Tuesday, March 22, 2011

10 FAVORITES (26) - Happy Birthday, Mr. Sondheim!!!

Today is a very special day for those of us who follow musical theatre.  Two very important people in Broadway history share this day as their birthday.  Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of hit musicals The Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Evita, is celebrating his 63rd birthday.  And legendary musical composer Stephen Sondheim is happily going onto his 81st year.  Now, we can devote a list of 10 FAVORITES to Lord Lloyd Webber next year.  I want to focus on Mr. Sondheim.  Last year, the composer was bombarded with a year-long of celebrations worldwide in honor of his 80th birthday.  I feel that was appropriate, but, today, not one mention of his birthday.  And he is 81!  People seem to forget about the year following the milestone.  And Sondheim is such a legend that he should be celebrated every year.  So, this week's 10 FAVORITES, on this Sondheim's birthday, is devoted to the great songs that he wrote throughout his long career in the Broadway theatre.  Now, this list is only dedicated to the songs he wrote both the music and lyrics to, even though he wrote the lyrics to landmark shows like West Side Story and Gypsy (two of my favorite musicals of all-time!).  So, without any further stalling and information, here are: 


SONG #10
A Little Priest
from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
First Heard: Broadway, 1979
When Sondheim was writing his opus Sweeney Todd, he came upon the last line of the first Act of Christopher Bond's gothic play about the murderous barber: "And the two fell into each others arms with laughter."  Sondheim knew this was a moment to musicalize and what resulted was one of the cleverest and most devious duets in Broadway history.  The song is always a showcase for the actors playing Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, as demonstrated below by George Hearn and the great Angela Lansbury (Broadway's original Mrs. Lovett).

Unworthy of Your Love
from Assassins
First Heard: Off-Broadway, 1990
The idea of putting a love ballad into a show about Presidential assassins (and would-be assassins) is only something someone like Sondheim could pull off.  To have John Hinckley (who attempted to assassinate President Reagan) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (who attempted on President Ford's life) sing to the objects of their affection (Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, respectively) while plotting their actions feels like something out of a counterculture novel or a film by Truffaut or Kubrick! Yet, it is one of the most poignant ballads Sondheim has ever written (despite the disturbing imagery even in the regional production shown below).

Everybody Ought to Have a Maid
from A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum
First Heard: Broadway, 1962
This is probably Sondheim's funniest and most delightful song.  The context of the song doesn't really matter (and the farcical story is too complicated to explain anyway!). But the actors performing it (whether it be in a full-fledged production or a concert, like below) seem to have so much fun with the lyrical content and the bright melody, that one doesn't care WHY the song is being performed.  Just that it's being performed!

Every Day a Little Death
from A Little Night Music
First Heard: Broadway, 1973
Within Sondheim's light-hearted musical based on Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, this poignant duet sung by wives struggling to come to terms with their husbands' blatant infidelities blew me away the first time I heard it (in a local regional production).  The melody is haunting but it is Sondheim's lyrics that struck me hardest with the ladies singing about dying every day and suffering the indignities of being lied to and humiliated.  Then, the lyric about men being "stupid and vain" just threw me for a loop and made me really think about the way our society treats women and fidelity.  Below, Carol Burnett and Ruthie Henshall beautifully sing the song in the Sondheim review Putting It Together.

from Sunday In the Park With George
First Heard: Broadway, 1984
This was my mother's favorite Sondheim musical and every time the show (or the soundtrack) got to this song, her eyes would well up with tears.  Not only is it a very moving and powerful song, but it also has a very natural quality to it.  The way it moves and flows musically is such a typical Sondheim "build."  The song is about the people in the Georges Seurat painting noticing the beauty in their every day lives and what it brings to their existence (at least on the metaphorical level!).  It certainly makes me think about the things I notice, especially on Sundays!  Below, Bernadette Peters leads a chorus of singers in the song at a Sondheim concert at Carnegie Hall.

Pretty Women
from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
First Heard: Broadway, 1979
Sondheim is very good at contrasting the images in his shows with the poetic content of his songs (as demonstrated above with "Unworthy of Your Love" from Assassins).  In Sweeney Todd, the most beautiful song comes at a time when the main character (Sweeney) is preparing to murder his customer (the wicked Judge Turpin).  As Todd takes his sweet time with his revenge, he lulls the Judge with a gorgeous tune about the aesthetical pleasures of the opposite sex.  The song is SO beautiful that the audience forgets for a moment what Todd is planning to do with that razor!  See below, in Tim Burton's 2007 film version starring Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman.

Being Alive
from Company
First Heard: Broadway, 1970
Every time I hear this song, I fall in love with it more and more.  Company was a landmark show about several characters who surround the life of a bachelor named Bobby.  Bobby, in typical late '60s-early '70s style, is a cad who cannot commit and flits from relationship to relationship.  In this finale song, Bobby finally states what he really wants out of life and, of course, it is to not be alone.  This powerful song is really a masterful wake-up call for those who strive to find love and companionship in this world (especially when it is sung by the likes of Raul Esparza in the 2006 Broadway revival of the show).

Move On
from Sunday In the Park With George
First Heard: Broadway, 1984
While "Sunday" was the song that made my mother cry, this was the song I always looked forward to because it was the "closure" song (not the finale, mind you, just a song about closure).  What do you do when you feel emotionally spent (whether it be after a break-up or a medical emergency or a world crisis)? You move on to the next thing and that is what Sondheim captured so well in this song.  Plus, the way original Broadway stars Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters sang this song together was so hauntingly beautiful that you couldn't feel anything but hopeful at the end of it.

Children Will Listen
from Into the Woods
First Heard: Broadway, 1987
This, for me, is one of Sondheim's most achingly beautiful songs and one of his most important lessons to the world (because, after all, artists are nothing if they are not teachers!).  In a show about fairy tales and what happens after "happily ever after," the moral of the story is to be careful with what we say to children because they DO listen, watch and behave from example (NO, this is not a PSA, everyone!).  The song, each time I hear it, makes me want to be more responsible and ensure the future by showing a good example for younger generations.  Hey, even older generations could use good examples too!  Below, Bernadette Peters leads the Original Broadway Cast in the song as it builds into the finale of the show.

Broadway Baby
from Follies
First Heard: Broadway, 1971
Look at the title of this Blog!  How could this song NOT be the #1 choice?!?  Sondheim's pastiche song (a pastiche song is a tune that mimics another musical style) about the showbiz hopeful trying to make it on the Great White Way has always felt like an anthem to me and several of my fellow theatre-folk (and has become a standard audition song for many actors!).  But it doesn't just apply to Broadway.  The singer, when you strip away the stardust notions and vernacular terms, is just someone with a dream, and who can't relate to that?  Ultimately, we are all people chasing our dream whether it be in finance, politics, religion, athletics or the entertainment world.  And Sondheim never put it better than in this song, as seen below where several seasoned actresses sing the song honoring the great stage actress Julie Harris at the Kennedy Center.

May you be a "Broadway Baby" forever!

Next week, an April Fools' Day themed 10 FAVORITES!

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