Treasure Trove: David Matlow remembers Stephen Sondheim, who reinvented the American musical

Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) was a composer and lyricist, credited with reinventing the American musical. He was born to Jewish parents in New York City but was raised without any formal Jewish background. Leonard Bernstein (whom Sondheim collaborated with on West Side Story when he was 27) had to tell him how to pronounce “Yom Kippur.” 

In addition to West Side Story, Sondheim’s best-known works include Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along.

Sondheim did not explore Jewish themes in his work, yet when asked how he characterized his Jewish identification he responded: “It’s very deep.  It’s the fact that so many of the people I admire in the arts are Jewish.  And art is as close to a religion as I have.”

This is the Playbill from the opening night of the Broadway revival of Company, in December 2021 shortly after Sondheim’s death. What is known today as Playbill, a theatre program with ads, was conceived by Frank Vance Strauss in 1884.