Let’s Keep Celebrating Sondheim’s Eighty-Sixth Birthday By Peter Filichia
When Stephen Sondheim was growing up, “eighty-six” was a popular expression that meant “to throw out or get rid of.”
Well, although Stephen Sondheim recently turned eighty-six, we here at Masterworks Broadway certainly aren’t interested in throwing out any of his work. But we ARE throwing some Sondheim your way in a nice two-disc collection called The Essential Stephen Sondheim.
Last week, our subject was Disc One, which offers selections from West Side Story (1957) to Company (1970). Now let’s saunter on to Disc Two, which starts with Follies (1971) and concludes with Passion (1994).
What better way to start a second disc than having no less than Elaine Stritch sing “Broadway Baby” from Follies (and to celebrate the legendary musical’s upcoming 45th anniversary on April 4)?
Granted, Stritch does it in a much slower tempo than the one to which we’ve become accustomed. However, this leisurely paced rendition is so typical of Stritch, who was the essence of sardonic and realistic. She suggests a veteran actress who’s had a bad day of auditions but still isn’t giving up her dream.
Then comes The Best Song Ever to Be Written Out-of-Town: “I’m Still Here” from Follies, of course. Shakespeare needed seven ages to describe the life of the average man, but Sondheim was able to encapsulate the life of an actress in only three steps: “First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp.”
Long before I heard the Carol Burnett rendition found here, I’ve thought about that observation whenever a new starlet bursts onto the entertainment scene and believes that she’ll always have the world by the tail. Amanda Bynes, Tara Reid and Carmen Electra, anyone? We can all be humbled by the thought.
“Losing My Mind” – by Barbara Cook, no less — has a lyric that’s as bittersweet as dark chocolate: “You said you loved me – or were you just being kind?” It’s a good question that all of us have wondered or posed in our own lives.
From A Little Night Music, there’s The Best Song Ever to Be Written during Rehearsals: “A Weekend in the Country.” Frankly, to merely call it a “song” does it a terrible injustice, for it’s a musical scene extraordinaire. You want a piece that moves the action forward? This one starts with the arrival of Madame Armfeldt’s invitation and ends with seven people descending on the Armfeldt family manse.
Choosing a favorite moment out of almost seven minutes of material may seem foolhardy, but I’ve always been drawn to Charlotte’s advice to Anne to “wear your hair down; dress in white” while in the presence of the much older Desiree; if Anne does, Charlotte predicts, Desiree will “be hopelessly shattered by Saturday night.”
Some say the term “eighty-six” originated in the navy. In that spirit, we’ll mention the sailors who sing “Pretty Lady” in Pacific Overtures. This musical of how Commodore Matthew Perry opened a door to Japan — and, some insist, opened a metaphorical can of worms, too – had an all-Japanese cast. Hearing Patrick Kinser-Lau, Tim Fujii and Mark Hsu Syers play members of the Queen’s Navee and adopt Cockney accents was wonderfully unexpected in “Pretty Lady.”
The Essential Stephen Sondheim takes us from “Pretty Lady” to “Pretty Women,” which Sweeney Todd sings while eighty-sixing his customers. Lesser creators of musicals would have done the expected and had Sweeney deliver a harsh and insanity-filled rant while slicing necks; Sondheim learned early on to take the obvious way of doing things and simply reverse it.
I once asked readers if they could hear a composer and/or lyricist go to the piano and say, “Hey, listen to this song that I just finished,” which would be the one they’d choose. I received nearly a hundred different answers but quite a few mentioned my choice: “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd.
Any song that has nearly four dozen clever rhymes must be the winner. And who’d bet against Sondheim’s reaching eighty-six of them if he’d wanted to?
(“Eighty-six” has also been a term that restaurateurs have used to describe a food or drink item that they’ve run out of. Too bad it hadn’t yet been coined in Sweeney’s day, for then Mrs. Lovett could have used it at the end of “God, That’s Good!” when she hung out her “Sold Out” sign.)
Next comes two selections from the most eagerly anticipated musical of the 1981-82 season, one that crashed and burned its (awful) scenery at McKay’s Dump in Secaucus: Merrily We Roll Along. After fifty-two previews in October and November, 1981, it never made it to December once the critics saw it; a mere sixteen official performances followed.
Despite that, Sondheim received a Tony nomination for Best Score, and the resulting cast album has made believers out of doubters for the past thirty-four years. “Not a Day Goes By” is one of Sondheim’s best ballads, although it was almost cut. “Old Friends” is Sondheim at his jauntiest and most traditional-Broadway-sounding — well, at least until we get into the section where the old friends start a new argument. Then it’s pure Sondheim.
Actor Dan Marcus likes to say that when he hears the semi-title song “Sunday” of Sunday in the Park with George, he expects to hear “Sunday, by the blue purple yellow red water” followed by “there’ll be sun” from Annie’s “Tomorrow.” Give a listen, decide for yourself and then “Move On” — literally, as one of Sondheim’s most beautiful eleven o’clock numbers is thoughtfully delivered by Bernadette Peter and Mandy Patinkin.
The first selection from Into the Woods might be unexpected, for “Agony” isn’t sung by a principal but by two princes who are minor characters. Note the sly way that Sondheim precisely reveals the identities of the two young women with whom the princes have fallen in (and will soon fall out of) love.
We do hear the entire cast in “Finale: Children Will Listen.” Long-time parents will relate to Sondheim’s statement that “Children can only grow from something you love to something you lose.” It’s second-cousin to the line Sondheim wrote for “Children and Art” in Sunday in the Park with George — that these are the two greatest assets that people can leave the world. But all children inevitably die while art may not.
Back in 1979, many Broadway observers would have assumed that Sweeney Todd, full of many people who are unjustly murdered, would be the most atypical subject ever for a musical. But Sondheim trumped his own ace a dozen years later with Assassins, whose murder victims were of far more importance to the world than Sweeney’s customers.
And yet, “Unworthy of Your Love” is sung by two who (thank the Lord!) didn’t get the job done: John Hinckley, who shot President Ronald Reagan in hopes of impressing actress Jodie Foster, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who merely pointed a gun at President Gerald Ford, but the gesture was enough to get her thirty-four years in prison.
“Unworthy of Your Love” is a fine example of Sondheim’s ability to write a pop song if he has to. Don’t miss the wailing saxophone that orchestrator Michael Starobin wisely inserted into the song midway through – an effect that can often be found in Top 40 hits of yore.
Speaking of Top 40, Madonna originally recorded “Sooner on Later” when she performed in Dick Tracy, but we have Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba here. And yet, the world of pop isn’t totally ignored, for Peabo Bryson and Nancy Wilson deliver “Loving You” from Passion to bring the album to a close.
Oh, yes — “Send in the Clowns.” It’s the eighteenth of the thirty cuts, courtesy of Glynis Johns, the first one to record it. At the time, no one could have remotely predicted that close to a thousand artists would also record it in the ensuing forty-three years. Probably a thousand more will in the next forty-three, which will, of course, come to, um, eighty-six years.
We musical theater enthusiasts are famous for spurning songs once they’re as overexposed as “Send in the Clowns.” Still, since I heard the song along with the very first paid audience to see A Little Night Music (at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on Jan. 20, 1973), I’ve used one of its lyrics when something I expected to occur hasn’t happened: “Well, maybe next year.”
And maybe next week (no – definitely!) you’ll get my list of what I believe to be the other essential Stephen Sondheim songs that couldn’t be accommodated on these discs. Yes, it’s hard to select the crème de la crème, so I may have trouble in keeping the list to fewer than eighty-six titles.
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.