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Student Blog: 18 Songs for 18 Sondheim Shows (Part 2 of 3)

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

Student Blog: 18 Songs for 18 Sondheim Shows (Part 2 of 3)

Hey BroadwayWorld!

In my last post, to celebrate Stephen Sondheim's birthday, I started counting off one song for each of his shows. The last blog ended with the critical and commercial failure Do I Hear A Waltz?, with music by Richard Rodgers. Today, we're going to dive head first into the golden days of Sondheim's collaboration with director Hal Prince. And also The Frogs. Because everybody loves The Frogs, right?

1. "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company

Phone rings, door chimes, in comes Company. Not much more needs to be said about this song. I could tell you it's one of the most rousing and incredible musical theatre songs ever written, but you know that already. Instead, I'll just tell you a fun story. The role of Joanne was conceived for, and originally performed by Elaine Stritch, so it's not a stretch to assume that some aspects of Joanne's personality were informed by Stritch. Despite this, there were some, er, shall we call them gaps? Stritch and Sondheim both tell the story of a lyric that Stritch misunderstood. In "The Ladies Who Lunch", Joanne sings "A matinee, a Pinter play, perhaps a piece of Mahler's". That lyric refers to 19th century German composer Gustav Mahler. However, Stritch thought it referred to a pastry. Upon Stritch telling this to him, Stephen Sondheim quickly removed himself from the situation, presumably to laugh, or to cry. You can hear her tell that story on the cast album from her one woman show Elaine Stritch At Liberty. Of course, the role of Joanne has more recently been dominated by Patti LuPone. They're both marvelous. You can see Stritch perform the song here, and Lupone here. Do yourself a favor and watch them both.

2. "Could I Leave You?" from Follies

Follies doesn't land as well as it did in 1971. For the most part, we lack the collective cultural memory of the Ziegfeld Follies that helped to inform the concept. So, the idea of tying the death of the American dream to the demolition of old theaters falls on deaf ears. Instead, we are left with four of the most jaded and disillusioned characters that ever came out of a Stephen Sondheim show, which is saying a lot. Follies did birth some of Sondheim's most iconic songs, such as "Broadway Baby" and "I'm Still Here", as well as some underappreciated gems like "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" and "The Road You Didn't Take". However, "Could I Leave You?" stands in a league all of its own. It is the quintessential Sondheim song. Phyllis' journey from start to finish is both apparent and enigmatic. The lyrics are full of intensely specific imagery, and potent yet unexpected rhymes. All of this builds to a resounding non-answer to the song's titular question. "Could I leave you? Yes. Will I leave you? Guess!". As a songwriter, I get a huge kick out of this song every time I hear it. From a technical standpoint, it's absolutely perfect. You can listen to Donna Murphy perform it here.

3. "The Miller's Son" from A Little Night Music

Julie Andrews once said that each of Stephen Sondheim's songs is like a three-act play. "The Miller's Son" exemplifies that idea very well. It starkly juxtaposes two worlds, one of youthful sexual liberation, and one of repressed married life. It also showcases Sondheim's two modes as a songwriter. On one hand, there's delightfully simple and strikingly specific lyrics, accompanied by long straining chords. And on the other hand, there's devilishly difficult lyrics, accompanied by a bouncy and increasingly frantic string section. Sondheim manages to showcase both of his strengths, all while staying firmly rooted in character and situation. Much like "Could I Leave You?", it's a technically perfect song. You can listen to Elizabeth Stanley perform it here.

4. "The Frogs" from The Frogs

In 1974, Sondheim took a break from his string of artistic triumphs on Broadway to write a show to be performed in the Yale University swimming pool. No really. Burt Shevelove, co-librettist for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was writing an adaptation of Aristophanes comedy of the same name, and brought Sondheim on to write choral numbers and incidental music. Sondheim has gone on to say that the experience was deeply unpleasant, and he compared the acoustics to performing in a urinal. Years later, Nathan Lane picked up a copy of the script in the Drama Bookshop and became fascinated with it. In the early 2000s, he performed a concert version that eventually spawned a Broadway production that featured a revised book by Lane, and new songs by Sondheim. Full disclosure: I absolutely adore this show. After West Side Story and Into The Woods, it was the third Sondheim show I ever found (thanks Youtube!). It's such a delightfully odd piece of musical theatre history. It deals with the themes of art, endless war, and political complacency, all of which seem alarmingly relevant at the moment. Although neither Shevelove's or Lane's script entirely works, Sondheim's smart and witty lyrics always prove to be entertaining and thought provoking, even if the songs are a bit lengthy. Unfortunately, I can't link you to a video, but you can listen to the title song here.

5. "Someone In A Tree" from Pacific Overtures

In 1976, Pacific Overtures premiered on Broadway. The original Broadway cast featured an ensemble cast of Asian actors, including Makko, perhaps best known for voicing Uncle Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender. It's a show that attempts to tell the story of the colonization of Japan from a Japanese perspective. Given the fact that Sondheim and Weidman are both white writers, this show has not aged as well as some others. It would be interesting and important to see what an Asian director could do with this show in 2021. Sondheim has gone on the record saying "Someone In A Tree" is his favorite song he has ever written. It features time collapsing in on itself, a favorite technique of Sondheim's, and it showcases the lack of authenticity in the historic accounts that colonizers, especially Americans, read. Someone online edited together the pro-shot footage of the original cast with the song from the cast recording. You can see that here.

6. "A Little Priest" from Sweeney Todd

This show and this song need absolutely no introduction. It is quite possibly the funniest song that Sondheim has ever written. After a very dramatic first act of Sweeney Todd, conspicuously lacking cannibalism, we're treated to a delicious number that has become one of the most iconic Act 1 finales of all time. This is a list song, another Sondheim speciality. It's a chance for Sondheim, the lyricist, to flaunt his talents, with all the double meanings and unexpected rhymes you could ever hope for. Take your pick of whichever version you like. They're all wonderful. You can see a clip from the 2014 concert production featuring Emma Thompson here.

After Sweeney Todd, Sondheim and Prince collaborated on another show together, the now infamous Merrily We Roll Along. That's where we'll start off next time as I wrap up 18 songs for 18 Sondheim shows. Until then, go give some of these shows a listen if you haven't already. Especially The Frogs. More people should listen to The Frogs...

Sincerely,

Me


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