In his 91-year life, prolific composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim crafted some of Broadway’s most iconic tunes. From “West Side Story” to “Into the Woods,” his music has stood the test of time and cemented him as a theater legend. The Broadway community paid tribute to Sondheim on Friday, with longtime collaborator Bernadette Peters writing, “He gave me so much to sing about. I loved him dearly and will miss him so much. Thank you for all the gifts you gave the world Steve.”
Meanwhile, Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria in the upcoming Steven Spielberg adaptation of “West Side Story,” recalled Sondheim’s profound impact on her love for musical theater. “Sweeney Todd was the first musical I ever comprehended. 5 years old, dancing around to ‘A Little Priest’ without knowing what it was about. My heart is so shattered. What a life.”
Sondheim racked up seven Tony awards over his career, plus an honorary Tony celebrating his lifetime achievements in 2008. With 19 major musicals and hundreds of songs, it’s nearly impossible to narrow down his impressive repertoire into a brief list, but we’ve made our best effort below, along with videos of our favorite renditions.
Honorable Mentions: “Ladies Who Lunch,” “Rose’s Turn,” “A Little Priest,” “The Ballad of Booth,” “Maria,” “Finishing the Hat.”
‘The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd,’ ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’
Now this is how you open a show. Sondheim found the perfect way to let his audience know exactly what they were in for in the opening number of “Sweeney Todd.” True, it’s a challenge to refrain from putting every single song from “Sweeney Todd” on this list, but the opening number sets the stage for the gruesome fable to come. The unnerving piano melody and staccato performance from the ensemble immediately makes it clear: this is no fairy tale. We highly recommend experiencing this intro with the cast from 1982 (above), but it has also been recreated so many times including on film, in NBC’s “The Office” and it even received a loving tribute (and total re-write) from the cast of “Hamilton” for charity.
Best line: “Swing your razor wide, Sweeney / Hold it to the skies / Freely flows the blood of those who moralize”
‘Somewhere,’ ‘West Side Story’
The beauty of this duet is almost powerful enough to convince the audience that maybe things will turn out alright for Tony and Maria. As the battle between the Jets and the Sharks rages on, the simplicity of the young lovers’ dream is placed center stage: “Peace and quiet and open air.” We challenge you to watch the 1961 film adaptation of “Somewhere” starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer (and sung by Jimmy Bryant and Marni Nixon) and not get overwhelmed by the emotions of young love, passion and anxiety.
Best line: “There’s a place for us / A time and place for us / Hold my hand and we’re halfway there / Hold my hand and I’ll take you there”
‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses,’ ‘Gypsy’
The ultimate optimist’s anthem, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” closes out Act 1 of “Gypsy,” when Rose promises to make her daughter Louise a big star. With soaring vocals and powerful lyrics conveying Rose’s unrelenting drive, it’s no wonder the number was an instant Broadway classic (and a signature song for Ethel Merman). So many icons have played iconic role of Rose from Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters to Bette Midler, but we really love this rendition from Patti Lupone.
Best line: “Honey, everything’s coming up roses and daffodils! / Everything’s coming up sunshine and Santa Claus! / Everything’s gonna be bright lights and lollipops!”
‘Send in the Clowns,’ ‘A Little Night Music’
After rejecting her true love, Fredrick, actress Desirée finally realizes after years that a life with him is what she wants. However, when he turns the tables and rejects her, Desirée is forced to come to terms with the consequences of her stubbornness from years ago, feeling foolish and summoning “the clowns.” Especially now this version from long-time Sondheim collaborator Bernadette Peters will make you cry. Additional honorable mentions include the iconic Barbra Streisand track, which she put on her Broadway album and we also recommend checking out Dame Judi Dench’s version.
Best line: “Don’t you love a farce? / My fault, I fear / I thought that you’d want what I want / Sorry my dear”
‘No One Is Alone,’ ‘Into the Woods’
“No One Is Alone” bookends the second act of “Into the Woods,” as the remaining lead characters must reckon with the consequences of their wishes from the far-more-lighthearted first act. In case Sondheim hadn’t made it crystal-clear already, this moment hammers home the message that fairy tale lessons are far more applicable to real life than they may seem: we must all learn to make it on our own, even when we don’t feel ready. As Cinderella and the Baker teach this lesson to Jack and Little Red, they reveal that nobody can leave the woods with their innocence intact—and maybe that’s okay. In all cases of “Into the Woods” we have to go with the original Broadway cast, with only one exception, Tituss Burgess’ version of “Stay With Me.”
Best line: “Sometimes people leave you / halfway through the wood / Others may deceive you / You decide what’s good”
‘Losing My Mind,’ ‘Follies’
Fading showgirl Sally laments the stream of never-ending thoughts about her former lover which haunt her at all times: “The sun comes up, I think about you / The coffee cup, I think about you.” The achingly beautiful melody underscores the question at the heart of Sally’s pain and confusion–was it love? Did it mean as much to him as it did to her, and still does? Imelda Staunton performed this “Follies” song proving that even if you don’t like the musical itself, you have to love this song.
Best line: “You said you loved me, or were you just being kind? / Or am I losing my mind?”
‘Being Alive,’ ‘Company’
Has any song ever captured the longing for love as perfectly as this? In “Being Alive,” the emotional climax of “Company,” bachelor Bobby finally realizes his desire to find someone to share the simplest moments with–even life’s annoyances: “Someone to sit in your chair / and ruin your sleep.” “Marriage Story” proves that this song doesn’t just pack a punch within the musical’s context—Adam Driver’s emotional rendition is one of the film’s high points. But we bow low for 2008 revival starring Raul Esparza, a show where the cast didn’t just sing and act, but played instruments throughout the performance.
Best line: “Somebody crowd me with love / Somebody force me to care / Somebody let come through / I’ll always be there / As frightened as you / To help us survive / Being alive”