Stephen Sondheim on What Makes a Good Musical

Stephen Sondheim (photo by Rivka Katvan, from American Theatre)

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Stephen Sondheim. He said a lot of smart things about musicals and theatre, but the part I remember best was something he said during the Q&A. At the time, there was a new production running on Broadway of West Side Story – which had been Sondheim’s Broadway debut, as lyricist – that had replaced some of the original dialogue and songs with Spanish translations. Someone asked what he thought about those changes to his work, and Sondheim said, “are you kidding? It’s great! I  never have to hear the words ‘it’s alarming how charming I feel’ ever again!” There he was, the renowned writer behind an intimidating number of groundbreaking musicals, looking back on his first show – which was a big hit and is now a beloved classic – and simply feeling relieved that someone had finally fixed it.

Obviously, Sondheim’s ideas about what makes a good musical have evolved over the years, but a lot of the principles he describes now are still found in his early work – including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics. If you’re curious about what those principles are, check out this 2011 interview from American Theatre magazine, in which Sondheim discusses using songs to advance the plot, making unsympathetic characters the star of the show, and always having lyrics that rhyme.


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