Stephen Sondheim, the most illustrious musical theatre composer of the 20th century, passed away this week. Sondheim, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 91, completely altered the landscape of what could be seen on a Broadway stage. Throughout his career, he won eight Tony Awards, including one for lifetime achievement in 2008, an Academy Award for his work on “Dick Tracy,” eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Laurence Olivier Award, a Laurence Olivier Award, a Laurence Olivier Award, a Laurence Olivier Award, a Laurence Olivier Award, Sondheim’s career is impenetrable, yet anything that receives his blessing is enhanced by his presence.
The answer to the question “What is the best Stephen Sondheim musical?” is “all of them,” so attempting to condense his colossal accomplishments into a ranked list of five musicals feels sacrilegious and bordering on criminal. However, it is my responsibility as a civil servant in the musical theatre community to present what are undoubtedly his five best works. Sondheim’s music and lyrics are required for a musical to be considered, so “West Side Story” is not eligible because it belongs to a different category of greatness. After considering everything, we humbly give our list of Sondheim’s top 5 musicals.
5. A Little Night Music
Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” is a romantic farce about the lives of several upper middle-class couples in early 20th-century Sweden, spinning a web of affairs, jealousy, suspicion, and an elegant game of sexual musical chairs. It was inspired by the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night.” With its three-quarter time melodies and “Send in the Clowns,” one of his most well-known songs, “A Little Night Music” brought him his record-breaking fourth consecutive Tony Award for the best score of the season in 1973. One of Sondheim’s vocally challenging productions, “A Little Night Music” makes use of counterpoint, polyphony, and multiple singers singing entirely different songs at the same time. In 1977, a movie version of the musical was released, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Rigg, and Lesley-Anne Down. Despite the film’s underwhelming reviews, Sondheim created a brand-new version of “The Glamorous Life” that has since been used in numerous subsequent stage musical productions.
4. Merrily We Roll Along
“Merrily We Roll Along,” which was based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, was for a long time one of Sondheim’s most misunderstood compositions. The play received very unfavourable reviews when it first debuted, and it eventually closed after 16 performances and 52 previews. After going through a lot of revisions, “Merrily” is now regarded as having one of Sondheim’s most beautiful scores, with its pop sensibilities and non-linear storytelling finally being recognised for their brilliance. Franklin Shepard, a wealthy, well-known, and powerful singer and film producer, is the subject of the play. The musical follows the last 20 years of his life in reverse chronological order, allowing the audience to witness his transformation from a struggling composer to a successful producer as well as the friendships with Charley and Mary that he neglected in favour of his career. Richard Linklater has devoted the last 20 years to directing a cinematic adaption starring Blake Jenner, Ben Platt, and Beanie Feldstein in the wake of the success of “Boyhood.”
One of Sondheim’s most enduring works, “Company,” received a then-record-breaking 14 Tony Award nominations and won six of them, and the song “Being Alive” has come to represent Sondheim’s legacy. Although the plot of the programme is thin, it features amazing music and tales about a single man, his five married buddies and their spouses, as well as his three girlfriends. Sondheim’s legacy was cemented by “Company,” and Criterion recently restored and released D. A. Pennebaker’s “Original Cast Recording: Company,” a behind-the-scenes look at the recording of the original Broadway cast album that features Elaine Stritch’s breathtaking performance of “Ladies Who Lunch” and moments when Sondheim provided music direction that now feel priceless and will undoubtedly make you cry.
2. Into The Woods
Since we first started recording our stories, fairy tales have been pervasive, which is presumably why “Into The Woods” is one of his most well-known and successful films on the commercial front. The musical “Into The Woods,” which features well-known characters including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming, Jack (of the beanstalk), and the Witch, features some of Sondheim’s most evocative and profound music. One of the songs on my list of those that will always make me cry is “No One Is Alone,” particularly Bernadette Peters’ version of it. We somehow managed to placate the musical theatre gods enough to obtain a filmed recording of the 1987 Broadway show, and we will always be grateful. The 2014 film is a crime against Sondheim’s work (sorry, Meryl), if only for casting James Corden as The Baker.
1. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The music from “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is Sondheim’s best work, although most people are only familiar with it because of Tim Burton’s 2007 movie of the same name starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. The music is eerie, audacious, beautiful, and melodic. One of the most well-liked productions in the world, the original 1979 Broadway production of the play received eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Sondheim pays tribute to 20th-century composer Bernard Herrmann, who created the scores for melodramatic films in the 1940s and 1950s, with music that nearly always underlines the show’s 80 percent singing. Sondheim’s masterwork “Sweeney Todd” is intricate and beautiful yet revolving around some of the darkest topics of his career (apart from perhaps “Assassins”).