A history of Stephen Sondheim musicals on Broadway and beyond
Sondheim cemented his place as one of Broadway's greatest writers with shows like Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and more — learn about all his works here.
Stephen Sondheim is a Broadway songwriter in a league of his own. In a career spanning decades before his death at age 91 in 2021, Sondheim won six Tony Awards for his scores, plus one for lifetime achievement, and a Pulitzer Prize.
Sondheim and his notable collaborators remain well-represented in the New York theatre scene. With a Josh Groban-led production of Sweeney Todd now running, the first Broadway revival of Merrily We Roll Along launching in September, and the new musical Here We Are premiering off Broadway that same month, it’s the perfect opportunity to look back on the history of Sondheim's Broadway shows.
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Sondheim shows on Broadway and off Broadway
Over a 50-year span, Sondheim tackled a wide range of subjects, from showbiz, storybook tales, star-crossed love, sinister revenge, and much more. He set them to equally complex and diversified music styles, cementing his place as one of Broadway’s greatest writers. Discover a complete guide to all of Sondheim’s shows below.
1957: West Side Story
Based on Romeo and Juliet, this show about a forbidden romance between rival gang affiliates ranks as one of Broadway’s most influential musicals. Sondheim’s Tony-nominated lyrics announced his talents as if to say, “somethin’s comin', somethin' good.” Really good, actually. In 2020, the fifth and most recent Broadway revival was directed by Ivo van Hove.
Sondheim notched his next credit as a Broadway lyricist with this beloved musical starring Ethel Merman as a stage mother from hell. The optimistic tune “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” aptly described Sondheim’s rapidly ascending career. Broadway’s fourth revival, headlined by Patti LuPone, bowed in 2008.
1962: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
This bawdy farce set in ancient Rome was Sondheim’s first credit as a Broadway composer and lyricist. “Comedy Tonight” — famously written during pre-Broadway performances in Washington, D.C. — sets the rollicking tone for the tale of freedom-seeking Pseudolus. Zero Mostel originated the role, then Phil Silvers played the part in 1972, followed by Nathan Lane, who won a Tony, in 1996.
1964: Anyone Can Whistle
And anyone can have a flop. The show ran nine performances, despite note-perfect Sondheim songs including the peppy “There’s a Parade in Town” and the yearning “With So Little to be Sure Of,” plus Angela Lansbury starring as a cash-strapped town’s crooked mayor. An Off-Broadway production led by Donna Murphy in 2010 was a highlight of Encores!, an annual program that presents three seldom revived musicals.
1965: Do I Hear a Waltz?
The Tony-nominated score of this bittersweet Venetian romance featured lyrics by Sondheim and music by Richard Rodgers. Writer Arthur Laurents, whose credits include West Side Story and Gypsy, adapted Do I Hear a Waltz? from his play The Time of the Cuckoo, about the forbidden affair between an American executive and Italian shopkeeper. The production ran for 220 performances.
1966: The Mad Show
Sondheim was among a roster of writers who contributed to this comedic Off-Broadway revue. He co-composed the show with Mary Rodgers and wrote lyrics alongside Larry Siegel, Marshall Barer, and Steven Vinaver. His most famous tune from that show — which ran for 871 performances — is “The Boy From…,”a parody of “The Girl From Ipanema.” Ironically, though, his songwriting credit was under a pseudonym — first “Esteban Rio Nido” and then “Nom de Plume.”
Sondheim’s Tony-winning score for this classic boasts wall-to-wall hits. Among them are the stinging “Ladies Who Lunch” and the affirming “Being Alive,” sung by Bobby, a single guy trying to make sense of himself amid his circle of married friends. The show was Sondheim’s first collaboration with director Harold Prince, who’d previously produced several Sondheim shows. In 2021, the show’s third Broadway revival turned Bobby into the unmarried Bobbie, played by Katrina Lenk.
Ex-showgirls and their spouses reunite to face ghosts from the past – and the present. Emotions spill in iconic songs from Sondheim’s Tony-winning score. His peerless power as a wordsmith shines bright in “I’m Still Here” as an aging survivor takes stock of her life: “First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone's mother, then you’re camp; then you career from career to career.” The show returned to Broadway in 2001 and again in 2011.
1973: A Little Night Music
Drawn from Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, this musical about troubled couples in Sweden ran 601 performances. Notable tunes in the Tony-winning score are “Miller’s Son,” a lively tongue twister, and the introspective “Send in the Clowns,” which became a huge pop hit. Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones played mother and daughter in the 2009 Broadway revival.
1976: Pacific Overtures
Composer-lyricist Sondheim liked a complex subject. This show about the westernization of Japan ran for 193 performances and introduced “Someone in a Tree,” a song about how history is recorded (and one of Sondheim’s personal favorites). Originated by Mako, the pivotal role of the Reciter was played by B.D. Wong in the 2004 Broadway revival and George Takei in Classic Stage Company’s 2017 Off-Broadway revival.
1979: Sweeney Todd
Widely considered Sondheim’s masterpiece, this show’s Tony-winning glorious score threads through the story of a throat-slitting barber in 19th-century London. Len Cariou originated the role alongside Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, who turned murder victims into meat pies.
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1981: Merrily We Roll Along
It started out like a bomb. Despite a Tony nod for Sondheim’s terrific score, which includes the standards “Good Thing Going” and “Not a Day Goes By,” the show about the messy friendship of three big dreamers ran just 16 performances. It also drove a wedge between Sondheim and Prince.
The show has undergone extensive revivals since then, though, and sits proudly among Sondheim’s classics. The first Broadway revival, a transfer from a critically-acclaimed 2022 run at New York Theatre Workshop, launches in September. Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez reprise their starring roles.
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1981: Marry Me a Little
Two New Yorkers consider what it would be like to speak to one another, but can’t work up the courage to make the first move in this show about love and loneliness. Sounds like grist for Sondheim, no? The score featured songs cut from his other musicals including Follies, A Little Night Music, and his (unproduced) first musical, Saturday Night (more on that one later). The show ran 96 performances at the Actor’s Playhouse off Broadway.
1983: Sunday in the Park with George
This Pulitzer Prize winner, first seen off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, highlights the highs and lows of making art. Act 1 follows Georges Seurat as he paints a new work and romances his model, Dot, in the 1880s. Act 2 jumps ahead 100 years, following Seurat’s great-grandson’s own troubled artistic career.
No matter the century, “art isn’t easy, even when you’re hot,” observes Sondheim in the Tony-nominated score. Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters reprised their starring roles from the Playwrights premiere on Broadway in 1984. In a 2017 Broadway revival, Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford led the way.
1987: Into the Woods
What happens after a fairytale ending? Sondheim explores this provocative question in this much-produced show. The Tony-winning score is filled with delights like “Children Will Listen.”
Major revivals — many with starry casts — abound. To name a few: In 2008, an open-air Shakespeare in the Park run starred Amy Adams as the Baker’s Wife. Sara Bareilles played that same plum part in a May 2022 New York City Center run, and a few months later in the Broadway transfer.
Sondheim’s ear – and eye – for offbeat subjects comes through in this dark-streaked work about presidential murderers like John Wilkes Booth and would-be killers like John Hinckley. The show opened to mixed reviews and ran 73 performances at Playwrights Horizons, but the critically-hailed 2004 Broadway debut won a Tony for Best Revival. In 2021, director John Doyle’s revival at Classic Stage Company subtly referenced current events.
Sondheim mined a movie set in 19th-century Italy about Fosca, a sickly woman drawn to Giorgio, a handsome soldier, for this story. He also turned out one of his most beautiful Tony-winning scores. “Loving you is not a choice, it’s who I am,” sings Fosca (Donna Murphy, to Tony-winning effect), in a heart-stoppingly frank song. Judy Kuhn starred in the Classic Stage Company’s revival in 2013.
2000: Saturday Night
Two middle-class bachelors in 1929 Brooklyn hatch a get-rich-quick scheme in this musical. It aimed for Broadway in the mid-1950s and would have marked Sondheim’s Broadway debut, but a turn of events prevented that run. Sondheim’s score was shelved for more than four decades. Variety hailed the New York debut at Second Stage Theater for its “lyrical ingenuity.”
2004: The Frogs
Thirty years after its debut in the pool at Yale University, the freewheeling adaptation of an ancient Greek play by Aristophanes, with a score by Sondheim, hopped to Broadway. Nathan Lane starred as Dionysos, who sang “I Love to Travel.” The show ran 92 performances.
2008: Road Show
Sondheim’s musical portrait of Addison and Wilson Mizner, wheeler-dealer brothers in the early 20th century, was in the works for years under various titles – Wise Guys, Bounce, and Gold – prior to the debut starring Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani at The Public Theater. Sondheim won an Obie Award for his score. A 2019 Encores! staging starred Raúl Esparza and Brandon Uranowitz.
2023: Here We Are
Sondheim’s last show, which begins performances at The Shed in September, is a collaboration with writer David Ives. It is based on two Luis Buñuel films — The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel — and tells the story of a dinner party gone awry. Joe Mantello (Grey House) directs a cast that includes Tracie Bennett, Bobby Cannavale, Micaela Diamond, Amber Gray, Rachel Bay Jones, Denis O’Hare, Steven Pasquale, David Hyde Pierce, and more. Are we there for Here We Are? You bet.
Sondheim revues in New York
When a composer writes so many great songs, it’s only natural to put them together thematically. Sondheim’s catalog inspired many Broadway and Off-Broadway revues honoring his unmatched career — learn more about them below.
1977: Side by Side by Sondheim
The title of the show produced by Harold Prince is lifted from a song from Company, “Side by Side by Side.” It’s a natural name for a revue. In addition to well-known tunes, the revue included some cut songs like “Can That Boy Foxtrot,” which was written for Follies. The track list has varied slightly, though, from production to production — since its Broadway premiere, Side by Side by Sondheim has premiered internationally.
1993: Putting It Together
Julie Andrews and Stephen Collins led Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off-Broadway revue. The title is borrowed from a Sunday in the Park with George song title, and a slender plot about the complexities of relationships glued the show together. In 1999, Carol Burnett and George Hearn led the show on Broadway.
2003: Celebrating Sondheim
A solo show by Mandy Patinkin, who originated the title role in Sunday in the Park with George, was all about Sondheim’s songs. The brief engagement ran 10 performances.
2010: Sondheim on Sondheim
Frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine (Sunday in the Park with George, Passion) conceived and directed this revue featuring Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, and other Broadway favorites. This revue is based on Moving On, a show conceived by Side by Side by Sondheim creator David Kernan. Sondheim on Sondheim premiered in New York and Atlanta under a few different names, including Opening Doors and Sondheim: a Musical Revue, before getting its Broadway title.
Additional Sondheim works
Sondheim also wrote music for a few screen projects, including the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, whose song "The Madame's Song" appeared in Side by Side by Sondheim as “I Never Do Anything Twice.” But perhaps more famous is Evening Primrose, a musical written for TV featuring songs like "Take Me To The World."
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