As I mentioned two Tuesdays ago, I can only imagine the anguish of those Sony executives who chose the thirty selections for the new two-CD retrospective The Essential Stephen Sondheim. True, the job had to be done, but how could they possibly choose so few and ignore so many others?
I’m not saying that the powers-that-be didn’t do an excellent job in culling two-and-a-half-dozen cuts from cast albums and other sources. However, if I had to cast my three electoral votes, I might well have offered an alternative universe of My Essential Stephen Sondheim.
Today I’ll choose fifteen early-career Sondheims for my mythical Disc One; next week, I’ll recommend fifteen late-career Sondheims for Disc Two. As is the case with the actual The Essential Stephen Sondheim, I’ll go chronologically, so here’s 1954-1973:
1. “One Wonderful Day” (Saturday Night) – Here’s a joyous, slam-bang traditional show song – meaning one you wouldn’t expect from the Sondheim we would come to know. Well, he was 24 at the time; everybody has to go through stages like that. (You’ll be glad he did when you hear this soaring song.)
2. “Quintet” (West Side Story) – Yes, we have to be impressed by the rhyme “That Puerto-Rican punk’ll go down, and when he’s hollered uncle.” True, we must also admire Anita’s observation that Bernardo will “walk in hot and tired” which will be okay “as long as he’s hot,” for Sondheim gave us two different meanings of “hot” – “overheated” and “sexually charged.” And yet, what is most impressive isn’t a rhyme at all, but a repeated phrase: Jets snarl “Well, they began it!” just before Sharks insist “Well, they began it!” And we know that each gang fully believes the other is responsible for every rumble.
3. “Together” (Gypsy) – A rare moment when Rose, Herbie and Louise are all in sync. Don’t you love when a lyricist gets three rhymes out of three words that aren’t spelled the same? To wit, “When the audience boos, we don’t miss our cues; we always can use what they throw.”
4. “Rose’s Turn” (Gypsy) – Here’s the greatest eleven o’clock solo musical scene. It contains so much that you’d be pardoned for missing the marvelous wordplay when Rose sings, “It wasn’t for me, Herbie” – meaning “I didn’t do it for my benefit” – and then using the same the same phrase when addressing Miss Gypsy Rose Lee: “If it wasn’t for me” now means “If I hadn’t been there to help you along, you wouldn’t have become a success.” True, grammatically speaking, Rose should say “If it weren’t for me in the second instance,” but Rose didn’t have much education.
My Essential Stephen Sondheim would use Lansbury’s Rose and not Merman’s, just for a change of pace. Don’t forget – of the three actresses who won Tonys for Rose, the first was Lansbury. You’ll understand why with this recording.
5. “Comedy Tonight” (Jerome Robbins’ Broadway) – Speaking of Tonys, yes, every Pseudolus has received one as Best Actor in a Musical. And while our respect for Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane is second to none, we must admit that the person who sings it on Jerome Robbins’ Broadway is the one best-known by the American public: Jason Alexander.
6. “Anyone Can Whistle” (Sondheim: A Musical Tribute) – Because we didn’t get to know Saturday Night until the turn of the century, this was the song that proved to us that Sondheim could write a beautiful ballad. And because there’s nothing quite like a composer-lyricist doing his own work, I chose this cut even above the excellent renditions by Lee Remick (on the original cast album) and Bernadette Peters (on the 1995 concert disc).
7. “We’re Gonna Be All Right” (Do I Hear a Waltz?) — And why would I include this little throwaway from the show’s original cast album? It’s the best way of showing how Richard Rodgers, the show’s composer and — more forcefully — its producer, castrated Sondheim’s work, which you’ll easily learn when you hear:
8. “We’re Gonna Be All Right” (Sondheim: A Musical Tribute) – Yes, the first version, which was cut to a mere eleven lines, eschewed what was really on Sondheim’s mind: senility, adultery, alcoholism, divorce, spousal abuse and homosexuality. Alas, the composer of The Sound of Music didn’t like the sound of these lyrics. You will, though.
9. “Sorry/Grateful” (Company) — Is there any spouse who’s been married for any length of time who doesn’t nod his (or her) head in understanding when hearing this one?
10. “The Little Things You Do Together” (Company) – Sondheim had been away from Broadway for five full years; Elaine Stritch hadn’t been seen on the musical stage for more than eight. Here was a marvelous renaissance for both. Stritch’s voice had the perfect strident touch for Sondheim’s tongue-in-cheek endorsement of marriage: “I’ve done it three or four times.”
11. “Beautiful Girls” (Follies) – The Best Opening Number of All Time. To an Irving Berlinish pretty melody, the beautiful girls of yore are no more; thus, hearing “Faced with these Loreleis, what man can moralize?” is especially poignant. As a more famous Lorelei – as in Lee – once said, “And we all lose our charms in the end.” (When you think of it, Lorelei Lee could have been a Weissman Follies girl, couldn’t she?)
12. “Uptown / Downtown” (Marry Me a Little) — Originally in Follies, replaced by “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” Can you imagine throwing out this lyric? “She sits at the Ritz with her splits of Mumm’s and starts to pine for a stein with her Village chums but with her Schlitz in her mitts down in Fitzroy’s bar, she thinks of the Ritz, oh, it’s so schitzo.” Only a Sondheim could possibly say, “Yeahhhh, but the song’s not quite right; I can do better.”
13. “Can That Boy Fox Trot” (Follies) – Sondheim has always pooh-poohed this effort as a one-joke song, and yes, it is. But it’s certainly not a one-great-rhyme song: “In a clerk, you find a Hercules” … “an imitation Hitler, but with littler charm” … “But who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights’re low?” … “He may be full of hokum, but I’ve no complaint.” And yet, we can’t complain that Sondheim dropped it in favor of:
14. “I’m Still Here” (Sondheim: A Musical Tribute) – Yes, this song – which, as I said last week, is The Best One Ever Written Out-of-Town – is actually on The Essential Stephen Sondheim, courtesy of Carol Burnett, who did it in the 1985 Follies in Concert. But Nancy Walker’s rendition in this 1973 event is my personal favorite of the dozens upon dozens of renditions and recordings I’ve heard in the last forty-five years.
15. “Liaisons” (A Little Night Music) — Madame Armfeldt – and Sondheim, of course – ask some good questions here: “Where is style? Where is skill? Where is forethought? Where’s discretion of the heart? Where’s passion in the art? Where’s craft?”
And this was 1973, long before Time decided that the best song of the 2001-2010 decade was “My Life Would Suck without You.” Frankly, Madame Armfeldt had to be happy that she died before having to hear this. Meanwhile, we can be grateful that we’ve been around during Stephen Sondheim’s lifetime.
Read my analysis on Disc 2 here.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.