Oh, to have been a fly on the wall after the Masterworks Broadway powers-that-be decided, “Yeah, let’s put out a compilation called The Essential Stephen Sondheim.”
Now — what to choose?
After all, musical theater’s greatest composer-lyricist has written hundreds of songs. How can anyone be correct in whittling down all those into one “essential” album?
No one could, which us why The Essential Stephen Sondheim had to be at least a two-CD set. Even so, considering that you could spend a full 24-hour day playing one Sondheim song after another non-stop and still not cover them all, reducing the oeuvre into one disc of cuts just wouldn’t cut it. So there are two, with the songs chronologically arranged.
Even after the first selection was okayed by everyone, there had to be more controversy. By including “America” from West Side Story, do we choose the rendition from the 1957 original cast album or the 1961 soundtrack?
Usually, songs in film versions of Broadway shows from the ‘50s onward are reasonably similar to their stage counterparts, but not in this case. At the Winter Garden, the young Puerto-Rican women between themselves discussed the pros and cons of living on the isle of Manhattan; on screen, the girlfriends expressed solidarity in their love for their new country and did battle with the (understandably) disgruntled Shark men.
(I say the film lyric as well the idea behind it is the superior version of the two. Well done, choosers!)
“Somewhere” is from the film, too. Notice in the liner notes that Jim Bryant (who dubbed Richard Beymer) and Marni Nixon (who subbed for Natalie Wood) are properly identified as the singers.
Including “Tonight” (from West Side’s original cast album) was wise, if only to remind us that even at a mere 27, Sondheim could wax poetic and come up with a profoundly insightful lyric.
“And make this endless day endless night” expresses a feeling we’ve all experienced: waiting for something can make the day seems endless, but when the event you’ve been waiting for finally arrives, you never want it to end.
Onto Gypsy and “Everything’s Coming up Roses.” This had to be included, not only because it resulted in one of musical theater’s finest first-act curtains, but also because Sondheim actually created an idiom with these four words.
Seriously: go to www.clichesite.com, look under “E,” and you’ll find “Eveything’s coming up roses” awaiting you between “Everything but the kitchen sink” and “Everything is copasetic.”
Using a cliché is never a good idea for a writer, but actually creating a line good enough to enter into the mainstream – and see it stay there — certainly is.
“You Gotta Have a Gimmick” had to be included. Have you ever known anyone who doesn’t love this number? By the way, a common misconception is that Chotzi Foley, as a result of her fanciful name, is the gravel-voiced Mazeppa; no, the women who sounds as if she’s been gargling with razor blades is named Faith Dane — i’faith, as Shakespeare would have said – and is still with us at ninety-two.
“Comedy Tonight” (from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) reminds us that Sondheim can write a dazzler while out-of-town and under the gun. On the other hand, the title song of Anyone Can Whistle was definitely in place before the Philadelphia tryout. This was the ballad that silenced many with uneducated ears who’d been insisting that, yes, Sondheim was a great lyricist but couldn’t come up with a beautiful melody. Then they heard this one. Case closed.
“Everybody Says Don’t” shows us how ahead of his time Sondheim was in the early ‘60s. Years later, hippies and yippies in the counter-cultural movement would essentially be in line with every protest that Sondheim made in this song.
Sondheim himself might be disheartened that The Essential Stephen Sondheim includes the title song – or any song — from Do I Hear a Waltz? He has always, always, ALWAYS discredited this show – but, as many of us have inferred, he’s basing his objections on the miserable time he had collaborating with composer Richard Rodgers. They did not see eye-to-eye and often went toe-to-toe.
Frankly, both men did wonderful work, which we’ll discuss in detail in May when the 1965 musical is revived at Encores! But any song with this lyric must be considered first-rate: “Such lovely blue Danube-y music / How can you be / Still?”
The collection doesn’t neglect Evening Primrose, the 1966 TV musical that Sondheim did before he made the most spectacular Broadway comeback since – well, since his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II rebounded from a lousy ‘30s to an historic ‘40s. Although no soundtrack album was ever officially made of this hour-long TV special, Bernadette Peters does “I Remember” here, which won’t engender any complaints.
Now comes the ‘70s and while we’ve already seen genius from Sondheim, here he raises the stakes. We’re lucky to have Pamela Meyers’ “Another Hundred People,” for after the premiere Boston performance of Company (when the song was in the second act), there was serious talk of dropping it. A night later, it was inserted where it’s resided happily ever after.
Speaking of comebacks, when Company opened, Elaine Stritch hadn’t been in a Broadway musical in more than eight years. In “The Ladies Who Lunch,” Stritch and Sondheim remind us that there are indeed women who are always “claiming they’re fat” — so that everyone can say, “Oh, you’re not! You look GREAT!” Sondheim’s tossing off, “Another thousand dollars” lets us see how money means nothing to these women.
Having written a great opening number out-of-town in “Comedy Tonight,” Sondheim in Company showed that he could write a great eleven o’clock number in a hotel room far away from New York town. The result was “Being Alive,” sung by Dean Jones for only a short run in the theater, but a never-ending run on long-playing record, 8-track tape, cassette, CD, digital download and beyond.
That’s the first disc of the two. We’ll tell about the second disc of The Essential Stephen Sondheim next Tuesday. Do drop in!
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.