Stephen Sondheim

When I told my friend Suzanne that I'd just read a 15-page essay by Frank Rich on Stephen Sondheim, she rolled her eyes.   What's left to write about him, she wanted to know.  She has a point. But that's what we love about Sondheim's work: it's layered enough to keep revealing more detail as we look.  

I respond to Rich elsewhereHere, I'll keep track of my own Sondheim-abilia.

First, I recommend a wonderful compendium of Sondheim video excerpts at the website of Macleans Magazine of Canada.  Some of these video clips are from the original cast of FOLLIES that I've longed to see for 40 years, including the original "Sally" Dorothy Collins singing "Losing My Mind" and a grainy film of the original cast's performance of "Who's That Woman?"  Another clip shows the final minutes of Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in SWEENEY TODD on Broadway, bringing back memories of my seeing it the night after Cariou completed his tracks for the original cast album. 

Here are other items I've written.

Personal Gratitude and Lessons from Sondheim
  • Tribute to Sondheim as Teacher.  I sent a copy of this to Mr. Sondheim on his 80th birthday, and I've framed his brief response:  "Dear Scott Smoot, Thank you for sending me the article. I blush."
  • Statement of religious personal connection to Sondheim's work, exemplified in "Sunday." 
  • Sondheim-Bernstein-Weill: "Saga of Lenny." Along with Sondheim's special lyrics for a birthday tribute to his old friend, I give some personal notes about my glancing personal connections to three of the parties involved. 

Reflections on Sondheim's work: Themes, Craft, Comparisons
  • The Liaisons Project: Entering the World of the Song reflects on Anthony DeMare's set of 36 composers' original pieces "lovingly tied" to Sondheim songs.
  • Every Minor Detail's a Major Decision: Two Books on Sondheim and Company tells what I learned from books by Craig Zadan and Ted Chapin about creative collaboration.
  • Steve and Stephen:  Sondheim Appreciates Reich, reports on a conversation in 2016 between composers Steve Reich and Sondheim at Lincoln Center, with my personal appreciation of Reich.
  • Sondheim's Religious Vision. This essay of mine was published in the Sondheim Review, winter 2006.  I revised it in 2017. 
  • Sondheim's "Fault" and Virtuosity , an explication of one song from Into the Woods, becomes a good general statement about the standards Sondheim has upheld throughout his career.  
  • Is Sondheim's Music "Classical?" Short answer: No, as he has different priorities than composers of concert music.
  • "There's not a tune you can hum?"  Musicologist Steve Swayne explains why, and why that's a good thing, in How Sondheim Found His Sound (2005).  I focus on Swayne's analysis of the song "What Can You Lose?"
  • A Little "Light" Music: Guettel and Sondheim.  This is mostly an appreciation of LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA by a young composer who happens to be Sondheim's godson, drawing distinctions from which Sondheim himself seems to be learning.
  • Sondheim, Fantasticks, and "Chamber Musicals." I respond to an article on small-scale Sondheim revivals by Norman Lebrecht, after seeing a successful production of the Schmidt-Jones chamber musical.(I also go off on Tom Hanks and others who make fun of musicals because "face it, people don't sing in real life.")
  • Rhymes with Integrity.  Close consideration of how the song "Growing Up," added late to the score of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, pulls the show together. I wrote this after seeing the HD transmission of the 2013 London revival.
  •  Sondheim's Book, Finishing the Hat: First Reading.  This briefly expounds on the statement that, in this book, "Sondheim's heart is ... expressed precisely... by a mind that simply cannot abide dishonesty or inaccuracy."  I quote extensively from this volume in a reflection of mine on Cole Porter.
  • In his memoir, Sondheim enumerated three artistic principles: Content dictates form, less is more, God is in the details.   In my appreciation of Pacific Overtures, I add a fourth principle, Joy is in the storytelling, based on something Sondheim said to me in conversation about his kabuki musical back in 1977.
  • Sondheim's Rich.  Frank Rich's essay "The Sondheim Puzzle" locates "love" at the heart of Sondheim's 60 years' work.  I add that Sondheim's love extends to his performers.
  • Stephen Sondheim on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz.  Sondheim gets to talk about music, for once.  Notes from hearing the 1994 broadcast on line. 
  • Music, Morality, and Horror: Salome Slays Sweeney Todd:   As much about Strauss as Sondheim, this reflection draws a distinction between the fun visceral horror and effects of Sweeney and the deeper moral horror of Salome.
  • Sondheim's Murder Mysteries reflects mostly on The Last of Sheila, a whodunit movie he wrote with Anthony Perkins, but I include what else I know about Sondheim and the genre -- with some news that may be an exclusive scoop, since I've never seen it repeated elsewhere!
  • Stephen Sondheim, Movie Star appreciates the documentary Six by Sondheim.
INTO THE WOODS, St. Andrew's Middle School, Jackson MS 1991

Reflections on Specific Shows:
  • Anyone Can Whistle: See What it Gets You.  I cite good reasons why the show flopped, and some good reasons to treasure it.
  • Follies. Thanks to Follies is my expression of gratitude for the 2017 production at London's National Theatre,  broadcast world wide.   
    • Sondheim's Follies "Encore."  After Follies was presented in the "Encore!" series in 2007, critic Ben Brantley refuted Sondheim's reputation for writing "cold" pieces. I concur, quoting other critics, too.  Note:  Sondheim admits in Look, I Made a Hat that his work with Harold Prince does strike him as "cold," since James Lapine opened him up to a new approach.
    • Kennedy Center's Follies:  Haunting and Haunted.  I saw the show and wrote this mixed review.  Can any production of Follies live up to the memory of the original?
  • Pacific Overtures. A year after Broadway's only kabuki musical closed, I met Stephen Sondheim, and asked him just how he had expected audiences to react to a show about the industrialization of Japan.  This article deals with his response, Sondheim's Joy
  • Into the WoodsI saw the original cast in 1987, directed and/or played piano for three more productions;  I have two responses to the movie:  How the film is a "perfect realization" of the stage playhow we can appreciate the whole score by a close look at one song, "Your Fault"
  • Atlanta Lyric Theatre does Forum:  It's a Hit! 
  • Sondheim Mini-Festival in Atlanta. Having seen a weak A Little Night Music but several strong Assassins in a single year, I write that Assassins may be fool-proof: low budgets and vocal weakness don't seem to lessen its emotional impact. 
  • Sunday, Art, and "Forever": Why do so many people find themselves crying midway through Sunday in the Park with George?
  • Night Music and South Pacific: Two revelatory revivals.  I reflected after seeing Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music.  I used to be snobby about South Pacific compared to Sondheim, but not after seeing this wonderful production.
  • Good Actors make Good Company. Reflection on Company broadcast in HD from Lincoln Center, starring Neil Patrick Harris and Patti Lupone.  How Harris acts the line, "Wow. Oh, wow" at the end of the pot scene tells us a lot.  I write from experience playing "David" in that scene, when I first learned to act between the lines. Company on Film Review is my basic review. 
  • Tim Burton's film Sweeney Todd: First reactions and second thoughts. Bottom line: I can't imagine a better filming of Sweeney Todd than Burton's, and yet it misses an essential element that any live performance provides: the audience. Atlanta Opera's 2018 Sweeney Todd is, as the director says, eighty percent of what you'd have seen in 1979.  I was there in 1979, and I reflect using notes from the first time I ever saw the show, for Reliving 40 Years of Sweeney Todd.
  • How Did You Get to Be Here?  I reflect upon John Doyle's production of Merrily We Roll Along in Cincinnati.  Rhymes with Integrity considers the song "Growing Up," added to the score years after the premier, and how it integrates with the rest of Merrily. I reflect on a documentary film  about the original cast in A Merrily Little Christmas.  
  • Sondheim's Road Show Arrives at Last.  I saw Road Show's earlier incarnation Bounce three times in Chicago. I laud John Doyle's reshaping of the story.  Fourteen years after I saw Bounce, I saw Road Show at Signature Theatre, directed by Gary GriffinIt was delight from start to almost finishRoad Trip to Road Show.
  • "You have to think the whole time!" is a complaint aimed at Side by Side by Sondheim, the first Sondheim anthology with wide circulation.  I consider the latest, Sondheim on Sondheim and other Sondheim anthologies
Sondheim Collaborators, Comrades, and Competitors

  • Lin-Manuel Miranda, receiving the Tony award for In the Heights, shouted out to Sondheim with a quote from Sondheim, "Look, Steve: I finished the hat!"  Later, he starred as "Charlie" in the Encores! production and recording of Merrily We Roll Along.  I respond to his book, music, lyrics and performance for Hamilton, As if Hamilton Needed More Raves. I respond to a production of his earlier show with Aurora Theatre Hits "the Heights."
  • Learning from Harold Prince: A Director's Journey focuses on the book by Carol Ilson about Sondheim's friend and collaborator Harold Prince
  • The Rodgers and Hammerstein Touch examines two moments from scripts by Sondheim's mentor.  I revised my opinion of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific after seeing the revival at Lincoln Center in 2010.
  • A Little "Light" Music: Guettel and Sondheim.  This is mostly an appreciation of LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA by Adam Guettel, a young composer who happens to be Sondheim's godson.
  • Sharing Sondheim's profession and birthday, Andrew Lloyd-Webber is often presented as Sondheim's rival.  Both have been important to me.  I reflect in Andrew Lloyd-Webber: The First Things That Come To Mind. After reading ALW's memoir Unmasked, I reevaluated my opinions.
  • The composer-lyricist of Rent Jonathan Larson was described in print as "Sondheim's protege." I see a connection; not enough.  Read Rent: Quaint
  • Cole Porter is one of the few composer-lyricists who get a ringing endorsement in Sondheim's Finishing the Hat. Sondheim's comments inform my appreciation, Believing in Cole Porter.  
  • Sondheim commented on dead lyricists in his book Finishing the Hat, but not on the late Betty Comden and Adolph Green, "because they are not dead to me -- their loss is too recent, and they were friends."  I wrote an appreciation when Betty Comden died: Make Someone Happy.
  • Frank Loesser receives praise from Sondheim that I include in my reflection, Frank Loesser's Musical Martinis. Among Sondheim's other song-writing friends were John Kander and Fred Ebb who broke ground with Harold Prince before Sondheim did, with Cabaret.  Thirty years later, Kander and Ebb wrote Kiss of the Spider Woman.  
  • When young Sondheim expected fellow lyricist Sheldon Harnick to admire the clever rhymes in "I Feel Pretty" during a rehearsal for West Side Story, Harnick reminded him that this immigrant girl new to English shouldn't be singing like Noel Coward, and Sondheim learned a lesson.  I blogged about the live streamed Broadway revival of She Loves Me, Harnick's collaboration with composer Jerry Bock and book writer Joe Masteroff, from 1963. 
  • Barbara Cook's performances in Follies, Sondheim on Sondheim, and her own concert program Mostly Sondheim make her one of Sondheim's premier interpreters.  It was not always thus!  In my review of Barbara Cook's memoir, I devote a section to the Sondheim connection. 
  • Jason Roberts Brown wrote a tribute for Sondheim's 85th birthday that alluded to the theory that Sondheim has spent his life "fixing" his mentor's artistic misfire Allegro. Brown's own  The Last Five Years is part of his lifelong effort to "fix" Merrily We Roll Along. Both bend time to tell the story of a broken relationship.  My ecstatic take on the movie links to my less sanguine consideration of a staged performance.
  • More on Jason Roberts Brown: He wrote music and lyrics for Parade, with book by Alfred Uhry.  My essay "So you want theatre to be uplifting?" responds to a remark I overheard at the exit after the show.  
  • Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty contributed to The Sondheim Review's series of songwriters' tributes to Sondheim's influence.  I review their breakthrough success Ragtime.  
  • Producer Scott Rudin Talks Sondheim on Fresh Air, telling about their public feud over an earlier draft of Road Show, and looking forward to a new musical in 2017. 

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