In “Comedy Tonight,” one of Broadway’s best opening numbers (for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962), Stephen Sondheim wrote “Weighty affairs will just have to wait” – a nice example of his deft wordplay.
But this week, we’re talking about an eighty affair that just cannot wait. We must stop everything we’re doing to celebrate the 80th birthday of Broadway’s premier composer-lyricist.
“Comedy Tonight” is, in fact, both the opening number (headed by Jason Alexander) and the name of a new BMG Heritage album (which will be available for digital purchase on March 30) subtitled “Stephen Sondheim’s Funniest Songs.” They number a sweet 16, and all manage to include some of my all-time favorite Sondheimisms. Who else could rhyme “whippoorwill” with “slipper will,” not to mention “dustbin” with “just been,” and “paper ‘n’ strings” with “apron strings” in the delightful vaudeville turn, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”? (Here it’s done by Stephen Collins, Christopher Durang, and Michael Rupert.)
The album contains Debbie Shapiro (later Gravitte), Faith Prince and Susann Fletcher proclaiming, “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” which we’ll all admit is true. But we learned long ago that Stephen Sondheim has much more than gimmicks when he writes songs.
Company (1970), of course, was the work that truly put Sondheim on the musical theater map as a composer, lyricist — and innovator. Until that time, musicals made marriage the be-all and end-all. Sondheim showed that, where wedlock was concerned, some people instead wanted to end it all; hence, the lickety-split “Getting Married Today,” done here in spirited fashion by Madeline Kahn, Mark Jacoby and Jeanne Lehman.
But what could be more dour (and, many would say, truthful) than those opinions expressed in “The Little Things You Do Together.” As Cleo Laine sings, “The concerts you enjoy together, neighbors you annoy together, children you destroy together.” Ain’t it the truth!
Though Sondheim is of course known for the tricky rhyme, it’s a toss-off and non-tricky lyric that I most love in “The Worst Pies in London” (Sweeney Todd). Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury) criticizes Mrs. Mooney for “popping pussies into pies. Wouldn’t do in my shop. Just the thought of it’s enough to make you sick,” she sneers, before adding, “And I’m telling you, them pussycats is quick.” Now we’re getting down to brass tacks: Mrs. Lovett isn’t above “popping pussies into pies”; it’s just that her cat-catching abilities aren’t as well-developed as Mrs. Mooney’s.
Tricky rhymes abound, though, in “A Little Priest.” Once Sweeney (Len Cariou) and Mrs. Lovett start to conceive of popping people into pies, Sondheim has nearly four dozen rhymes that encompass more than two dozen occupations. And yet, the funniest moment involves no rhyme, after she offers tinker, tailor, potter, and butler, and he easily joins them with pinker, paler, hotter, and subtler. But Mrs. Lovett won’t be beat: “Locksmith,” she says. Checkmate, mate!
If you saw the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, you only got about 7% of one of Sondheim’s most delicious songs, “I Never Do Anything Twice.” That it was so truncated was a crime worthy of a Sherlock Holmes investigation. Here Millicent Martin gives the whole 5:56 rendition. Had Cole Porter heard this sexy and sensual romp, with double the number of double entendres found in the naughtiest ditty, I daresay he would have immediately judged it the song he most wished he’d written.
Martin also does “Can That Boy Fox-Trot!” which I saw Yvonne DeCarlo do during the Boston tryout of Follies in 1971. How I adored hearing DeCarlo draw out the “F” sound, making us think (at least the first time around) that she was about to utter a much different verb. Better still were the rhymes: “An imitation Hitler but with littler charm,” “In a clerk you find a Hercules,” “He may be full of hokum, but I’ve no complaint.” Best of all: “But who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights’re low?”
A few days after I saw DeCarlo do it, a friend called to say, “They’re throwing out ‘Fox-Trot.’” I shrieked and responded, “What could he possibly write that would be better?” Sondheim sure answered that question by writing “I’m Still Here.” (The song he wrote to replace “Uptown/Downtown” – “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” – is also on this disc, courtesy of Lee Remick.)
In “Chrysanthemum Tea” (Pacific Overtures, 1976), the Shogun’s mother offers her son “an herb that’s superb for disturbances” which will do “while we plan, if we can, what our answer ought to be” to those unwelcome Americans who have arrived. Though she claims “If the tea the Shogun drank will serve to keep the Shogun tranquil,” once this woman sees that he is incapable of action, she turns out to be a worse mother than Rose in Gypsy, for she poisons her son. “When the Shogun is weak,” she decides, “then the tea must be strong.” So is this entire lyric, taken from the original cast album.
From Into the Woods (1987), both “Agony” and its reprise are here, wisely separated by eight other songs including “You Must Meet My Wife” (by David Kernan and Ms. Martin) and “It’s Hot Up Here” (from the cast album of Sunday in the Park with George). I’ve seen Woods 11 times (and actually performed two benefit performances as the Narrator/Mysterious Man!), and I’m always charmed at how every audience slowly but surely catches on, thanks to Sondheim’s subtle hints, just what fairy tale characters these two princes are discussing. Robert Westenberg and Charles Wagner are here from the original cast album.
Finally, younger listeners might not get the big jokes in “The Boy From …” which Sondheim wrote for The Mad Show in 1966. Millicent Martin’s breathy rendition and her “AH-ah-AH-ah-AH-ahs” that punctuate certain lyrics represent a clever parody of a then-recent pop song, “The Boy from Ipanema” and its singer Astrud Gilberto. (She was a Brazilian who had learned the English lyric phonetically, and delivered it in a charmingly uncertain delivery.)
Also give Sondheim credit here for writing a song about a gay man at a time when few if any writers dared to do it. But that’s Stephen Sondheim for you. He’s always looking, to quote one of his not-at-all-comic but oh-so-sincere songs, beyond the hills of tomorrow.
Peter Filichia also writes a column at www.theatermania.com each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.