The Best 30 Stephen Sondheim Quotes

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Stephen Sondheim is, to many, the King of Broadway musicals.

Born in 1930, Sondheim passed away in 2021. During his accomplished life, the composer wrote the lyrics to some of the most famous musicals of all time, from West Side Story in 1957 and Company in 1970 to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 1979. With many more in between.

He boasts eight Tony Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, an Oscar, and eight Grammy Awards. We wanted to dive into what the artist had to say outside of his song lyrics. What were his thoughts about his craft, his life, his love, and the world at large?

Without further ado, here are the 30 best Stephen Sondheim quotes.

1. “The dumbing down of the country reflects itself on Broadway. The shows get dumber, and the public gets used to them.”

2. “The fact is popular art dates. It grows quaint. How many people feel strongly about Gilbert and Sullivan today compared to those who felt strongly in 1890?”

3. “I’m always conscious of what I’m writing, conscious of what the actor may ask me. I have a defense for nearly every line in the song.”

4. “My personal life and my artistic life do not interfere with each other.”

5. “I was essentially trained by Oscar Hammerstein to think of songs as one-act plays, to move a song from point A to point B dramatically.”

6. “I happen to like movies and plays about dislikeable people as long as I get to know why they are what they are.”

7. “I don’t find my life that interesting. The shows, maybe. But not me.”

8. “I’m very opinionated about movie musicals when they’re adapted from live shows. You’ll sit still for a three-minute song in a theater. But in movies, a glance from someone’s eyes will tell you the whole story in a few seconds.”

9. “Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.”

10. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”

11. “The nice thing about doing a crossword puzzle is, you know there is a solution.”

12. “Musical comedies aren’t written, they are rewritten.”

13. “My mother wanted me off her hands. She was a working woman. She designed clothes, and she was a celebrity collector. It’s my mother’s ambition to be a celebrity.”

14. “When I’m writing a song, I try to be the character.”

15. “I prefer neurotic people. I like to hear rumblings beneath the surface.”

16. “One difference between poetry and lyrics is that lyrics sort of fade into the background. They fade on the page and live on the stage when set to music.”

17. “Two of the hardest words in the language to rhyme are life and love. Of all words!”

18. “I’m a great audience. I cry very easily. I suspend disbelief in two seconds.”

19. “I’m interested in the theater because I’m interested in communication with audiences. Otherwise I would be in concert music.”

20. “I firmly believe lyrics have to breathe and give the audience’s ear a chance to understand what’s going on. Particularly in the theater, where you have costume, story, acting, orchestra.”

21. “Every time one can write a self-deluded song, you are way ahead of the game, way ahead. Self-delusion is the basis of nearly all the great scenes in all the great plays, from ‘Oedipus’ to ‘Hamlet.'”

22. “So many good songs get written fast, because you know exactly what has to work.”

23. “If you’re dealing with a musical in which you’re trying to tell a story, it’s got to sound like speech. At the same time it’s got to be a song.”

24. “Generally, the best recording is the original cast, because that’s the way the piece grew: integrally, with them.”

25. “I don’t listen to recordings of my songs. I don’t avoid it, I just don’t go out of my way to do it.”

26. “Nice is different than good.”

27. “All the best performers bring to their role something more, something different than what the author put on paper. That’s what makes theatre live. That’s why it persists.”

28. “Everybody faces a blank piece of paper, no matter what they’ve written or painted or composed before. I can’t imagine approaching every single new project with—without doubt.”

29. “When the audience comes in, it changes the temperature of what you’ve written.”

Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage

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