The Sondheim Songbook
- Disc 1
- 1. Something’s Coming (from West Side Story, 1957 – Larry Kert)
- 2. Gee, Officer Krupke (from West Side Story, 1957 – Eddie Roll, Grover Dale, The Jets)
- 3. Some People (from Gypsy, 1959 – Ethel Merman)
- 4. You Gotta Get a Gimmick (from Gypsy, 1959 – Faith Dane, Chotzi Foley, Maria Karnilova)
- 5. Anyone Can Whistle (from Anyone Can Whistle, 1964 – Lee Remick)
- 6. A Parade in Town (from Anyone Can Whistle, 1964 – Angela Lansbury, Ensemble)
- 7. With So Little To Be Sure Of (from Anyone Can Whistle, 1964 – Harry Guardino, Lee Remick)
- 8. Moon In My Window (from Do I Hear A Waltz?, 1965 – Julienne Marie, Carol Bruce, Elizabeth Allen)
- 9. We’re Gonna Be All Right (from Do I Hear A Waltz?, 1965 – Stuart Damon, Julienne Marie)
- 10. The Boy From … (from The Mad Show, 1966 – Linda Lavin)
- 11. The Little Things You Do Together (from Company, 1970 – Barbara Barrie, Charles Kimbrough, Elaine Stritch)
- 12. Barcelona (from Company, 1970 – Dean Jones, Susan Browning)
- 13. The Ladies Who Lunch (from Company, 1970 – Elaine Stritch)
- 14. Being Alive (from Company, 1970 – Teri Ralston, John Cunningham, Beth Howland, Steve Elmore, Barbara Barrie, Charles Kimbrough, George Coe, Charles Braswell, Elaine Stritch, Alice Cannon, Larry Kert)
- 15. You Must Meet My Wife (from A Little Night Music, 1973 – Len Cariou, Glynis Johns)
- 16. Liaisons (from A Little Night Music, 1973 – Hermione Gingold)
- 17. Every Day a Little Death (from A Little Night Music, 1973 – Patricia Elliott, Victoria Mallory)
- 18. A Weekend in the Country (from A Little Night Music, 1973 – D. Jamin-Bartlett, Victoria Mallory, Len Cariou, Patricia Elliott, Laurence Guittard, Mark Lambert, Beth Fowler, Barbara Lang, Teri Ralston, Gene Varrone, Benjamin Rayson)
- 19. Send In the Clowns (from A Little Night Music, 1973 – Glynis Johns)
One of the most original Broadway composers to emerge in the past 25 years, Stephen Sondheim stands today as a reformer who has rewritten the codes by which the musical theater, past, present and future, will be judged. Although he has often stated that he is not trying to change the Broadway musical and that he only works on ideas that inspire him, all his shows bear the unmistakable mark of his unique talent and have compelled many other composers of his generation to follow in his footsteps. What particularly singularizes his shows are the songs, many of which rely on complex rhyme patterns, puns, anagrams, mind-twisters and painstakingly precise wording and which seldom if ever function outside the context of the vehicles for which they were created. This explains why none, with the exception of “Send in the Clowns,” has become a popular hit.
The son of a well-known dress manufacturer, Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930, in New York City. At the age of seven, he began piano lessons. But when he was ten, his parents divorced and his mother, a fashion designer, relocated to a farm in Pennsylvania, next door to an old family friend, Oscar Hammerstein II.
“Oscar was everything to me,” says Sondheim, who continues to express a great deal of gratitude to the celebrated lyricist. “He was a surrogate father, and 1 wanted to be exactly like him.” One afternoon, Sondheim brought his mentor a musical he had written. “I thought it was terrific,” Sondheim recalls. “So 1 asked him to read it as if he were a producer and didn’t know me. The next day he called me over and said, ‘It’s the worst thing 1 ever read in my life, and, if you want to know why, I’ll tell you.’ That afternoon, I learned what songwriting was all about – how to structure a song like a one-act play, how essential simplicity is, how much every word counts and, above all, the importance of content, of saying what you, not other songwriters, feel.”
Another powerful influence on the young man was Robert Barrow, whose classes Sondheim attended while at Williams College. “Before Barrow, I waited for all the tunes to come into my head,” he says. “But he took all the romance out of music. ‘You learn the technique,’ he said, ‘and then you put the notes down on paper and that’s what music is!’”
After working for a while in Hollywood as a writer on the TV series Topper, Sondheim ran into playwright Arthur Laurents, who was working on a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with a score by Leonard Bernstein. Laurents introduced Sondheim to Bernstein and, as a result, Sondheim was hired to write the lyrics for West Side Story (1957). “The contribution Steve made was just enormous,” Bernstein acknowledged to Craig Zadan, author of Sondheim & Co. (Macmillan, 1974). “What made him so valuable was that he was also a composer and I could explain musical problems to him and he’d understand immediately….”
The success of West Side Story landed Sondheim his next job, writing the lyrics for Gypsy (1959). Jule Styne, who wrote the score, recalls: “I had done some twenty-five shows but I have never had a collaboration like this…. When you write with him, you actually feel good as a composer. He places value on the music, what kind of word fits each note.”
Itching to write his own show, Sondheim turned to Plautus for his first solo venture. This rollicking farce in the best traditions of Roman burlesque and American vaudeville, entitled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), is one of Sondheim’s most accessible works. Buoyed by this huge success, Sondheim then wrote Anyone Can Whistle (1964), a brilliant effort in which all the elements of his future productions appear in embryonic form. It was a resounding flop. Broadway critics and audiences tend to be more conservative than most: theatergoers in 1964 were not yet ready for the show’s pervading cynicism. It closed after nine performances. Not everyone felt negative about it, however, and Alan Rich, critic of New York Magazine, noted that the “score … wasn’t just a lot of eight-plus-eight-bar pretty tunes, but music with a wry, tough edge to it, big, complex musical numbers that advanced the plot instead of stopping it dead for a hit tune….”
Then Sondheim collaborated with Richard Rodgers and Arthur Laurents on Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965) which ultimately proved a financial and artistic disappointment. Though he seemed to take a leave of absence from his theatrical activities after that, he contributed the song “The Boy from …” (a delightful spoof of the hit “The Girl From Ipanema” to the Off-Broadway revue The Mad Show (1966).
In 1970 Sondheim came back to Broadway with a vengeance. Company, in which he teamed with producer-director Harold Prince, was a clinical study of contemporary urban, upper-middle-class people and dissected their personal relationships with “lacerating honesty.” The show jolted the theater’s creative community as no other musical had done in recent years. Company charted new territories and boldly moved away from the syrupy conventions of the musical theater. It also perfectly integrated the book, music and direction into a seamless, cohesive whole, without sacrificing any one element in its make-up. As a result, the musical theater emerged totally rejuvenated. The legacy of Company can be traced all the way to William Finn’s Falsettos and to the works of Rupert Holmes and Brian Gari, among others who owe a major debt to Sondheim.
In subsequent efforts, many of them created with Hal Prince, Sondheim further expanded his horizons, matching the inventiveness of his concepts with his uncanny ability never to tread twice over the same formula. Thus, Follies (1971) revealed the sour reality in the lives of former showgirls reunited in the theater that had once been the scene of their youthful dreams, using as a counterpoint the sparkle and false glitter of the Ziegfeld-like revues in which they had starred; A Little Night Music (1973) ventured into an elegant turn-of-the-century romance based on Ingmar Bergman’s frothy comedy of manners Smiles of a Summer Night; Sweeney Todd (1979) was a Grand Guignol entertainment about a murderous barber, with its score matching in intensity the harshness of this gory tale of mayhem and revenge in 1880’s London; Pacific Overtures (1976) freely adapted the style of the Japanese Noh theater to describe that country’s introduction to Western civilization; Merrily We Roll Along (1981) told its story about the rise and increasing isolation of a successful songwriter, using an unusual flashback technique; Sunday in the Park with George (1984) employed a musical pointillism, well in keeping with its subject matter about Seurat and the birth of modern painting; and Into the Woods (1989), Sondheim’s last effort seen on Broadway at this writing, twisted some familiar Grimm fairy tales to arrive at unsuspected conclusions.
“I enjoy writing about neurotic people, troubled people, people with conflicts,” Sondheim once stated. “I don’t like to write about oversimplified people unless it’s for something like a farce, like Forum. Songs can’t develop uncomplicated characters and unconflicted people.” This songbook clearly exemplifies the point. Beginning with Anyone Can Whistle, the Sondheim songs appeared as unsettling question marks about the vagaries of life, its quirky turns and its perceived unfairness. Selected for their lyrical and musical content as much as for what they may say about their creator and his enriching view on life, the songs present only a few facets of an incredible talent, whose influence on Broadway and the musical theater is far from being over.
– Didier C. Deutsch