Friday, May 15, 2015

Sondheim's Sweetheart

I am a Broadway baby. I went to my first musical, King and I, when I was eight years old, and have since seen countless others, both on Broadway and the West End. And when I’m not going to a show (I don’t go often enough, sadly), I’m cranking up the show tunes on my iPhone or stereo. Yes, I am a bit dorky. I’m okay with that though.

While I can’t get enough of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loew, Stephen Sondheim is my favorite composer and lyricist. While he does have a signature style, no two Sondheim musicals are alike. This man brought us West Side Story and Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, Gypsy and A Little Night Music, my personal favorite. But you can’t forget to mention Company or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum either. He has won eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer), an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and the Laurence Olivier Award. Talk about prolific.

I was in a particularly Sondheim-y mood the last couple of weeks, and with the help of my Pandora station “A Little Night Music,” I’ve been singing along to many of Sondheim’s song. I thought I’d share a list of some of my favorites with you. I seriously can’t think of a single Sondheim song that I don’t like, but here are my top 10.

10. Sunday in the Park With George – The eponymous song from Sunday in the Park With George. My favorite rendition is by Bernadette Peters from the original 1984 cast. It’s a humorous song where Dot is complaining about being stuck in the hot sun while George paints her (“A trickle of sweat/ the back of the head” and “The tip of a stay/ right under the tit”). She tries to tell herself that there are worse things to be doing, but I don’t think she believes that . I love the hilarity of the situation, and the plucky tune, especially when the tempo picks up toward the end.

9. Johanna – A stirring and melodic paean from Sweeney Todd that sends shivers up my spine every time I hear it. It’s a bit of a dark ballad for Johanna, Sweeney Todd’s beautiful daughter, sung by young, enamored Anthony. If you saw the 2007 film version with Johnny Depp, Jamie Campbell Bower sings the song fairly well. I’m a sucker for original casts, typically anyway.

8. Broadway Baby – This is a toe-tapping, witty song from Follies. There’s something sultry about it that reminds me of jazz club singers from like the 1930s or 1940s, maybe even bordering on burlesque. Again, Bernadette Peters does a killer rendition in one of her concerts.

7. Ladies Who Lunch – Okay, okay, I adore when Sondheim’s songs are a bit saucy and clever. There is something tongue-in-cheek about this song from Company. I love Elaine Stritch’s rendition, but her brassy, powerful voice might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

6. A Little Priest – You can’t get more sadistically funny than this song from Sweeney Todd. Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd sing about turning people into pies and the variety of flavor (“Not as hearty as bishop, perhaps/ but then again, not as bland as curate, either!”).  No one does it better than Angela Lansbury (sorry, Helena Bonham Carter).

5. Children Will Listen – This melodic song from Into the Woods has a powerful message that I think everyone could benefit from listening to one or twice. It’s a beautiful song for a soprano, irresistible even, but it is a somewhat plaintive tune as well.

4. Move On – Another song from Sunday in the Park With George but in a different vein. It’s a touching song about the end of a relationship. There are some beautiful notes to go along with the poignant lyrics. Bernadette Peters strikes again!

3. Send in the Clowns – I already mentioned that A Little Night Music is my favorite Sondheim musical, so it shouldn’t be surprise that one (soon to be two) of its songs are in my top 5. I saw the Broadway revival twice: once with Catherine Zeta Jones and Angela Lansbury, then again with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. This is another sad song about lovers parting ways, but this one is not quite so obvious in its lyrical turns of phrase. DesirĂ©e reflects on the ironies of her life, the most recent of which is that her lover Fredrik has chosen is young bride over her. The song’s meter is actually pretty complex, if you are into that sort of musical analysis.

2. Every Day a Little Death – Song two from A Little Night Music that just pulls at my heartstrings. Two sopranos sing this beautiful song that’s set to the ¾ time (think the waltz) and has some clear, resonant notes. Charlotte is venting about her philandering husband and how she can’t stop loving him no matter what he does. It’s another sad song, go figure.

1. Not a Day Goes By – Number one is from Merrily We Roll Along, and it is so poignant that it actually appears twice in the musical itself, once in Act I and then again in Act II. It’s sad but touchingly so, and whenever I listen to it, it just overwhelms me. I think a song that can affect you that way time and time again deserves to be number one.

If you’ve made it to the end of this long, long post, then you deserve a cookie.

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