Best Quotes From Sondheim Musicals

Sean Pollack

  • OnStage Guest Columnist

WARNING: this post may contain spoilers for “Into The Woods”, “Company”, “Merrily We Roll Along”, “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Assassins”.

It took over twenty years for Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods to transfer to the silver screen and has been, in my opinion, the smoothest stage -­ screen adaptation we’ve had in the last decade (we’re seeing a lot of vice ­versa, aka, screen ­to ­stage adaptations in the theatre world right now, which are by and large, pretty uninteresting). This is pretty important, considering it was rumored this project died a long time ago (which was supposed to be produced as early as 1992 using puppets from Jim Henson’s studio, Danny Devito, Cher and Robin Williams among others) and it is not unusual for musical projects to die development hell in Hollywood. In spite of the fact that Disney produced it and they generally suck, in accordance with the fact “Ever After”, “So Happy” (which is referenced here) and the entirety of the Narrator’s character were cut, it is a pretty flawless adaptation. Anyway, I want to take this time to honor the most brilliant living lyricist in American musical theatre today who has helped me realize so many profound truths in my brief, albeit eventful, twenty­ two years of life. It’s important to note that not all of these quotes were necessarily written by him­­ some were written by book writers Arthur Laurents, George Furth and John Weidman­­ they just all appeared in musicals Sondheim wrote. Anyway, without further adieu:

“Compromise is the bottom line, let me tell you. And if you know beforehand that all you're intending to happen ain't gonna happen the way you think it's gonna happen, because life has some ideas about your intentions.”

At the beginning of the original 1981 Broadway version of Merrily We Roll Along, which is probably the most underrated musical of the century (besides Follies, which unfortunately did not make this list), Franklin Shepard, a successful (sell­out) writer/producer gives a commencement speech to high­ school graduates. During his speech, the graduates sing about what they really feel (“How did you get there from here, Mr. Shepard?”) and upstage his speech entirely, to which the line above is from. This is probably one of the most honest expressions out there, and unfortunately has been cut in recent versions of the show. But basically, try not to anticipate too much. Life can sometimes feel like a perpetual getting­ the­ rug­ pulled­ out­ beneath­ your ­feet. Expect the unexpected.

“You life has made you beautiful. Your suffering has made you fine.”

This one is fresh for me, seeing as I just directed this show, but this quote is from a scene from Assassins where Leon Czolgosz (who assassinated William McKinley) tells Emma Goldman (who, if you don’t know her, was a BAMF Anarchist from the 1900’s) he loves her, which as far as I know, didn’t actually happen. He tells her (I’m paraphrasing) that he has worked all his life, has nothing to show for it, and is ugly. Emma Goldman lets him down gently, but offers him these comforting words. I gotta hand it to Emma though, to me, those who have been through hell and back and have the(emotional or physical) scars to show for it are beautiful because of their resilience. Our ability to cope with the hardships of this world, and weather some seriously harsh storms, is what makes us gorgeous too­­ not just our facial symmetry, waistlines or muscle definition.

“Success is like failure, It's how you perceive it, It's what you do with it, not how you achieve it.” 

Also from Merrily, here Sondheim is trying to say you can either wallow in your failures and dig yourself into despair, or use said failures to build steam for future success.

“The end doesn’t mean that it’s over.” 

Ignoring the fact that this quote is said by John Wilkes Booth (who was pretty racist, and not to mention, killed Lincoln) referencing tyranny in America, it can be applied to almost anything. Similar to a line from “Now You Know”, a song from Merrily, “An exit from one place is an entrance to another” rarely are chapters in our life finished, they are just temporarily closed. Rarely is “goodbye” “goodbye forever”. Additionally, this quote also means that just when we think we’ve learned our lessons, we make the same mistakes all over again. History inevitably repeats itself. Life can be terribly cyclical.

“You need to marry some body, not just some body” 

This profound gem comes from Company. The amount of people I know who rush into unhappy relationships for the sake of not wanting to be alone is almost nauseating. Be with someone because you want to be with them, and not just as an alternative for being lonely.

“Life is for the alive my dear, so let’s keep living it. Really living it.” 

Although Sweeney sings this while hurling a hysterical Ms. Lovett into a burning oven, it’s true. It’s cliche, and admitting that this is cliche is also cliche­­ but we only get the chance to go around this world once, because when we’re gone, there’s no going back (or so I think. Buddhists may disagree with me) so we might as well live it up.

“My father’s house was a nightmare, your house is a dream. I just want something in between.”

Out of context, this quote seems strange but upon further dissection, applies to everyday life as well. This quote is from Act II of Into The Woods, where Cinderella uses this as a breakup line to her prince after discovering he has had an affair. However, it applies to so many young people as well. We’re all trying to find that balance between living at our parents house, which more often than not, sucks (though we love them) and living independently in our fantasy apartments, where often times, is so hard to maintain that it can be hard to fully enjoy. We’re all just trying to find balance.

“If life were full of movements, every now and then a bad one. But if life were full of moments, you would never know you had one.”

Life is full of really good parts, bad parts, and boring parts ­­but we have to take them all in, otherwise it just passes us by.

“What’s hard is simple, what’s natural is hard.”

This is from a very rarely ­done Sondheim, Anyone Can Whistle, which is literally a musical Rom­com about mentally ill patients oppressed by an egotistical mayoress (played wonderfully by Angela Lansbury, who would later originate the role of Ms. Lovett in Sweeney Todd). Admittedly, I don’t know this show as well as the others ­­but it doesn’t make it lessen its value. We’re all born with different skill sets. Sometimes, things that come natural to us other people would consider to be extremely hard (not to toot my own horn, but in my case, a lot of people can’t write articles, memorize entire Sondheim musicals, or make collages of out illustrations from children’s books like I can) but sometimes, I can’t do the simplest god damn things for the life of me. Examples of this, in my case, include spelling certain words correctly (which can really complicate the writing process), wash dishes properly, calculate tips at restaurants, or take my medication on time. Life is tough.

“Sometimes people leave you halfway through the woods, you decide what’s right, you decide what’s good.” 

Similar to another Merrily quote: “people love you and tell you lies”. Sometimes the people we want to count on the most cannot be there, or even worse, get scared and run, during our time of need. And it sucks. Life is a tumultuous long road, and sometimes people can’t always catch up on our journeys (they might later though). The only way to guarantee people will be there for you when you’re lost in the proverbial woods, is to be there for others too. Sometimes that means having to take care of an embarrassingly obliterated friend at a party, staying on the phone when an old friend is on the brink of suicide saying they have nothing to live for at 3 am, or visiting a relative in rehab.

Everyone deserves compassion. And when things get really, really tough like when you’re broke, or careless, or homeless, you’ll have to make some tough decisions and therein you’ll find where your true friends are.

“Wishes may bring problems, so that you regret them, better that though than to never get them”

This one is pretty self explanatory. The things we spend our whole lives dreaming about, like our dream schools, cars, or jobs, sometimes come with huge strings attached. But it ultimately, it’s better to have them in spite of their difficulties than wonder, “what if?”

Lastly, if you didn’t get anything from this article at the very least take this away: get to know Merrily We Roll Along. Get a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, listen to every recording, watch every bootleg, and just cry your heart out. It’s a pretty transformative experience.