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Student Blog: 18 Songs for 18 Sondheim Shows (Part 1 of 3)

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In celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 91st birthday, I’m compiling a list of 18 Sondheim songs, one for each show he’s written!

Student Blog: 18 Songs for 18 Sondheim Shows (Part 1 of 3)

Hey BroadwayWorld!

This may be a bit premature, but we're coming up on Stephen Sondheim's 91st birthday. Stephen Sondheim is a writer who has had an enormous impact on me. When I was about 7, I saw the West Side Story movie for the first time, and I loved it. I memorized the entire script, snapped my way around the school yard during recess, you know, normal kid stuff. Even then, I remember thinking "hey, this Sondheim guy is pretty cool". Eventually, I found my way to Into The Woods, which jump-started my lifelong love of everything Sondheim. Full disclosure, as I write this, a bust of Stephen Sondheim stares at me from my bookshelf, which contains his two lyrical collections, biographies, and other Sondheim related books. So I think it's safe to say that I'm more than a little familiar with his work. I wanted to run through each of his shows to celebrate his birthday, and put together what is ultimately a list of my favorite Sondheim songs. So, without further ado, here's 18 songs for 18 Sondheim shows (part 1 of 3).

1. "What More Do I Need?" from Saturday Night

Saturday Night was the first show Sondheim wrote professionally, and it was even set to be produced on Broadway during the 1954-55 season. However, in a stroke of horrific luck, his producer died and the production was cancelled. It was finally mounted in London in 1997, and it made it's New York premiere off-Broadway in 2000. In the past, Sondheim has compared this show to his baby pictures. This is an apt comparison if you've listened to the score. Saturday Night is much more reminiscent of 1950s Broadway than the style that Sondheim eventually went on to develop. When listening to Saturday Night, you're able to pick out a few characteristic aspects of Sondheim's later work. For example, "What More Do I Need?" is a song that only Stephen Sondheim could write. In 2021, it sounds more like a prototypical version of "Another Hundred People" (from Company) than its own song. It's essentially a love song to New York City, but it praises the city's flaws more than its positives. Its lyrics, which pay homage to dirty city snow and noisy apartment neighbors, romanticize New York as only New Yorkers can experience it. As far as baby pictures go, it's delightful. You can watch Kelli O' Hara sing it here.

2. "Something's Coming" from West Side Story

I don't think this song needs much of an introduction. This is only the second song in West Side Story, and technically only the second Sondheim song the public had ever heard. In it, we can already see Sondheim breaking conventions. "Something's Coming" is a textbook example of a musical theatre "I Want" song, but what does Tony want? We don't know. He doesn't either. But he wants something. Sondheim uses that ambiguity to his advantage to create a driving song that immediately has us rooting for Tony. If you're able to track down James Lapine's Six by Sondheim documentary, I highly recommend it. This song is covered at length in that documentary. Until then, you can see Isaac Powell sing it here.

3. "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from Gypsy

Offensive title aside, I think Gypsy is an incredible show. It's also an opportunity to see Sondheim coming into his own lyrically. "Everything's Coming Up Roses" is a song that, I think, can only be experienced in the context of the show. On its own, it's a very optimistic song. It's so optimistic it was even adapted into a campaign jingle for John V. Lindsay's 1965 mayoral campaign. However, when you see it onstage, you get to see the horrified reactions from Herbie and Louise as Rose spirals deeper into her rationalized and controlling nature. It's an interesting piece of subtext, one that is often forgotten in the wake of Jule Styne's driving brass heavy accompaniment. You can listen to Ethel Merman sing it here.

4. "Pretty Little Picture" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is the first Broadway show for which Sondheim wrote both the music and the lyrics. It's a bit of an anomaly for his catalogue, seeing as it lacks the pessimistic complications typically associated with his work. Despite this, it's still a wonderful golden age score that holds some absolute gems. In my opinion, the best song is "'Pretty Little Picture". The leading role of Pseudolus was originally conceived for Phil Silvers, who went on to play the role in the 1972 revival. This song was written to take advantage of the fast talking characters that made Phil Silvers famous. In his book Finishing The Hat, Sondheim admits that although he is fond of the lyric, he doesn't think it's the proper tone for the show. "'Pretty Little Picture" is a clever song in a funny show. Although I agree with him, I wouldn't trade the delightful word play for anything. If nothing else, it shows Sondheim's unparalleled talent for writing patter songs. You can listen to the song here.

5. "Everybody Says Don't" from Anyone Can Whistle

It has been said that it's better to listen to Anyone Can Whistle than to watch it onstage. I don't entirely disagree. It is a stark departure from Forum. It's also not a total surprise that when it premiered, it flopped, and flopped hard. Anyone Can Whistle is one of the few absurdist musicals in the musical theatre canon. The score is an absolute treasure trove of underperformed Sondheim pieces. I never quite know how to feel about this show, but I do know that "Everybody Says Don't" is a great watchcry for those of us with a rebellious streak. Personally, I think this show satirizes authority in the most cartoonishly villainous way possible, and I love it. It's been a number of years since we last saw a professional production of Anyone Can Whistle. If it was performed more, it would be a great catalyst for discussion of the show's merits, flaws, and ideas. You can see Raúl Esparza perform the song here.

6. "We're Gonna Be Alright" from Do I Hear A Waltz?

After the death of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim agreed to write a show with Hammerstein's writing partner, Richard Rodgers. The result is Do I Hear A Waltz?. Do I Hear A Waltz? is the last show that Sondheim exclusively wrote lyrics for. It is a show that he calls a "Why?" show. Meaning, all the material for the show is decent, and it works, but it doesn't have much passion driving it. I was lucky enough to see the production at Encores! a few years back, and I can confirm that Sondheim's assessment of the show is accurate. However, one of the standout songs to me was "We're Gonna Be Alright". Lyrically, "We're Gonna Be Alright" has the playful energy of Rodgers' pre-Hammerstein collaborations with lyricist Lorez Hart. Interestingly enough, the lyric was originally rejected by Rodgers, forcing Sondheim to write a "lamer" version for the Broadway premiere. The rejection most likely came at the behest of Rodgers' wife. Sondheim admitted that the original lyric was written to mock the marriage between Richard Rodgers and his wife Dorothy. Sondheim theorizes that once Dorothy saw the lyric, she forced Rodgers to have it changed. Thankfully, the original lyric has been restored in subsequent productions. Having listened to the original version, I can say that's a blessing. Click here to see Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie perform it as a part of 2010's Sondheim: The Birthday Concert.

After Do I Hear A Waltz?, the legendary Sondheim-Prince collaboration officially kicked off with Company. Next time, I'll tackle that era. Until then, I hope you guys give these songs (and shows) a listen, even if you're familiar with a few of them already!

Sincerely,

Me


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