Monday, March 22, 2010

How Stephen Sondheim Changed My Life

I have often written here about how theatre has really enriched my life.  I think that probably applies to anyone reading this.  Some time ago, I wrote about the one person who changed my life - Angela Lansbury - and how seeing her in Mame opened a whole new world of wonder for me.  Thankfully, I was given the rare opportunity to actually meet her and tell her just that.

But as the theatre world celebrates the birthday of one of the true icons of the genre, I have to admit that while Ms. Lansbury opened that new window, Mr. Sondheim got me to explore the depths of this world of musical theatre.  And so, I guess I can say that Stephen Sondheim also changed my life in ways I never would have imagined before.

My first brush with his work was the Original Cast Recording of Sweeney Todd, purchased because Ms. Lansbury was the star.  I had no idea what I was in for.  So I ran upstairs to my room, pulled out the first of two albums (a double set!), plugged in my headphones and laid down on the floor with the enclosed libretto.  Imagine my surprise (I literally screamed) when that factory whistle went off the first time in my headphones!  Well, Angela Lansbury or not, I was hooked.  I think I played "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" 15 times before I allowed the record to continue.  Then, I played "The Worst Pies in London" over and over marveling at how un-Mame she was.  Well, I think it was a good three hours before I even turned to side two of the first record.  But I was in love.  The story, the performances, and the music...odd, dissonant in places, but totally fitting the specific mood of any given second.  As I became more and more familiar with the lyrics, I realized that this was literature I was reading.  Such nuance, such specificity of language!  I tell you, discovering all of that in the lyrics to his songs made school much easier, too.  English classes became more interesting; I really understood what the teacher was talking about.  Although there were some other influences later, I can trace my choice of college major - English - to that day in the early 80's when I first listened to Sweeney Todd.

And so, Mr. Sondheim, I thank you for literally changing my life.  And happy birthday!

Several of you have written asking me what my favorite Sondheim score is.  How can I just pick one?  I'll pick three, with two caveats.  One: Since he did not write the scores for West Side Story  and Gypsy all by himself, I won't consider them, but I will say that both are among my all-time favorites.  And Two:  I love Act One of both Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, but not the whole of each score enough to include them.  But if they were stand alone musicals, both would be right up there on my list.

3.  Merrily We Roll Along
I like the whole Original Cast Recording, and several of the changes in subsequent versions, especially "That Frank."  It is full of catchy tunes, the story is engrossing, and the commentary on the arts is both bitchy and spot on.

"Now You Know" - The Original Broadway Cast

Best Songs: "That Frank"  "Not a Day Goes By"  "Rich and Happy"  "Opening Doors" and the song that always makes me get a lump in my throat, "Our Time."  I love both recorded versions - the OBC and the York Theatre revival.

2.  Company
I can so identify with Bobby now that I'm grown up myself.  Company was the second Cast Recording of Sondheim's I ever purchased.  Love that purple and orange!  It had me from the first "Bobby... Bobby..Bobby baby..."  I loved immediately that all of the "couples" songs stood as separate stories, and the interal angst of Bobby's songs, and the wry observations of the group as a whole.  Mind you I figured all of that out just by listening - there was only a plot synopsis and some very blurry, small pictures on the back cover.  Since then, I have seen the show several times; the 1995 revival helped make the songs make sense to me, but I was still too young to appreciate where these people were coming from.  But the recent revival was a revelation to me.  I sat dumbfounded and emotionally spent after the show.  I think I am Bobby.

The Original Broadway Cast

The 2006 Revival Cast

Best Songs: "Company"  "The Little Things You Do Together"  "Another Hundred People"  "Side by Side by Side"  "The Ladies Who Lunch" and the other song that always brings a lump to my throat, "Being Alive."  All three recordings - the OBC, the 1995 revival, the 2006 revival - are terrific.  The original is a classic, of course, but the casting and performances on all three are amazing.

1.  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
See above.

The Original Broadway Cast: Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou

The 2005 Revival Cast: (clockwise from top) Patti LuPone, Donna Lynne Champlin, Manoel Felciano, and Michael Cerveris

Best Songs: "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"  "The Worst Pies in London"  "By the Sea"  "Wait"  "Not While I'm Around"  "Johanna" (the hair cutting/throat slashing sequence with the pulsing beat, the beggar woman and the cool sound effects, not the ballad) and the entire "Finale Sequence."  The OBC will always be extra special to me, but I also LOVE the LuPone/Cerveris revival.  The LuPone/Hearn, not so much.  But it is probably the best score of a Broadway musical ever written, and certainly Sondheim's masterpiece.

Comments?  Leave one here or email me at


  1. No argument from me on "Sweeney Todd." I love the way it evokes grimy, industrial London. I love the dvd of Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. "A Little Priest" is one of my favorite songs, for its wit and wordplay. I also love "Johanna" for its longing and tenderness and desperation. I missed the Broadway revival but I did see it on tour in Boston.

    I was pretty captivated by "A Little Night Music" on Broadway and that may be my second favorite. (Like you, I'm not counting "Gypsy" or "West Side Story.") I loved the story, the romance, the joy of discovering a new work I'd never heard before (except for "Send in the Clowns.") Hearing Angela Lansbury sing "Liaisons" took my breath away and I loved the hustle and bustle of "A Weekend in the Country." And of course, hearing "Send in the Clowns" in context was thrilling.

    I also like the score of "Assassins," although I've never seen it on stage. I think "The Ballad of Booth" is such a haunting song, a terrific evocation of what was going on in American history at that time. It's an amazing look at our obsession with fame and our propensity toward violence.

    I've seen "Company," "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Into the Woods" on dvd and I don't think they come across that great, especially the latter two.

    The Sondheim show I'd most like to see revived is "Merrily We Roll Along."

  2. Esther!

    So glad to hear from you again!

    I would love to see Merrily and Anyone Can Whistle both...I mean that's really all that's left, right?

    You bring up great points about Night Music and Angela's performance. I tried really to focus on the scores themselves, using performance details as context. But I could write whole columns on best Sondheim performances and productions. In fact, I think I just might! LOL

    Thanks for writing. As always, your insight is so appreciated and welcomed.



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