical voice. An investigation into the cost vs. benefits of martial relationships and romance, this Hal Prince-directed vignette musical was unusual for its time: Its "defining quality [compared to other musicals] was neither satire nor sentiment, but irony," devised Sondheim. This concept musical peers into the dating life and observations of the bachelor Bobby as he maneuvers through his crazy married friends, wondering if he's cut out for marriage — or if marriage is cut out for him.

Working with George Furth's quick dialogue, Sondheim applied quasi-Brechtian relationship songs that commented on the action ("The Little Things You Do Together") or were the action ("Barcelona"), but not quite part of the action. "Company" is a microscopic observation of relationships and the desire or the lack of it thereof, allowing space for ambivalence and contradictions. If American musicals often destined their main characters to get together, "Company" revolving around the marriage-ambivalent Bobby, broke that expectation in 1970. 

John Doyle directed the 2006 PBS-aired Broadway revival, starring Raúl Esparza, where the actors play their own instruments. It is available on DVD and Blu-ray. A semi-staged 2011 New York Philharmonic concert starring Neil Patrick Harris was screened theatrically, and is available on DVD and Blu-ray and on the Netflix DVD service. Sam Mendes directed the 1996 Donmar Warehouse production starring Adrian Lester, which was televised. The DVD appears to be exceedingly rare in the U.S. The Marianne Elliot-directed revival, staged in London in 2018 and currently running on Broadway as of 2022, imagines Bobby as a heterosexual woman. The London cast recording is available.

Follies (1971)

Couples Buddy and Sally Durant Plummer and Benjamin and Phyllis Rogers Stone attend a 1971 reunion in the Weismann Theater scheduled for demolition. In Stephen Sondheim's words, they have "One foot in the past, one foot in the present." First written as a murder mystery, the story evolved into an atmospheric collection of performers commiserating on their miserable marriages, lost chances of true love, aging, sorrow, and the ghosts of their youthful selves.

Channeling the Gershwin brothers and Cole Porter, the music evokes period songs and pastiches in follies-styles ranging from 1918 to the 1940s, between both World Wars. The ruminative "I'm Still Here" and the lovelorn "Losing My Mind" are heralded as poignant and popular numbers. Directed by Hal Prince and Michael Bennett, the original production was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical and more, winning Sondheim the Tony for Best Original Score.

Heyday Films has the movie adaptation in active development as of now. The 2013 "Follies" staged by the Opéra de Toulon and Opéra-Théâtre de Metz is also available on DVD.

A Little Night Music (1973)

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman's comedy "Smiles of a Summer Night," a series of couples face faded romances and ride the waves of Stephen Sondheim's melodies. A disillusioned lawyer, married to an 18-year-old trophy wife, seeks to rekindle his romance with the actress Desiree in a futile attempt to recapture lost youth. His pursuit gets him entangled with her jealous married lover. Swelling and swishing with a waltzing score, the Bergman-inspired musical is about fools for love. Desiree, in one of the most famous numbers, "Send in the Clowns," slowly realizes that she is one of the clowns in her own story.

A 1990 adaptation was broadcast live from the New York City Opera for PBS. It can be watched here. A 1977 film adaptation directed by Hal Prince starring Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Rigg, and Lesley-Anne Down is available on DVD and the Netflix DVD service.

The Frogs (1974)

"Freely adapted" by Burt Shevelove from Aristophanes' 405 B.C. comedy "The Frogs," Dionysus, the Greek god of theater, embarks to the Underworld to bring back an artist, William Shakespeare (or George Bernard Shaw), from the dead to bring solace to the living. The pair encounter libations, rambunctious singing frogs that tempt them to abandon care, and introspection about what kind of writing the troubled mortal world needs most.

Would you believe that this musical was originally performed in Yale's Olympic-sized gymnasium's swimming pool in 1974 with Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Durang in the ensemble? Needless to say, Stephen Sondheim was snagged onto the project when author Shevelove cashed in a favor and phoned Sondheim to adapt his own "Frogs" adaptation (also staged on the Yale swimming pool in 1941) into a musical. Misfires included the fire department cracking down on a non-fireproof set, lost rehearsal times, and slippery puddles that lead to a "tentative ballet of avoidance." And that is not even getting into the caveat of Sondheim working with one of his critics, Robert Brustein, who oversaw the production.

The 2004 Broadway revival directed by Susan Stroman starred Nathan Lane as Dionysus. Sondheim provided new songs for Lane's revised book. The soundtrack is also available.

Pacific Overtures (1976)

The Reciter (originated by Mako) narrates the wobbling Japanese order when the West docks its dark ships in 1853 to coerce Japan into opening trading relations. At the core of "Pacific Overtures" is the fraying friendship between a samurai and an Americanized Japanese person. The musical is known to contain Sondheim's favorite song "Someone in a Tree," a tapestry about oral history, the pebble of details, the haze of information lost through time, and the auditory and visual testimonies that piece together a picture.

The Broadway show borrowed noh, kabuki, and bunraku theater techniques, and Hal Prince's direction approached the topic with remove. Well-platformed white critics evaluated the production as befuddling and/or admirably ambitious. (Note that theater criticism historically excluded Asian critics.) In a landscape where the Great White Way historically excluded Asians, the production scoured the West Coast and cast a number of nonprofessional Asians

The original "Pacific Overtures" was videotaped for broadcast for Japan's Nippon Educational Television Network. According to "Sondheim & Co," it was the first telecast of an American stage musical in Japan. It can be watched here. The 2004 Broadway revival was directed by Amon Miyamoto and starred BD Wong — the soundtrack is available. An Off-Broadway 2017 stripped-down revival was directed by John Doyle and starred George Takei.

Sweeney Todd (1979)

Straight from the Victorian penny dreadful and Christopher Bond's 1973 stage adaptation, the 1850s-set "Sweeney Todd" asks its audience to digest this grisly comic tale: a vengeful barber, Sweeney Todd (originated by Len Cariou), who slices the throats of his customers. He's rehearsing his razor slices to take revenge on the corrupt Judge Turpin (originated by Edmund Lyndeck) for falsely sentencing him, raping his wife, and kidnapping his daughter. Sweeney's accomplice, Miss Lovett (originated by Angela Lansbury), bakes the flesh of his victims into bestselling hot pies.

When pressed about categorizing the show, Sondheim said that a "dark operetta" is, approximately, the best way to describe "Sweeney Todd," as he distanced it from the definition of opera. Although, he found that "Sweeney Todd" does play well in opera houses.

Aired in 1982, the "Sweeney Todd" national touring production starring George Hearn and Lansbury is available on DVD, Prime Video, and Apple TV. A 2011 "Sweeney Todd In Concert" starring Hearn and Patti LuPone is also available on Blu-ray and DVD. Additionally, PBS broadcast the 2014 New York Philharmonic concert starring Emma Thompson, Neil Patrick Harris, and Audra McDonald. Tim Burton also directed a 2007 film adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. It is available on Apple TV and Prime Video.

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Merrily We Roll Along (1981)

The critical failure of this musical nearly prompted Stephen Sondheim into a break from musical theater. The most memoirish of Sondheim's work follows a composer and a lyricist looking to break into showbiz with an ambitious concept: The musical lurches backward in time, from the height of Shephard's career in 1976 and rolling back to a blissful conversation in 1957 when he and friends pledge creative success. In the documentary "Six by Sondheim," Sondheim said he wrote it as a cautionary tale about expediting your artistic vision to overeager young artists. Serendipitous to George Furth's book, Sondheim and his collaborator Hal Prince, the director, parted ways. When restaged, the story is often revised heavily. 

Richard Linklater is shooting the film adaptation with the "Boyhood" approach, shooting the actors (Ben Platt, Paul Mescal, and Beanie Feldstein) across the musical's timespan of 20 years to age on-screen — or de-age, since the story rows backward. A Digital Theatre streaming of the 2013 Maria Friedman-directed London production is exclusive to the U.K. An upcoming 2022 Off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop production, directed by Friedman, will star Daniel Radcliffe.

Sunday in the Park with George (1984)

"Sunday in the Park with George" is the portrait of the obsessive artist George Seurat (originated by Mandy Patinkin) as he embarks on his precise journey to finish his famous painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." His fixation on his magnum opus comes at the expense of his relationship with his mistress Dot (originated by Bernadette Peters). As Seurat rearranges the chaos and chattery of the park into a vision of pointillist precision and beauty, "Sunday in the Park with George" illustrates the compulsive strain of an artist's creative mind and the immortalization of art. It marked Stephen Sondheim's first collaboration with director and writer James Lapine, and won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical. For many artists struggling with block, Sondheim's lyrics are exceedingly resonant: "Stop worrying if your vision is new, the others make that decision..."

The original Broadway production directed by Lapine is available on Apple TV and DVD. Whereas the original production supplied cutout representations of Seurat's vision, the 2008 Broadway revival applies 3-D animation. There was also a 2017 Broadway revival starring Jake Gyllenhaal as George and Annaleigh Ashford as Dot. The soundtrack is available.

Into the Woods (1987)

After "Sunday in the Park with George," Stephen Sondheim was game for a quest musical like "The Wizard of Oz," and his collaborator James Lapine brainstormed an original fairy tale woven into familiar Grimm fairy tales, an amalgamation of fairy tales that questions the nature of "happy endings," and wishes that come true or become twisted. A baker (originated by Chip Zien) and his wife (originated by Joanna Gleason) are cursed with infertility by a witch (originated by Bernadette Peters). But the witch gives them a chance to lift that curse if they obtain: "The cow as white as milk, a hair as gold as corn, a cape as red as blood, slipper as pure as gold." So, the couple disappears into the woods and crosses paths with Jack, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and others. The entanglements of wishes and wants fester into consequences, namely the threat of a vengeful giant and general malaise over happy endings. Those who survive grow wiser.

The original Broadway production directed by James Lapine is available on Apple TV and on DVD and Blu-ray. The London's Regent's Park Open Air 2010 production is also available on Apple TV, Digital Theatre, and BroadwayHD. The Disney 2014 adaptation directed by Rob Marshall is available on Disney+, Prime Video, and Apple TV.

Assassins (1990)

Stephen Sondheim locked in a hook with the lyric "C'mere and kill a President," immediately laying the groundwork for this one-act show with author John Weidman. The dark side of the American dream is pronounced in "Assassins." Framed as a demented carnival shootout game (with the profiles of Presidents slapped on targets), the musical is organized like a revue that recollects — mythologizes, with irony, through ballads and folk songs — the exploits of these assassins of U.S. Presidents. From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, "Assassins" cranks a tale of people who would go to extremes to change history and threads together their motives and malcontents. An instructional and moral history lesson this is not, but rather an observation into the headspace of these souls.

Weidman and Sondheim initially dreamed of staging the show at the very Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, the vantage point Oswald occupied to assassinate President Kennedy. When Sondheim asked Weidman why he conceived this show, this was his answer from a man who remembered Kennedy's assassination: "How could one inconsequential angry little man cause such universal grief and anguish?" The musical opened Off-Broadway at Playwright Horizons in 1990. It later had a Tony Award-nominated 2004 Broadway revival.

The 2021 Off-Broadway revival directed by John Doyle capped off the show with the image of the 2021 Capitol Insurrection. The soundtrack for the revival is available.

Passion (1994)

Author James Lapine based "Passion" on the film "Passione d'Amore." In 19th-century Italy, the soldier Giorgio (originated by Jere Shea) loves the married Clara (originated by Marin Mazzie). But he begins to question what he knows about love when the sickly cousin of his commanding officer, Fosca (originated by Donna Murphy), becomes enamored with him. Their passion begins to blossom and wreak havoc on order especially when their bond infuriates her overprotective cousin. The story is less about how the soldier and the sickly woman fall in love, but more about how he falls in love with a manic, volatile, melancholic, and intelligent person like Fosca.

Stephen Sondheim wrestled with crafting a musical theater with the "extravagant flamboyance" of opera, a form he had a complicated relationship with. The songs in "Passion" straddle the line between aria and recitatives in opera. "Passion" is perhaps the closest Sondheim wrote to an epistolary musical, where letters unfold the progression.

The DVD of the original production, aired on PBS, is available. The 2005 Lincoln Center concert starring Michael Cerveris, Audra McDonald, and Patti LuPone also aired on PBS

Road Show (2008)

For decades, Stephen Sondheim wanted to write a musical about the Mitzner brothers. He saw rich materials in two historical figures with a colorful bio-resume that names them conmen, gold miners, gamblers, influential architects, and more. In the book written by John Weidman, "Road Show" catalogs the adventures of the Mizner brothers, Wilson and Addison, as they seek fortune from 1890s Alaska to sunny 1930s Florida.

The show tinkered through titles. Directed by Sam Mendes, it premiered as "Wise Guys" at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1999. Come 2003, it premiered as "Bounce" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago (the soundtrack is available), and reunited Sondheim with his collaborator Hal Prince. Then the title was amended to "Road Show" when it opened Off-Broadway in 2008 at the Public Theater (the soundtrack is available). It never received the Broadway premiere Sondheim wished for.

Square One

Musical fans rejoiced when 91-year-old Stephen Sondheim announced his next project "Square One" on "The Late Show" in September 2021. Alas, two months after he sat with Stephen Colbert and hoped for the luck of a premiere "next season," he died, leaving behind questions about the musical's status.

A New York Times interview before his death confirmed that the project was based on a long in-progress musical inspired by two Luis Buñuel films. Sondheim had shared his and playwright David Ives' blueprint: The first act involved friends trying to find a place to dine (based on "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"), while the second focused on them successfully finding a place but getting ensnared into something hellish (based on "The Exterminating Angel"). The status of this work is in suspension as of now. It is unknown whether it will result in a posthumous staging, or be archived as a curiosity to musical theater aficionados.

An update: In March 2023, Sondheim fans received the long-awaited announcement. "Square One" will be performed, although the name of the project has changed to "Here We Are." Starting September 2023, a posthumous staging will take place off-Broadway at The Shed.