Frequently Asked Questions

Written by and David Levy.

Table of Contents

1 Biographical Information

2 Works

3 Publications

4 Sondheim On-line

5 Biased Drivel by SondoManiacs

2 Works

2.1 Major Works

2.1.1 Saturday Night (1954), unproduced, music and lyrics

Based on the play Front Porch in Flatbush, written by the Epstein brothers, of Casablanca fame, this musical concerned a group of kids in Flatbush in 1928 who try to break into high society by investing in the stock market and crashing debutantes' parties. Includes the songs "Saturday Night," "So Many People," and "What More Do I Need?"

2.1.2 West Side Story (1957), lyrics only

Based on Romeo and Juliet, this musical with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and choreography by Jerome Robbins was breakthrough for the Broadway theatre for many reasons. Like On Your Toes and Oklahoma!, it contributed to the pioneering use of dance in musicals as a major story-telling device. Unlike the predecessors, its score juxtaposed many styles for a much more dissonant and vibrant, and the subject itself involved more somber issues than tackled on Broadway.

The show concerned rival gangs, one of Puerto Rican immigrants, the other of second- and third- generation Polish-Americans, and their reactions when Tony, the ex- leader of the Jets (the Polish-Americans), falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks (the Puerto Rican immigrants). Includes the songs "Tonight," "Maria," and "Something's Coming." Production Information

2.1.3 Gypsy (1959), lyrics only

Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, this musical had a book by Laurents and music by Jule Styne. Domineering mother Rose lives vicariously through her children, June and Louise, whom she tries to make vaudeville stars. As vaudeville dies, June runs away and Louise is forced into burlesque, where she becomes the legendary Gypsy Rose Lee. Includes the songs "Small World," "Together (Wherever We Go)," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," and "Rose's Turn." ("Rose's Turn" is a brilliant exploration from inside Mama Rose's mind. As she is breaking down bits of music from the entire show are used to evoke a sense of the different issues she is dealing with.) Production Information

2.1.4 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), music and lyrics

Based on the plays of Plautus, this musical with a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart reveled in "low comedy" without playing off anachronisms. The plot concerned a young hero, named Hero, who has fallen in love with a courtesan from next door. He promises freedom to his slave, Pseudolus, in exchange for the girl. Out of the ordinary in that the songs' function was not to advance plot or illuminate character, but rather to give the audience a vaudevillian break from the breakneck pace of the farcical plot. Includes the songs "Comedy Tonight," and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid." Production Information

2.1.5 Anyone Can Whistle (1964), music and lyrics

A musical with book by Laurents which explored the ideas of noncomformity, political corruption, and the nebulous definition of sanity. When Cora Hoover Hooper, the hated mayoress of a small town, is faced with a town bankruptcy, she concocts a fake "miracle" of water-from-a-rock to bring in tourism. Unfortunately, during the tourist rush, the inmates from the local asylum "for the socially pressured," the Cookie Jar, escape. A Doctor Hapgood surfaces who says he can identify the "cookies" and separate them from the "sane" members of society, but when the cookies' nurse, Fay Apple, refuses to identify her charges and then falls in love with Hapgood, trouble ensues. Includes the songs "There Won't Be Trumpets" (cut during previews), "Everybody Says Don't," and "Anyone Can Whistle." Production Information

2.1.6 Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), lyrics only

This musical was based on Arthur Laurents' play The Time of the Cuckoo, with a book by Laurents and music by Richard Rodgers. Leona Samish is an American spinster visiting in Venice who falls in love with a married man, Renato Di Rossi. Includes the songs "We're Gonna Be All Right" and "Do I Hear a Waltz?" Production Information

2.1.7 Evening Primrose (TV) (1966), music and lyrics

Based on the John Collier short story, this one-hour television play was first presented on ABC Stage 67. Its teleplay, by James Goldman, concerned a poet, Charles Snell, who decides to become a hermit, living in a department store (moving only after hours), only to find he wasn't the only one with that idea. When he falls in love with Ella, a handmaiden to Mrs. Monday, the head of the hermits, he plots his escape with her to the outside world. Includes the songs "I Remember" and "Take Me to the World," and is available for viewing at the Museum of Television and Radio, 25 West 52nd St, New York City and 465 North Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, CA.

2.1.8 Company (1970), music and lyrics

Sondheim collarborated with George Furth (book) and Harold Prince (director) to create Company, the first of the Sondheim / Prince shows that were to lay the foundation for the post-Golden Age Broadway musicals. Company, the first non-linear (or concept) musical, is set firmly in (and often about) New York. It follows five married (or oncemarried or soon-to-be-married) couples and their mutual friend, Robert, a 35 year old bachelor who has been unable to connect in a long-term relationship. The relationships are presented in a series of vignettes, primarily through Bobby's eyes, so that we see the less than ideal aspects of commitment. However, it is obvious to the audience that the committed are happy. Eventually, Bobby learns that while relationships aren't perfect, they are a necessary part of "Being Alive." Includes the songs "Getting Married Today," "The Ladies Who Lunch," and "Being Alive." Production Information

2.1.9 Follies (1971), music and lyrics

This musical, with a book by James Goldman, takes place at a reunion of the Weisman (pseudo-Ziegfeld) Follies girls, gathering at their old theatre on the eve of its leveling (to become a parking lot). When Sally tries to rekindle her old flame with Ben (who married her best friend from the old days, Phyllis), chaos ensues until Sally, Buddy (her husband), Ben, and Phyllis break down and acknowledge their follies in a dream-Follies sequence, Loveland. The entire show is interspersed with ex-showgirls reprising their old big numbers, and the atmosphere is heightened by the presence of the ghosts of everyone's former selves, who sometimes sing along, sometimes reenact important events, and sometimes even interact with the present. Follies contains two scores -- the Follies pastiche numbers and the book numbers. The convergence of the two scores results in the Loveland sequence, where the characters use traditional songs to comment on their current concerns. The final piece (in the original script) is "Live Laugh, Love" where Ben attempts to present the suave, man-about-town character, but is unable to continue the charade and breaks down as the chorus continues, highlighting the dichotomy between forms. In 1987, Follies was reworked for the West End stage. This new production featured a completely new book and five new songs, replacing others which were cut. Follies includes the songs "Too Many Mornings," "I'm Still Here," and "Losing My Mind." Production Information

2.1.10 A Little Night Music (1973), music and lyrics

Based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, this musical, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, concerns three mismatched couples. Desiree Armfeldt, an actress, is seeing Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm who is married to Charlotte Malcolm. Frederik Egerman, Desiree's past lover, is married to the still-viriginal Anne, who is half his age. Henrik Egerman, Frederik's son who is also a divinity student, loves his stepmother Anne, who is a year younger than him. Petra, Frederik and Anne's maid, Madame Armfeldt, Desiree's mother, and Frederica, Desiree's daughter round out the action which occurs in town and at "A Weekend in the Country" at Madame Armfeldt's house in the land of the midnight sun. Also features a lieder quintet as a Greek chorus. Includes the songs "The Miller's Son," "Now, Soon, Later," and "Send in the Clowns." Production Information

2.1.11 The Last of Sheila (Film) (1973), screenplay only

This screenplay was written with Anthony Perkins. The movie concerns a rich, sadistic, game-obsessed movie producer who invites his coworkers to his yacht. While on board, the shipmatesplay one of the producer's games -- each is handed a slip of paper with a guilty secret that theothers have to discover. However, they quickly realize that the secrets are true, but true of other players. The plot thickens as the producer gets killed. Production Information

2.1.12 Stavisky (Film) (1974), score only

A film by Alain Resnais, Stavisky is a biography of a French swindler from the 1930s. Sondheim's score contains some bits which were discarded from Follies. Production Information

2.1.13 Pacific Overtures(1976), music and lyrics

A musical with book by John Weidman, Pacific Overtures traces the history of Japan from the first contact with America (via Commodore Matthew Perry) through the modern age. The "development" of the country is represented by two characters, Kayama Yasaemon, a traditional samurai, and his friend Manjiro, a fisherman who had been shipwrecked in Boston, where he embraced Western ways. As Japan becomes more Westernized, Kayama embraces the new culture while Manjiro rejects it, rediscovering his roots. All this is acted out against a backdrop of the greater changes in Japan, as the Japanese and the world powers all try to capitalize on the opening up of Japan. Includes the songs "Poems," "Pretty Lady," and "Someone in a Tree." Production Information

2.1.14 Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), music and lyrics

Based on Christopher Bond's retelling of the Victorian pennydreadful The String of Pearls, (which was itself a retelling of a British myth, posibly rooted in truth) this musical (with a book by Hugh Wheeler) tells the tale of Sweeney Todd, a murderous barber, and his partner in crime, Nellie Lovett, a baker who disposes of the bodies by baking them into her pies. Meanwhile, Anthony Hope, a sailor who saved Todd's life, falls in love with Todd's estranged daughter, Johanna, who is being brought up as the ward of the twisted Judge Turpin. Includes the songs "Not While I'm Around," "Pretty Women," and "A Little Priest." Production Information

2.1.15 Merrily We Roll Along(1981), music and lyrics

Based on the play by George Kauffman and Moss Hart, this musical (with book by George Furth) tells of the disintegration of the friendship of successful songwriter Franklin Shepard, his lyricist Charlie Kringas, and novelist Mary Flynn. The action moves backward through time, from 1980 to 1957. The score is constructed in blocks, so we hear characters' themes at the beginning of the show, seeing throughout the rest of the show how that character developed that theme. For example, in the first scene Frank sings, "It's my time coming through / all my dreams coming true / Gorgeous house, gorgeous wife," indicative of his materialism and superficiality. By the end of that show, we hear the same melody devolve back to its roots as a song of optimism and sincerity. Includes the songs "Our Time," "Good Thing Going," and "Not A Day Goes By." Production Information

2.1.16 Sunday in the Park with George (1984), music and lyrics

A musical with book by James Lapine, based on the painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. George, a painter, has trouble connecting with his lover, Dot, when he thinks he has to choose between her and painting because he can't balance them both. The second act reveals that his great-grandson has similar problems, but he is able to start working through them when he returns to the island (now covered in condos) and is visited by a spectral vision of Dot. Like Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday employs evolving musical motifs such as Dot's first act showstopper, "We Do Not Belong Together," which eventually becomes her message to the 1984 George: "Move On," in which she and George realize, "We have always belonged together." Includes the songs "Finishing the Hat," "Putting It Together," and "Children and Art." Production Information

2.1.17 Into the Woods (1987), music and lyrics

A musical based on fairy tales, with a book by James Lapine. In order to lift a curse which prevents them from having children, a baker and his wife must retrieve items from Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Jack. In the second act, we see that "happily ever after" doesn't last when the characters have to take responsibility for their actions. Includes the songs "No More," "No One is Alone," and "Children Will Listen." Production Information

2.1.18 Dick Tracy (Film) (1990), 5 songs

A film by Warren Beatty, based on the comic strip. Tracy juggles his relationship with Tess Trueheart and his job fighting a crime spree by the mysterious "Blank. " Sexy nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney only further complicates matters for Tracy. Sondheim's song "Sooner or Later," sung by Madonna in the film, won the Academy Award for Best Song.

2.1.19 Assassins (1990), music and lyrics

This musical, with a book by John Weidman, explores the history of presidential assassination in America, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, Jr. Assassins climaxes in a surreal sequence where the assassins convince Lee Harvey Oswald that his act is the only way he will connect -- with them, with history, and with the world. Includes the songs "Unworthy of Your Love," "Another National Anthem," and "The Ballad of Booth." The song "Something Just Broke" was added for the London productions, and has been included in all subsequent productions, although it has not yet been recorded. Production Information

2.1.20 Passion (1994), music and lyrics

Based on the novel Fosca by Igino Tarchetti and the film Passion D'amore by Ettore Scola, this musical (with a book by James Lapine) explores love and obsession through the story of Giorgio, an officer in the Italian Army (in 1863) who carries on an affair through the mail with Clara, a married woman. When Fosca, the sickly, wretched sister of the colonel becomes obsessed with Giorgio, her passion begins to eat at his soul until he gives in to her overpowering love. The show explores the interconnectedness of love, beauty, passion, and obsession. Includes the songs "I Wish I Could Forget You," "No One Has Ever Loved Me," and "Loving You." Production Information

2.1.21 Getting Away With Murder (1995), co-playwright

Sondheim's first attempt at writing a non-musical for the stage ran a pitifully short run last year on Broadway. This mystery concerns seven characters in a group therapy session who must deal with the death of one of their own. Production Information

2.2 Minor Works

  • Topper (early 50s), television situation comedy scripts
  • The Girls of Summer (1956), incidental music and title song
  • Invitation to a March (1961), incidental music
  • Passionella / George's Moon (1962), song and incidental music
  • Twigs (1971), incidental music
  • The Enclave (1973), incidental music
  • Candide (1974), additional lyrics only
  • The Frogs (1974), music and lyrics Production Information
  • Seven Percent Solution (Film) (1976), one song Production Information
  • Side by Side By Sondheim (1976), music, lyrics, plus lyric revision
  • Marry Me a Little (1981), music, lyrics, plus lyric revision
  • Reds (Film) (1981), partial score.
  • You're Gonna Love Tomorrow (1984), music, lyrics, plus lyric revision.
  • Putting It Together (1992), music, lyrics, plus lyric revision
  • The Birdcage (1996), several songs Production Information

    2.3 Film Versions

    2.3.1 West Side Story
    Classic with Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno. Winner of 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Reordered songs, rewritten songs, but otherwise faithful adaptation. Lost energy of stage production is compensated for by great direction and choreography. Production Information

    2.3.2 Gypsy

2.3.3 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Version with Zero Mostel , Phil Silvers and Jack Gilford cut most songs and confused the plot with too many additions. However, with all its faults, it's not unentertaining. Production Information

2.3.4 A Little Night Music

2.3.5 Pacific Overtures
Television version with Mako. Original Broadway production taped for Japanese public television, where it was shown with subtitles. Not available in America.

2.3.6 Sweeney Todd

Television version with George Hearn, Angela Lansbury, and Cris Groenendaal. Taped at performance with additional taping done in an empty theatre, this is a well put together presentation of the material with a great cast. Production Information

2.3.7 Sunday in the Park with George
Television version with Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, and Charles Kimborough. Taped at performance with additional taping done in an empty theatre. Even more skillfully put together than Sweeney Todd, and an equally wonderful cast. However, Peters had throat problems during production that warranted redubbing of some songs, which is sometimes noticeable. Production Information

2.3.8 Into the Woods
Television version with Chip Zien, Joanna Gleason, Bernadette Peters, and Tom Aldridge. Taped at performance with additional taping done in an empty theatre. Even more skillfully put together than Sunday in the Park with George. Great cast, great presentation. Production Information

2.3.9 Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall
Heavily edited tribute to Sondheim includes many different interpretations of Sondheim's material. Interesting, but not for all tastes and pitifully incomplete.

2.3.10 Passion
Television version with Jere Shaw, Donna Murphy, and Marin Mazzie. Filmed (not taped) with the original Broadway cast on Broadway. This has yet to be released, but the advance buzz is that this is one of the best ever tapings of a stage musical for television, and it may earn Donna Murphy an Emmy. A deal has finally been made to show Passion on PBS this Fall! It is currently scheduled for a showing on September 8, 1996 on the American Playhouse series.

2.3.11 Documentaries
  • CompanyThe making of a cast album. Superb documentary about the grueling process of putting together the original cast album of Company.
  • Follies in Concert Wonderful documentary of the making of a concert tribute and interesting material about Follies, but shamefully little footage of the concert itself.

2.4 Upcoming Projects

2.4.1 Wise Guys

Sondheim is currently working with John Weidman on a new musical about the Mizner brothers, Wilson and Addison. Both dug for gold in the Klondike, and were occasionally prize fighters. Addison went on a series of journeys around the Pacific and ended up back in New York, where he became an architect, eventually being largely responsible for the Florida boom and the architecture to be found there. Wilson, on the other hand, became a conman, the manager of the welterweight champion of the world, the proprietor of a hotel for ciminals, and a wildly successful Broadway playwright, before joining his brother for the Florida boom and eventually ending up as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

Sondheim and Weidman had been very secretive about this project, revealing only tantalizing clues as to its nature. After Bill Jennings and Alisa Roost posted (on the Sondheim internet listserve) his speculations that the project would focus on the Mizner brothers, Ken Mandelbaum broke the story (including a reference to unnamed "internetters") in his column in Theaterweek. Rumor has it that the show is taking a vaudevillian form, with a very "Broadway" sounding score, whatever that means.

2.4.2 Sondheim in Print

New on the bookshelves: Company. The complete script of the classic show has just been published in a new edition including all the revisions for the 1995 London and Broadway productions.

Sondheim is currently compiling his lyrics into a book due out from Knopf next summer. He is now also the subject of an official, full-length biography, by Meryl Secrest. Sondheim finds it "flattering and embarrassing," but would "rather have someone intelligent and around so I can steer her to the proper sources, and, without interfereing, to be sure that everything is true rather than speculative." Sondheim has said that nothing will be off limits to his biographer, since that would more or less defeat the point of a biography. Stephen Citron is also working on an unauthorized biography. Sondheim noted that Citron's book will be mostly speculative, since Citron has approached neither Sondheim nor his colleagues.

2.4.3 Sondheim on Film

Tim Burton has signed on as director of Sweeney Todd. Hopefully, this will be his next project after Mars Attack!, his current film.

There is also a script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell for a cinematic Into the Woods currently making the Hollywood rounds. Penny Marshall had an all-star script reading at her house featuring Robin Williams as the Baker. However, she will not direct the film. Robert Minkoff, director of "The Lion King," will be doing the honors. Note that in Stephen Sondheim's own words, "No, it's still going to have live actors," although Jim Henson Producations will be providing any necessary "creatures.") The film's preproduction is slowly but surely moving along. Sondheim is under contract to provide at least four, no more than six new songs, of which he has completed two. The latest news is that a casting director has been hired, so, with any luck, we should have some idea of who will star soon.

We've read the forth draft of the screenplay (from June 29, 1994), and here's what we've found. Many of the songs were cut out, and several have been emasculated. Here's what's left:

  • Potential new opening number for Baker and Wife
  • Potential new song for Witch's introduction to Baker and Wife
  • Into the Woods
  • Hello, Little Girl
  • Cinderella at the Grave
  • Maybe They're Magic
  • Instrumental Waltz for the Festival
  • Potential new song for Wife in which she envies Cinderella's life
  • Potential new song for Jack when he first views the kingdom in the sky
  • Agony
  • Stay With Me
  • Witch's Lament
  • Any Moment
  • Last Midnight (although marked as a spot for a potential new song)
  • Potential new song for Cinderella to sing to the Baker after his wife dies
  • No One is Alone
  • Children Will Listen


The story basically follows that of the show's first act, although the story unfolds in a different manner, without a narrator or a Mysterious Man.

Several confusions of the play have been fixed. For example, Rapunzel is no longer related to the Baker, nor does she give birth to twins, so the question of why the family curse didn't affect her has been erased.

At the end of the first "act," the Giant rises from his fall and goes on a rampage, allowing the rest of the story to unfold more-or-less as it did in Act II of the play. The intricate back stories of the Baker's father and the witch's mother have been deleted, eliminating "No More" and changing a bit of "Last Midnight." There is no "second bean," so the Baker's wife's scenes with Cinderella are fairly different. Finally, at the very end of the movie the wife reappears, having tricked the Giant into thinking she was dead.

Strangely, there has been no effort to integrate "Children Will Listen" into the action. Rather, the camera just switches to a shot of the witch singing the song against a backdrop of Rapunzel's tower, followed by a montage of the survivors going about their lives after the giant. Although there will certainly be more work done on the script before it becomes a film, what we've seen is certainly promising, and will definitely be entertaining, even if it's not the Into the Woods we all know and love.

Sondheim's film Singing Out Loud, which he was working on with Rob Reiner and William Goldman, has been shelved.

2.4.4 Sondheim Revived

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is back on Broadway in a new production directed by Jerry Zaks and starring Nathan Lane, who won a Tony award for his role as Pseudolus.

Passion is currently playing in the West End at the Queen's Theatre, with Michael Ball and Maria Friedman. This production is different from the American production in many ways, most notably the addition of an intermission. However, it was welcomed with a similar reception. A Little Night Music, however, is finishing up a hit run at the Royal National Theatre's Oliverier Theatre. (Its last performance will be on August 31.) More information about Sondheim in the West End...

The Sondheim Review publishes a large list of upcoming productions, both professional and otherwise, in every issue. Check it out for more information.

2.4.5 Sondheim Recorded

There are currently several new Sondheim albums in the CD racks: Company's 1995 London cast recording (on First Night as an import, and supposedly coming soon from RCA Victor in America) and The Birdcage Soundtrack, featuring performances of "Can That Boy Foxtrot," "Love is in the Air," and the new "Little Dream." While "Can That Boy Foxtrot" is a pseudo-live recording of Nathan Lane singing the entire song, the other two tracks begin with clips as they were heard in the movie with a segue into instrumental versions. A full version of "Little Dream" should be available soon on a proposed album of Sondheim's movie music.

The Sondheim Jazz phenomenon is still going strong, evidenced by two recent releases. The Trotter Trio put out its fourth Sondheim... in Jazz CD, a fun interpretation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This album excels beyond the Trio's previous Sondheim releases in two exciting ways: It features a larger selection of instruments, including bass clarinet, alto flute, and percussion, and it was recorded with a new High Definition CD technology, providing charper, cleaner sound. Also in the Jazz racks is a rerelease of Annie Ross's (vocal) jazz interpretation of Gypsy, on the Pacific Jazz label. Ross and the Buddy Bregman Band swing through a sampling of the shows' hits, including a gender-bender "All I Need is the Boy."

2.5 Sondheim's Place in the General Scheme of Things

Currently, Broadway is in a large dilemma. Shows like Sunset Boulevard can bring in money with spectacle and recognition, but they have been criticized for neither breaking new ground nor using the resources of live theatre to its fullest potenital. Most other "new" Broadway shows are simply revivals or by-the-book movie adaptions, which can be great, but again aren't breaking new ground. Although this season brought us Rent and Bring In 'Da Noise/Bring In 'Da Funk, both of which have garnered incredibly positive word of mouth and critical acclaim, the creative slump on Broadway is far from over. Of course, the theatre is not in the business of creating history, but with ticket prices exceptionally high and the real issues that give theatre its vitality disappearing, Broadway is becoming something people may do for a special occasion, but not a vital part of their lives. Sondheim has come to represent the hope for musical theater as an art form on Broadway. His work is firmly based in "traditional" Broadway -- his earliest mentor was Oscar Hammerstein, and his first works were with the Broadway royalty such as Jerome Robbins, Jule Styne, and Ethel Merman. Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Passion havebeen called the ultimate extension of Hammerstein's "bench scene" from Carousel -- the complete blending of song and speech.

Sondheim's work is also in the tradition of the best opera has to offer. Britten's Peter Grimes, Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, and Wagner's use of leitmotifs are all artistic predecessors to Sondheim's work. Sondheim, however, creates a new fabric for each show. Sunday in the Park with George creates an aural equivalent of pointillism through extensive staccato plucking. Pacific Overtures explores traditional Japanese music and tonal structure. Sweeney Todd incorporates the Dies Irae and more operatic elements. Follies uses many of the more "traditional" musical theatre elements.

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