Yesterday, Stephen Sondheim died at the age of 91. He was almost certainly the most important musical theatre composer in American history. In fact, I’d argue that he was the central figure in American theatre in the last fifty years.
I’ve talked before about how I grew up loving musical theatre (this piece on romance tropes in musicals is the most popular blog post I’ve ever written), and Sondheim’s lyrics and scores were a massive part of my devotion. In middle school, I went through a period where I listened to the soundtrack for West Side Story every day. My then best friend and I wanted to mount a revival on Broadway: we designed sets for every scene and envisioned a Spanish translation of the lyrics (which of course did happen in 2009). I then went through periods where I obsessively listened to the revival cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the OBC of A Little Night Music, and especially the OBC of Into the Woods.
My tastes changed, of course, and there were Sondheim shows for me as I grew. I never got into Sweeney Todd (it’s a little dark for me) or Sunday in the Park with George (Dot is underwritten). But I came to adore Company and Assassins and more obscure gems.
Sondheim’s ability to quickly sketch a character–lyrically and musically–is just unparalleled. I’m going to drop a list of favorites below, but listen to “Now/Later/Soon“: ten minutes, three characters, three distinction voices and goals/motivations/conflicts. It’s just PERFECT.
The knocks on Sondheim, that there was no feeling in his shows and that his tunes weren’t hummable, strike me as bizarre. He didn’t write rousing chorus numbers a la “June Is Busting Out All Over,” but have you heard “Giants in the Sky,” “Losing My Mind,” or “The Ballad of Booth“? Heck, even “Someone in a Tree“–which is cerebral AF–slaps, as the kids say.
Everyone is publishing their ten favorite Sondheim songs list, and here’s mine. I wouldn’t argue that these are his best, but that they are the ones that have meant the most to me–and if that sounds like an invitation for you to share your favorites, that’s because it is. I offer these in no particular order.
“No More“/Into the Woods: of everything I disliked about the film version, the decision that I disagreed with the most was cutting this song, which thematically, is the heart of the show. I owe a massive debt to the film of the OBC, which absolutely blew my socks off.
“Anyone Can Whistle“/Anyone Can Whistle: every time I write a prickly or closed off character, this is always what I’m hoping to capture. The fear and potential and desire to break that shell and let someone in.
“The Miller’s Son“/A Little Night Music: in the documentary Six by Sondheim, he talked about how he would make lists for characters of words they would use, topics they would discuss, and how this song grew out of such a list. Petra is a throw away character, until she imagines three different futures with three different men and in the process becomes radically herself.
“Johanna“/Sweeney Todd: how can a song capture intense, soul-shuddering longing while also being so unsettling? Both at the level of the music and the lyrics, it’s a masterpiece.
“Being Alive“/Company: the 2008 Company revival film made me love the show. Raul Esparza absolutely belongs in the pantheon of Sondheim masters. And it’s amazing how Company somehow manages to be precisely of its time but also wildly relevant to the current moment.
“Move On“/Sunday in the Park with George: I had to make a hard artistic decision in the spring, and it was paralyzing. And in that moment, I felt like Dot was speaking directly to me. I listened to this song straight for like two days, and then I was at peace.
“Take Me to the World“/Evening Primrose: I sincerely wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall in the meeting between Sondheim and the ABC executives who commissioned a musical from him only to have him announce it would be about a poet taking refuge with a strange subculture in a department store. But what a freaking gorgeous song.
“I’m Still Here“/Follies: if you haven’t spent a substantial amount of time in the last 20 months dancing around your kitchen singing this song with a glass of wine…well, you’re probably better adjusted than I am. But this entire show is basically a PhD in American studies, and I have to love it for that reason alone.
“Not a Day Goes By“/Merrily We Roll Along: I am waiting with breath that is bated for the film version of this (which will be filmed over 20 years). This is my choice for the most heartbreaking song in the Sondheim oeuvre.
“The Ladies Who Lunch“/Company: it’s bitter, it’s hilarious, it’s filled with word play, it’s a tonal mosaic, it’s boozy and sad and aggressive and specific. It’s maybe the best monologue in American theatre. I love it.