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20 Genius Stephen Sondheim Lyrics About Life, Love, and Success

Few names are more respected or revered on Broadway than Stephen Sondheim. A brilliant composer and lyricist, Sondheim (1930-2021) created a new kind of American musical, at once deeply personal, dynamic, and full of wisdom.

Sondheim was born in New York City in 1930. Before setting his first words to music, the young composer was mentored by another musical titan, Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyrical genius behind classic shows such as “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” and “The Sound of Music.” Sondheim yearned to be just like him one day — and he more than succeeded.

In his 50-year career, Sondheim created a body of work more eclectic than any composer-lyricist in Broadway history. There’s the cynical romance of “Company” (1970), the devilishly dark tale of “Sweeny Todd” (1979), a portrait of an artist in “Sunday in the Park With George” (1984), and the fantastical fairytale romp “Into the Woods” (1987). This impressive variety was intentional: Sondheim told “The New York Times” in 2008 that what made a story most appealing to him was if he had never done it before. “If it doesn’t make you nervous,” he said, “you’re going to write the same thing you wrote before.”

These 20 quotes from Sondheim musicals illustrate the songwriter’s views on life, love, and success. While all these sayings come from the mouths of various characters — from different generations, locations, and even realities — they form a vision of Sondheim’s life philosophy: to get out there and live.

Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.
— "Into the Woods"

I chose, and my world was shaken / So what? / The choice may have been mistaken / The choosing was not
— "Sunday in the Park With George"

Success is like failure / It's how you perceive it / It's what you do with it / Not how you achieve it
— "Merrily We Roll Along"

If I cannot fly / Let me sing
— "Sweeney Todd"

Work is what you do for others… / Art is what you do for yourself
— "Sunday in the Park With George"

Perpetual anticipation is good for the soul / But it's bad for the heart
— "A Little Night Music"

Anything you do / Let it come from you / Then it will be new
— "Sunday in the Park With George"

Don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing to be afraid of, really, is that it won’t be.
— "Company"

And life is for the alive, my dear / So let's keep living it
— "Sweeney Todd"

Oh, if life were made of moments / Even now and then a bad one / But if life were only moments / Then you'd never know you had one
— "Into the Woods"

Sometimes you have to start small / Climbing the tiniest wall / Maybe you're going to fall / But it is better than not starting at all!
— "Anyone Can Whistle"

Some people sit on their butts. Got the dream, yeah, but not the guts!
— "Gypsy"

Careful the tale you tell / That is the spell / Children will listen
— "Into the Woods"

Some rides are rough / And leave you jumpy / Why make it tough / By getting grumpy?
— "Merrily We Roll Along"

To wish and wait / From day to day / Will never keep / The wolves away
— "Into the Woods"

We'll find a new way of living / We'll find a way of forgiving / Somewhere
— "West Side Story"

Some people cry at hellos and farewells / Some people cry at nostalgia with bells / Some cry at weddings, some at the moon / I cry promptly Mondays at high noon
— "Do I Hear a Waltz?"

I read to live / In other people’s lives
— "Passion"

Wishes may bring problems / So that you regret them / Better that though than to never get them
— "Into the Woods"

The road you didn't take / Hardly comes to mind / Does it? / The door you didn't try / Where could it have led?
— "Follies"

Photo credit: MediaPunch Inc/ Alamy Stock Photo

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About the Author
Darren Orf
Darren lives in Portland, Oregon, has two cats, and writes about science, technology, nature, and history.
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