Last year, when Ted Chapin accepted the job of producer of the much-acclaimed Lyrics & Lyricists at the 92nd Street Y, he started thinking of how to honor Stephen Sondheim.
That would seem to be an easy task. Although Sondheim once wrote a song called “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” musical theater savants know that in Sondheim’s canon there are many great pieces to be sure of.
But the series had already celebrated Broadway’s greatest genius several times in its forty-eight-year history. So Chapin wondered “What might a new focus be?”
The question began to be answered when Chapin heard one of Sondheim’s songs performed at a vocal competition. “As I listened,” he said, “I thought that no one has used the English language with as much playfulness as has Sondheim. I took out a piece of paper and free-associated other songs of his that I felt bubbled and fizzed. It was a good list. Then I thought about his simple and stunning use of the English language, period – when rather than tongue-twisting and mind-blowingly effortless-seeming wordplay, he was revealing his gift for utter, and often devastating, simplicity. I realized that no one – no one – has used the language better.”
No argument from me. Some of what Sondheim has achieved with wordplay would for most lyricists be harder than a matador coercin’ a bull.
As we approach the genius’ eighty-ninth birthday next week, I’ll guess what songs Chapin has on his list. If you attend SONDHEIM: WORDPLAY during its five showings between March 30 and April 1, you can see if he and I are on the same appreciative page where Sondheim is concerned.
At first glance, we might assume that we’ll hear some WEST SIDE STORY gems: “And make this endless day endless night” (“Tonight”) sings because it reinforces that when you’re in love and can’t wait to see your beloved until night, the day seems endless; then, when you’re with the person, the night flies by no matter how much you wish it’d never end.
How about “That Puerto-Rican punk’ll / Go down / And when he’s hollered ‘Uncle’” (“Quintet”)? In a new land, we all mangle idioms: “I like the island Manhattan / Smoke on your pipe and put that in” (“America”).
Will we get from GYPSY “This bum’ll / Be Beau Brummel” (“All I Need Is the Girl”) or “Living life in a living room” (“Some People”) – effective because it reminds us that there isn’t much life in a living room.
GYPSY also gives us three different spellings for three different rhymed words: “When the audience boos / We don’t miss our cues / We always can use / what they throw” (“Together, Wherever We Go”).
But those lyrics aren’t likely to be included any more than “Such lovely blue Danube-y music / How can you be / Still?” from the title song of DO I HEAR A WALTZ? or “Ev’ry time I look and see me / I’m reminded life is dreamy” (“Life Is Happiness Indeed,” CANDIDE). Sondheim prefers to be represented by songs for which he wrote the music, too, so I suspect Chapin has chosen nothing from Sondheim’s lyrics-only assignments.
No one will miss them because Sondheim has plenty more. How about his rhymes from split-up words?
“It’s spreading each minute / Throughout the whole vicinit- / y” – (“Love Is in the Air,” cut from FORUM, included in SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM).
“Schub’s a boob and / You-b / -elong to me” (“Simple,” ANYONE CAN WHISTLE).
“An herb / That’s superb / For disturb- / ances … While we plan / If we can / What our an- / swer ought to be” (“Chrysanthemum Tea,” PACIFIC OVERTURES).
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC has two: “The one who played the harp in her boa / Thought she was so a- / dept” (“Remember?”) “And be hopelessly shattered / By Saturd- / ay night” (“A Weekend in the Country”).
ASSASSINS has two as well: “We’d have been left / Bereft / of Fd- / D. R.” (“How I Saved Roosevelt”) and “Trouble with your tummy? / This-a bring you some re- / lief” (“Everybody’s Got the Right”).
Sondheim also split a word that didn’t result in a rhyme, but sure packed a punch. In “Buddy’s Blues” in FOLLIES, Buddy mentions “A fella she prefers” and the Sally stand-in repeats the last syllable to explain why she indeed prefers him: “Furs! Furs!”
And what of “And though I’ll do my utmost / To see you never frown / And though I’ll try to cut most / Of our expenses down / I’ve some traits, I warn you / To which you’ll have objections / I too have a cornu- / copia of imperfections”?
So goes “Love Will See Us Through” in FOLLIES, which may well offer Sondheim’s biggest cornucopia of great lyrics. Although “Can That Boy Fox Trot!” sported “But who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights’re low?” it was considered expendable.
(Well, “I’m Still Here” is a better song …)
But when the time came to add a song to FOLLIES for its 1987 London run, Sondheim in “Ah, But Underneath” wrote “In the depths of her interior / Were fears she was inferior / And something even eerier / But no one dared to query her / Superior exterior.” (You can hear it in PUTTING IT TOGETHER, too.)
From “Beautiful Girls” alone he gave us “Beauty celestial / The best, you’ll agree” … “Faced with these Loreleis / what man can moralize? … “Each in her style a / Delilah reborn.”
Those three tickle our ears because we see the words in our heads and note that the spellings are different. So too:
“Exclusive you / Elusive you / Will any person ever get the juice of you?” (“You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” COMPANY).
Two from A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC: “I acquired some position / Plus a tiny Titian” (“Liaisons”); “You acquiesced / And the rest is a blank” (“Remember?”).
Sondheim has used homonyms for great wordplay:
“Weighty affairs will just have to wait.” (“Comedy Tonight,” FORUM and JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY).
“And Ethel and Ted and Eunice and Pat and Joan and Steve and Peter and Jean and Sarge and Joe and Rose / And rows and rows and rows” (“Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG).
Sondheim also excels at mixing nouns and verbs that rhyme: “Have a nice sunny suite for the guest to rest in / Now and then, you could do the guest in” (“By the Sea,” SWEENEY TODD).
He also comes up with the unexpected word. In “Color and Light” from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, Seurat talks to himself while painting: “More red! / More blue! / More beer!”
Three years later, The Baker’s Wife in INTO THE WOODS (in “Maybe They’re Magic”) sang “If the end is right, it justifies the beans.”
Two different meanings for the same word? Sondheim did that in “Could I Leave You?” in FOLLIES when Phyllis asked “No, the point is could you leave me? / Well, I guess you could leave me the house, Leave me the flat.”
Oh, so many more!
“Should there be a marital squabble / Available Bob’ll / Be there with the glue” (“What Would We Do without You?” COMPANY).
“Someone who’ll be busy as a bumblebee / And even if you grumble, be / As graceful as a grouse” (“Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” FORUM and PUTTING IT TOGETHER).
Best of all, Sondheim can find great insights while still using wordplay. Many lyrics prove that, but perhaps none better than “Children can only grow / From something you love / To something you lose” (“Children Will Listen,” INTO THE WOODS).
I’ve often asked people the question “If you could drop in on a composer and/or lyricist who’d just finished a song and have him or her say ‘Listen to this, hot off the press’ – what song would it be?”
For me, it’s SWEENEY TODD’S “A Little Priest” where Sondheim’s wordplay reached its apotheosis. I won’t quote its four dozen or so clever rhymes. Why should I, when I know you have them all memorized?
What, you don’t? Then attend SONDHEIM: WORDPLAY. It’s dollars to meat pies that Ted Chapin has included it.