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

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 3 of 3)

Hey BroadwayWorld!

Welcome to the last installment of my "18 Songs for 18 Sondheim Shows". Last time, I ended at the height of the Sondheim/Prince collaboration by chatting about Sweeney Todd. Today we will finish working through Mr. Sondheim's chronology. If you missed my past few posts, you can read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

1. "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along

Sondheim has gone on record saying "Opening Doors" is one of only two autobiographical songs he's written. We'll be seeing the other in just a moment. "Opening Doors" is based on Sondheim's experiences as an up-and-coming musical theatre writer in New York City. As one would expect, it's full of Sondheim-isms. The characters shoot sharp and witty remarks back and forth at the speed of lightning. Sondheim takes a seven note motif (the vocal line from another Merrily We Roll Along song, "Good Thing Going") and milks endless variation out of it. All of this as he collapses a long series of events in the life of our protagonists Frank, Mary, and Charley. This song also holds one of my favorite Sondheim moments. As Charley and Frank audition their show for slimy producer Joe Josephson, he rejects them on the basis that he can't hum their music. This is surely a dig at Sondheim's early reviewers who had essentially said the same thing. Sondheim clearly won that battle. "Opening Doors" is an absolute knockout of a song. Despite what the initial reviews said, Merrily We Roll Along is a glistening gem. The revisions it has gotten over the years have only strengthened it. You can watch Darren Criss, Jeremy Jordan, and America Ferrera perform it here, featuring a cameo by the writer himself.

2. "Finishing The Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George

Sunday in the Park with George is one of my favorite musicals. I'm shaken to my core every time I watch it. In one show, Sondheim manages to tackle the artistic struggle to create, the difficulties of maintaining healthy relationships when you're too focused on your art, and the anxiety of networking. All of that barely scratches the surface of his magnum opus. His commentary is bound to resonate deeply with any artist. "Finishing The Hat" is a fairly simple song. It is about the joy of completing something, even if it is only a smaller part of the whole. In the case of the show, it is simply a hat in a painting. But can't anything be a hat? A song, a scene, a play, a BroadwayWorld blog. Sondheim has said this song reflects the emotional experience he goes through when completing a song, and if you've ever created anything, you'll understand. Even if you're not an artist, this song can give you a glimpse through the window of the artist's brain. This song is one of the most important in Sondheim's cannon. It was so impactful that Sondheim would go on to name his two books after lyrics from the song. You can listen to Jake Gyllenhaal perform it here.

3. "Your Fault/Last Midnight" from Into The Woods

Okay. I'm totally cheating by putting two songs here, but they bleed right into each other so they can be considered two halves of the whole. "Your Fault" is full of classic Sondheim patter. The diminished chords lend the song a sense of lurching anxiety, which compliment the blame flinging lyrics quite nicely. Personally, and somewhat oddly, this song means a lot to me. It was the song that made li'l baby me fall in love with Sondheim. I love this song so much that my most impressive party trick is singing all five parts of this song by myself. As for "Last Midnight", this song is a microcosm of the themes of the show. It allows us a peek into the Witch's psyche, and lets us see that, while she is a "villain", she's got her own side of the story and her own struggles. "Last Midnight" is one of the most cathartic moments in the musical theatre cannon, and a brilliant character song. You can watch the original Broadway cast perform the two numbers here.

4. "Another National Anthem" from Assassins

Assassins is one of the most succinct and tightly written Sondheim shows there is. The score is an ever evolving mix of pastiche, peppered with all of Sondheim's idiosyncrasies. It is also a show that speaks to the contemporary political moment like no other. The show talks about American disillusionment in a fascinating way, and it challenges us to reexamine what exactly our values are as a country. It also has an always urgent message about the gun problem this country has. All in all, it shines a spotlight on the dark underbelly of the "American Dream" that often gets ignored. I'm optimistic that we'll eventually get the off-Broadway revival that was originally set for last May. After everything we've seen over the past four years in American politics, it is a show that feels urgent, truthful, and important. "Another National Anthem" showcases this show perfectly. You can listen to it here.

5. "Loving You" from Passion

I'm not personally a fan of Passion. It feels like a show that doesn't have the variety of a typical Sondheim show. When I think of Passion, I tend to think of the "Soldier's Gossip" sections, which showcase Sondheim's wit and style very well. However, one would have to have a heart of stone not to feel misty eyed when listening to "Loving You". Sondheim writes gorgeous love songs that speak to the very soul of romantic relationships, and "Loving You" is a prime example. You can listen to Lea Salonga perform it here.

6. "The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened" from Road Show

Sondheim's most recent musical, Road Show, had an interesting developmental period, detailed at length in Sondheim's Look, I Made A Hat. The show went through a number of different drafts, tentatively going by the titles Gold, Bounce, and Wise Guys. It tells the story of architect Addison Mizner, and his brother William. Much like Assassins, Sondheim pulls out all the stops, flaunting every aspect of his artistic voice. "The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened" is notable, since it's Sondheim's first (and to my knowledge, only) explicitly queer love song. Sondheim, who has been out since he was 40 years old, tends to put the kibosh on people applying a queer lens to his characters (most famously, Bobby in Company). It's really wonderful to see him writing a queer story. This song is one of the most tender and beautiful in Sondheim's cannon, and it should be performed more. You can listen to Claybourne Elder of the original cast perform it here, with some wonderfully insightful introductions by Jennifer Ashley Tepper and Kevin Michael Murphy.

Phew. Well, that was 18 songs for 18 Sondheim shows. I hope that I've been able to teach you guys something new, and maybe even turn you on to a few musicals you've never heard of or listened to. Stephen Sondheim has been an incredibly influential figure in my life, and it has been a pure joy to take this journey through his work. With that, I'll see you guys next time!

Sincerely,

Me


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From This Author Student Blogger: Michael Scuotto