If you’ve been following me the last three Tuesdays, then you know I’ve been dealing with the new (and excellent) two-CD retrospective The Essential Stephen Sondheim that Masterworks Broadway recently issued.
As I stated last week, the powers-that-be did a fine job in culling two-and-a-half-dozen Sondheim cuts from cast albums and other sources. Still, I wanted to offer an alternative universe of My Essential Stephen Sondheim.
Last week I offered my own Disc One selections, ones that ranged from 1954 to 1973. So now 1973 is also where I’ll start in chronologically choosing fifteen later-career Sondheims for my mythical Disc Two. Here they are, boys! Here they are, world!
1. “The Glamorous Life” (A Little Night Music: original cast album) followed by:
2. “The Glamorous Life” (A Little Night Music: soundtrack). The first effort was wonderful, but here’s evidence of Sondheim always trying to make something great something greater. In the stage show, little Fredrika only gets the verse; in the film, we get to hear much more that’s on her mind.
3. “Auto Show” (Stavisky via Follies in Concert) – Well, we live in the age of recycling, and Sondheim wasn’t above taking the original opening melody from Follies and using it as instrumental music for this 1974 film that Alain Renais directed and in which Jean Paul Belmondo starred. No, you don’t get the lyric to “Bring on the Girls,” but you do get the lush orchestration that movies give their music.
4. “Chrysanthemum Tea” (Pacific Overtures) – With the four American ships in the bay, Shogun Togugawa Ieyoshi really should see what this Commodore Matthew Perry from America wants. Unfortunately, his inexperience with conflict makes him do nothing, which dismays his mother. She tries to spur him to action by this “herb that’s superb for disturbances” which will do “while we plan, if we can, what our answer ought to be.” Although she claims “If the tea the Shogun drank will serve to keep the Shogun tranquil,” once she sees that her son is incapable of action, she turns out to be a worse mother than Rose Hovick – and poisons him. “When the Shogun is weak,” she decides, “the tea must be strong” in this very strong musical scene.
5. “Next!” (Pacific Overtures) – I’d include this one to show Sondheim’s mastery in economical writing. To mark the many changes that Japan saw and was continuing to see, the chorus sings, “See what’s coming! See what’s going!” What a splendid way of showing how quickly trends come and go – and all in six words, yet.
6. “I Never Do Anything Twice” (Side by Side by Sondheim and A Celebration at Carnegie Hall) – More than one Sondheim-based movie has unconscionably dropped songs or lyrics, but the most unkindest cut of all came in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. So many delicious double entendres were stupidly discarded! This is the song that Cole Porter would have loved to have written. If he ever BillyBigelows himself back to earth for a day, he should spend five minutes with this masterpiece.
7. “Wait” (Sweeney Todd) — “Time’s so fast,” Mrs. Lovett insists, and she’s right: “Now goes quickly – see? Now is past.” What a smart way of showing that of all three time periods – past, present, and future – the middle one is of course the shortest.
8. “Good Thing Going” (Merrily We Roll Along) – At a party, Charley and Frank play their new song about two lovers who “had a good thing going” until it was “going, going, gone.” Frank Sinatra didn’t much acknowledge Sondheim in his career, but for this one, he had to make an exception. (Interesting, isn’t it, that the rewritten Merrily actually uses Sinatra’s recording as part of the show?)
9. “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” (Merrily We Roll Along) — Here’s the fifty-one-year-old Sondheim writing in the style of twenty-something satirists. They have fun at the expense of the then-First Family which was then so prolific that it included “Ethel and Ted and Eunice and Pat and Joan and Steve and Peter and Jean and Sarge and Joe and Rose and” – here’s the best part – “rows and rows and rows.” No – correction: the best part comes in the emotion of the last two lines: “The decade is starting anew, and maybe the country is, too.” These lyrics show that the young people aren’t just out to throw darts, but to celebrate what America can be, too.
10. “Everybody Loves Louis” (Sunday in the Park with George) – You and I may not share the same sense of humor, but for the record I do believe that the Sondheim lyric that had me laughing the longest and hardest in the theater happened when Bernadette Peters’ Dot conceded that “Louie drinks a bit; Louie blinks a bit.”
11. “The Day Off” (Sunday in the Park with George) — The Nurse has a point when droning “Tending to his (mother), though, is perfectly fine; it pays for the nurse that is tending to mine.” Yes, mothers aren’t nearly as demanding of nurses as they are of daughters, so working for someone else’s mom is ultimately easier on the nerves.
12. “Finishing the Hat” (Sunday in the Park with George) — Seurat complains of the women he’s known who want to have fun while he wants to work: “They have never understood,” he grouses. But the latter half of the line is more telling: “And no reason why they should.” This shows that George doesn’t expect a woman to stay with him because he knows he can’t give her what she wants. What’s even more impressive is that he doesn’t begrudge Dot’s feelings, for he knows what it’s like to really, really want something.
Here’s the one you knew was coming: George minimizes his work to a dog — “Look, I made a hat,” he says derisively — before immediately having his self-respect return in “Where there never was a hat.”
13. “Country House” (Putting It Together) – This was written for the London premiere of Follies in 1987. Phyllis and Ben try to mend fences by considering a white-picket-fence house they’ll use for more than a weekend in the country. We see how they can’t agree on that any more than on where to go on a trip, whether or not to get a pet or even – Good Lord! – have a child. They eventually do settle on a cottage, but even before they make their first call to a real estate broker, we know that nothing will save them.
14. “No One Is Alone” (Into the Woods) “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood.” Remember that when a friendship goes sour, sometimes it’s truly inevitable. You may very well find that when such a sad situation happens to you, this quotation from Sondheim will help soften the blow.
15. “The Ballad of Booth” (Assassins) — Did we ever realize how young a man changed the country before we learned here that John Wilkes Booth was “twenty-seven years of age?” Interesting, isn’t it, that twenty-seven was Sondheim’s age too when he had his first musical on Broadway. Both he and Booth chose show business as a career, but of the two, I’d say that Sondheim has done more to make the world a better place, wouldn’t you?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.