Chances are that even if you've never seen a show by Stephen Sondheim, you know his songs. Send in the Clowns, Not While I'm Around, the lyrics to every tune in West Side Story - they're all Steve's.
Unlike the heroes of the golden age of musical-makers - Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Kander and Ebb - Sondheim can write both tunes and lyrics, meaning he is only restricted by his own ambition (and thesaurus). Whereas certain other modern composers aim for banality and invariably reach it, Sondheim's words fizz with cleverness and his melodies are complex and inventive.
His shows have encompassed cannibalistic barbers (Sweeney Todd), fairy tales (Into the Woods), impressionist painters (Sunday in the Park with George), lascivious Romans (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and presidential killers (Assassins), adding spectacle to the sound. There are constant revivals in Britain and America - indeed Sweeney Todd has just been performed at the Royal Festival Hall and Into the Woods at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio. He has been translated into many other languages, Hungarian and Hebrew among them, although quite how you render his intricate rhymes is another matter. Take the macabre By the Sea, Mrs Lovett's song from Sweeney Todd:
With the sea at our gate, we'll have kippered herring
Wot have swum to us straight from the Straits of Bering!
Ev'ry night, in the kip, when we're through our kippers,
I'll be there slippin' off your slippers!
I'd like to see that in Hungarian.
Having said that, he can also have you rocking in your seats, as with this duet from Into the Woods of two princes competing over who is in the greater romantic agony. The humour of A Little Priest from Sweeney Todd is dark but undeniable, as Sweeney and Mrs Lovett discuss who's filling her pies.
His work is renowned for making great demands of the performers, which has the advantage of weeding out the poorer actors and players. Just consider Getting Married Today from Company: here, Madeline Kahn has to get through the words like a spitfire while keeping them clear and still acting. The musicians don't have it any easier.
Sondheim has never achieved the popular recognition of Lloyd Webber, even though he is regarded by those in the know as the greatest living composer of musicals. With Sondheim you get complex, intelligent words and music, which are beautiful to hear and reward further thought. The drama is never lacking either, whether it's that of fading hoofers in Follies or Greek gods in Frogs.
If you're still not convinced of the man's many talents, you can discover more of the manifold pleasures of Sondheim here.