Article image
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

Author image
About the Author
Darren Orf
Darren lives in Portland, Oregon, has two cats, and writes about science, technology, nature, and history.
Play more header background
Play more icon
Daily Question
What pop star said, "Live for each second without hesitation"?

More Inspiration

happiness theme icon

The choice to love is the choice to connect — to find ourselves in the other.

separator icon
bell hooks
motivation theme icon

Write relentlessly, until you find your voice. Then, use it.

separator icon
David Sedaris
hope theme icon

Only love can heal the wounds of the past.

separator icon
bell hooks
love theme icon

Joy is that kind of happiness that does not depend on what happens.

separator icon
David Steindl-Rast
wisdom theme icon

Everything that truly makes us happy is quite simple: love, sex, and food!

separator icon
Meryl Streep
happiness theme icon

Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.

separator icon
George Bernard Shaw
motivation theme icon

Success is the process itself.

separator icon
Matt Damon
hope theme icon

It is not enough to know your craft — you have to have feeling.

separator icon
Édouard Manet
love theme icon

What people like is honesty... My film career took off once I came out.

separator icon
Ian McKellen
wisdom theme icon

Everybody who is honest is interesting.

separator icon
Stefan Sagmeister
happiness theme icon

You can't learn style. Style, I think, is in your DNA.

separator icon
Iris Apfel