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."