I’m getting a little tired of music appreciation articles like this. When a musical legend dies, that’s when we all start to describe how much their music means to us. Just in the past 5 years we’ve had biggies like: David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty, Chris Cornell, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Dr. John, Kenny Rogers, John Prine, Eddie Van Halen and Charlie Watts being a crazy-notable short list.
We list our favorite songs. We tell stories of what they meant to us. We make a case for them to be underrated, despite their star status.
Last week, Stephen Sondheim died at age 91. While fans of rock could debate which was a bigger loss among Bowie, Petty or Prince in a short stretch five years ago, Sondheim’s place in musical theater was indisputable. If Lin-Manuel Miranda was a 98 and Andrew Lloyd Webber an 80, then Stephen Sondheim was at least a 250 on the same scale.
With no further ado, here’s my "what Sondheim meant to me" article. (If you want to skip down to the bottom to see/hear the Favorite 10 Sondheim Songs, I won’t hold it against you.)
My mom loved folk music, Barry Manilow and musical theater. My dad loved jazz, classical and standards. My brother and sister burned Elvis Costello, reggae and The Clash into my head. I basically listened to everything. But if you made a Venn Diagram of what songwriters my parents and I all revered, it’s probably a short list: Paul McCartney, Gershwin, Randy Newman and Stephen Sondheim.
The first musical I ever say in a theater was Company, which I still think is Sondheim’s best. It’s insane that a 10-year-old me completely ate up a play about jaded New Yorkers singing about the inherent impossibility and frustration in human relationships. But then again, 10-year-old me dug seeing Annie Hall in the theater, too.
I was raised on loving ambiguity in lyrics and complexity in music. Sondheim was the gold standard for what you could do in a piece of music and to be honest, I don’t think that really ever changed for me ï¿½" although I’ve been somewhere between a dilettante and a devotee of just about every genre there is in music. As a songwriter, I haven’t completely warmed to the thought that I should say something in 20 words instead of a jamming 100 words in a tight space instead.
The Beatles Of Musical Theater
Pop music before The Beatles was in black and white. What they did (and what they pushed their contemporaries to do) was taking music from the Happy Days era of Elvis, Little Richard and The Everly Brothers and through their insane talent and creativity they brought music into the color era.
Sondheim did the same for musical theater. Here’s an SAT analogy for you ï¿½" Beatles : Pop Music :: Sondheim : Musical Theater.
When Stephen Sondheim was trying to break in to musical theater, it was the world of Lerner & Lowe and Rogers & Hammerstein musicals like Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, The Sound Of Music and Camelot. Sondheim actually was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein (it’s worth Googling).
Some early Sondheim songs belong to this golden era of traditional musicals ï¿½" he did the lyrics for "Everything’s Coming Up Roses" and "I Feel Pretty". Then six musicals later he’s writing insane music with non-Western scales like Pacific Overtures or discordant horn arrangements around songs about a murderous 19th century barber in Sweeney Todd. Those 15-20 years of musical advancement was like going from black & white to color then to virtual reality. I’m honestly not sure if any one person has advanced a genre or a creative field more all by himself.
The ballsy lyrical pyrotechnics in his songs were incredible. He basically solved word puzzles in his lyrics. (He was famously passionate about crosswords and word puzzles. Google that one, too.) Listen to "America" from West Side Story or "Another Hundred People" in Company. He jammed four songs worth of lyrics into these 3-minute numbers; but never so forced where the songs didn’t work.
As a kid, I once saw Sondheim on some interview (odds are it was PBS). The word "Cinerama" came up for some reason or another. And his first reaction was to note that "Cinerama" is an anagram of "Americana". Who the fuck thinks that way?
I don’t want to make his songs all sound like parlor tricks. He still always prioritized making songs with feelings. And musical theater has so many more requirements in songs than pop: They have to compliment the story, they have to be believable as being sung by that particular character, you have to manage the dynamics of a show with openers, show-stoppers, palate cleansers and closers, they have to match the theme of the show and also be in the wheelhouse of the performers you have.
What I’m saying is, as hard as it is to write a great song as a standalone, to put great songs in the middle of plays requires a problem solver of the highest order. That’s why I really consider Sondheim to be a legitimate genius.
Here’s an incredible story about the writing of "Send In The Clowns." It was in the creation of the musical A Little Night Music. They had cast actress Glynnis Johns in the play, loved her acting. But she didn’t have a lot of musical range and couldn’t sustain notes like more talented singers. They needed a 2nd act song for her and so Sondheim wrote a song around her limitations, making the lyrics short questions ï¿½" that all end on consonant sounds so they SHOULDN’T be sustained. "Isn’t it bliss?" "Don’t you approve?" "One who keeps tearing around ï¿½" One who can’t move". The limitations constrained him, but they inspired him. Gives me fucking chills to think about this as a songwriter sometimes.
Don’t Be Sad
Of course, on Twitter we see some over the top statements in tribute, lots of which amount to "What will theater do without him?!" Let’s keep in mind that he wrote one musical in the last 27 years. He was 91 years old, for Christ’s sake.
And let’s remember: He lived the best life imaginable for a long long time. 91 Sondheim years probably equals about 250 years for the rest of us. R.I.P.
I’ll finish just by sharing my favorite 10 Sondheim songs. It’s a tribute to how great he is that everybody’s post Sondheim death tributes can list drastically different songs from each other.
#1 - I’m Still Here
This is the kind of song I most wish I could write. A life-kicked-the-shit-out-of-my-but-I-refuse-to-surrender song. This and Gloria Gaynor’s "I Will Survive" are in their own way the most bad-ass songs that out-punk punk rock in my book. I think I’m going to make this what Alexa plays during morning wake-up alarms.
#2 - The Ladies Who Lunch
From Company, another Elaine Stritch song at the top of my list. The song itself has the perspective of somebody who’s drunk, pointing a finger at the women who have not much to do but drink, yet still knowing and winking to the irony. So fucking good. (I’m using a version from jazz artist Don Byron with Cassandra Wilson singing; sorry for the static video.)
#3 - Getting Married Today
The audacity and speed of this thing makes me envious of Sondheim. And everything I said about his ability to solve songs as word puzzles totally applies here - without sacrificing the emotion of a woman staring her future in the face and freaking out. Warning: Madeline Kahn is about to kick your ass.
#4 - Anyone Can Whistle
As ubiquitous as "Send In The Clowns" was as a 70s song, this one has a similar feel. The angst and I-don’t-belong feeling is there in both (pretty much the overarching feeling in a ton of Sondheim songs), but "Anyone Can Whistle" has a much better tune, in my opinion.
#5 - Being Alive
#2 and #3 above are from Company and are virtuoso displays of songwriting. "Being Alive" is so much simpler and wears its raw emotion on its sleeve, but is it any less of an achievement? If you listen to this and can’t relate to the existential angst, I don’t know why you’re still reading this article.
#6 - Epiphany / A Little Priest
I’m cheating here by including the 2 songs that close Act One of Sweeney Todd in one spot. In Epiphany, Sweeney Todd has had everything taken from him and is in a blind rage: "There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit - And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit - And the vermin of the world inhabit it." Gangsta. How do you follow that? With a bouncy riff of puns about what different people would taste like if baked into pies.
#7 - America
West Side Story’s music is from Leonard Bernstein with Sondheim only on lyrics duty. I almost included "The Jet Song" as an example of his lyrical pyrotechnics. But "America"? Wow. All of the same verbal gymnastics but making a cynical political statement about the false promises of the U.S. from the perspective of the characters’ cynicism.
#8 - Comedy Tonight
Yes, he’s written more sophisticated songs. But is there any opener to any play every that throws the door open with a self-referential mission statement about what the audience is about to see?
#9 - Not While I’m Around
By this time deep into Act Two of Sweeney Todd, the body count is mounting, things are looking pretty hopeless for everybody, and we need to pump the brakes on the terror and fatalism and hear somebody lie to us how things are gonna be ok.
#10 - Finishing The Hat
From Sunday In The Park With George. Just like the more famous "Putting It Together" from the same show, it’s about the creative process - and how George is a possessed artist who needs to follow his art at the expense of relationships. It’s actually the same message at the ends of both La La Land and Whiplash where I hate the conclusion that being an artist has to mean perpetually putting your real-life partner/spouse in 2nd place. But the argument seems stronger from Mandy Patinkin here.