Monday, March 22, 2010

Five Favorite Sondheim Songs

You thought I was going to post something about health care reform today, didn't you? Silly. Actually, I probably will, later in the week, but right now I'm still trying to figure out exactly what the new law will mean for me, as a self-employed person in a state where individual coverage is prohibitively expensive.

In the meantime, however, it's Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday, and it would be remiss of me not to mark it. It's impossible to overstate his importance to American musical theater, as not only a creator but an influence. His versatility and inventiveness are mindboggling.

His first professional work wasn't even musical; he wrote 11 episodes for the TV series "Topper," which ran from 1953 to 1955. Has anyone ever seen these episodes? Are they available on DVD anywhere? (I looked on IMDb, but couldn't tell.) Sondheim's always had a unique sense of humor, and I'd love to see this early work.

His professional work in musicals began with the lyrics to West Side Story, in 1957, and continued with the lyrics to Gypsy. He wrote both music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962); my mother loved this show, saw it on Broadway several times, and owned the original cast recording, which my sisters and I probably wrecked as children. Over the next 40 years, he wrote another 15 major shows and contributed to a dozen more, including providing additional lyrics for the 1974 revival of Candide.

Oh, and did you know he won an Edgar Award? I didn't, until I looked it up. With Anthony Perkins, he wrote the screenplay for The Last of Sheila (1973), a dark whodunnit starring James Coburn, James Mason, Dyan Cannon, and — yes — a very young Ian McShane. This one is on DVD, and is available as streaming video on Netflix; I'm watching it tonight.

Among serious musical theater fans, Sondheim can be a polarizing figure. His work is deliberately challenging, and the songs don't lend themselves to the casual singalong. But once they're in your head, they stay, and these are five that regularly rotate in my brain's playlist. The order is chronological, not by preference; on any given day, that order would change. Leave your own favorites in the comments section.

1. "The Ladies Who Lunch," from Company. Elaine Stritch created this role on Broadway, and all other versions pale beside hers. She's not a great singer, and this song is a combination of patter and belting, powered by viciously funny lyrics with razor-sharp rhymes. "Another chance to disapprove/Another brilliant zinger/Another reason not to move/Another vodka stinger . . ." I'll drink to that.

2. "Now/Later/Soon," from A Little Night Music. Forget "Send in the Clowns;" "Now/Later/Soon" is Sondheim for the hardcore. It's three songs in one, coming together in a polyphonic wave of sound that sweeps you away, and it works separately as words (funny) and music (frenzied) to tell you everything you need to know about how things are among these three characters.

3. "Pretty Women," from Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd is my favorite of all of Sondheim's work, and while it's hard to pick only one song from this show, today I'll choose this one. It's a song of seduction where the goal is death, rather than sex, and a brilliant combination of beauty and terror.

4. "Not a Day Goes By," from Merrily We Roll Along. Watch this and don't cry. I dare you.

5. "Children Will Listen," from Into the Woods. Stephen Sondheim has no children of his own, but somehow managed to distill almost everything parents need to know into this one song. "Careful the things you say/Children will listen/Careful the things you do/Children will see and learn/Children may not obey, but children will listen."


Claire said...

I was hoping you'd include "Now/Later/Soon"! I think most of Sondheim's best songs are the ones where multiple characters sing in counterpoint (is that the word I want? Wikipedia also suggests "polyphony"). It gives him an opportunity to show off his lyrical skills and his musical skills. I like the third "Johanna" in Sweeney Todd for the same reason.

Other favorites of mine are "Finishing the Hat", "Marry Me a Little", and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid".

Richard said...

I directed Company many years ago, so that is why I have a bias in my choices

- Barcelona
- Not getting Married
- Pretty Women
- A Little Priest
- I never do anything twice
- Could I leave you?
- I'm still here

How could you choose only five? I went with a Baker's half dozen

AnswerGirl said...

Music theory is a big gap in my education, but I think that polyphony is any blending of two or more independent melodies, while counterpoint is more of a conversation between two melodies . . . can someone who knows more about it elaborate?

Richard, I love "Company" too, and stage-managed a production many years ago; I'd love for Gaslight to do it again, especially if I could play Joanne.

AnswerGirl said...

Oh, and Claire, I've dated too many artists (of one kind or another) to feel anything but annoyed by "Finishing the Hat." I get it. Finish the damn hat . . .

Richard said...

Does anyone..still wear..a hat?

Jason said...

Here are my five:
-Too Many Mornings, Follies. Just to hear that moment where Sally sings "I wore green the last time" breaks my heart every time.
-Not While I'm Around, Sweeney Todd
-A Weekend in the Country, A Little Night Music - maybe one of the best first act finales ever written.
-Another Hundred People, Company. It makes me feel like I'm back in NYC every time I hear it.

AnswerGirl said...

I thought of "Another Hundred People" EVERY DAY when I lived in Brooklyn in September '08.

Anonymous said...

How Do you pick five???

Someone in a Tree – Pacific Overtures
Please Hello – Pacific Overtures
Being Alive – Company
Not While I’m around – Sweeny Todd
No One is Alone – Into the Woods
I Remember – Evening Primrose
Opening Doors - Merrily We Roll Along
Our Time - Merrily We Roll Along

and the list goes on.

Happy Birthday Mr. S.

Richard B.

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

Marry Me A Little from Company. I love how Sondeim spins such beauty from ambivalence, and the version from the new Company (why was this song ever left out of a production?) just kills me. That urgent upbeat piano melody shading a song of wistful self-deception. Oomph.

We Do Not Belong Together from Sunday in the Park. For those who find Sondheim distancing, difficult. This is one of his most poignant songs of all (for me.) Like all of his great songs, this tells a story--there's no other way to convey this delicate, pained, beautiful complex emotion.

The Worst Pies in London from the original cast. There's Robert Preston as Harold Hill, Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. None else. I love the humor of this song--I can't help but do a spit-take guffaw every time I hear her belt out that note of "Pies." I love how he turns to a simple waltz to lift you up and take along.

Johanna from Sweeney Todd (Act 2). "And in that darkness when I'm blind/With what I can't forget--(Johanna)/It's always morning in my mind/My little lamb, my pet./Johanna."

Sooner or Later from Dick Tracy. I'm not trying to be contrary here--this is just a great song! You don't have to love the Madge version, Bernadette Peters does a great job with it.

Sue Lin said...

a) I wear a hat and it's all about the style, of course! b) I loved the "Topper" series on TV as a young kid. Anne Jeffreys and her real-life husband Robert Sterling were the best as George and Marion Kirby.

Kelly Ann said...

Johanna (from the second act) is all time hands down the best!
Take me to the world from evening primrose is beautiful
I am somehow addicted to I know things now from into the woods. little red sings it and even thought there is actually nothing special about it i find it so interesting lyrically. I also love on the steps of the palace when cinderella sings it

Anonymous said...

here my favorites from the unsurpassed composer/lyricist (in chronological order and 1 from each of his great shows):
Marry me a little (from Company)
Could I Leave you (from Follies)
The Miller's Son (from Night Music)
Not while I'm Around (from Sweeney Todd)
Our Time (from merrily)
Putting it Together (from Sunday in the park)
Children Will Listen (from Into the Woods)
Everybody's Got the Right (from Assassins)
No One has ever Loved me as you (from passion)
You are the best thing that ever happened to me (from Road Show)