Stephen Sondheim: Lyrical Contributions to Musical Theater

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  • 0:01 Stephen Sondheim
  • 0:49 Biography
  • 2:09 Lyrics and Influence
  • 5:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

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. 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.



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.

the most beautiful sound I ever heard
Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria
All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word
Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria,
Maria, Maria, Maria
I just met a girl named Maria
And suddenly that name will never be the same to me
Maria, I just kissed a girl named Maria
And suddenly I found how wonderful a sound can be


Not a day goes by,
Not a single day
But you're somewhere a part of my life
And 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 on
Thinking and sweating
And cursing and crying
And turning and reaching
And waking and dying

You 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.

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