CDA: Stephen Sondheim
I was sad about this one but I can't say it was a surprise - - the guy was 91! But what a way to go: he had just been to see two revivals, *Assassins* off Broadway and *Company* on Broadway.
He was one of the geniuses of musical theatre, an innovator who expanded the form beyond what it had been when he first got into the business. His first two major gigs were writing lyrics for shows with music by other people. 1957 - - *West Side Story:*
Then in 1959 was what's often called the greatest musical ever written, *Gypsy.* Here's a trio of ladies from the 1989 Broadway revival doing "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" on Phil Donahue. I'm not sure daytime TV was ready for a strip number, and did burlesque ever get done with such bright lighting?
His first Broadway show for which he wrote both lyrics and music was in 1962, *A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.* Here's Nathan Lane leading the 1996 revival cast in "Comedy Tonight:"
*Anyone Can Whistle* (1964) was a flop but is what I would call a glorious mess. Here's Donna Murphy doing her show-stopping number, "A Parade In Town:"
Richard Rodgers's daughter Mary talked Sondheim into collaborating with her dad on *Do I Hear a Waltz?* A dud of a show in 1965. This was the last time Sondheim wrote lyrics for someone else's music. His next project (1966) was a musical for television, *Evening Primrose.*
Then was *Company* in 1970. Such a bold, imaginative show. Here's a production from the NY Philharmonic. Watch the whole thing, if you like, or just the opening number. My favorite number in the show is "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" at 40:51.
Then my favorite musical ever, *Follies* in 1971. Such a heartbreaking, fascinating show, I love it to death. Here we are back at the Philharmonic, with the late great Barbara Cook singing "Losing My Mind:"
My first favorite musical was *A Little Night Music* (1973). I had the original cast recording on cassette tape and listened to it over and over and over. The best-known song from that show, which was also Sondheim's best-known song and a commercial record hit, was "Send In the Clowns." Here's Dame Judi Dench singing it at the BBC Proms:
Next, two shows that never really took off. He wrote *The Frogs* in 1974 for Yale, I think it was performed at a swimming pool, or something like that? And Meryl Streep was a student there, and in the original cast? Back on Broadway, *Pacific Overtures* played a disappointing 193 performances. A 2004 revival played for 69 performances. It's supposed to be a thought-provoking show, but does that put butts in the seats?
Then what I see as his greatest show, in 1979, *Sweeney Todd.* Back at the Philharmonic, here are Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson doing the second act closer, "A Little Priest:"
*Merrily We Roll Along* is another flop, another glorious mess. There was a wonderful documentary made recently about the 1981 original Broadway production. And did you hear that Richard Linklater is making a movie of it that will take TWENTY YEARS to film?
*Sunday In the Park With George* was the first (and I think, only) Sondheim show I had on LP. Such a beautiful show, it won the Pulitzer. Here's the first act closer:
*Into the Woods* (1987) had two Broadway productions and was made into a film starring Meryl Streep. Here's Miss Streep chewing up the scenery as The Witch:
*Assassins* was next in 1990. A creepy show, disturbing. It took its time to get to Broadway - - here's the 2004 Broadway cast performing at the Tonys:
I saw *Passion* on PBS sometime around 1994, when the show was new. It's a beautiful, poignant show. Here's Donna Murphy:
His last new show was *Road Show.* Richard and I saw it at the Public Theater in 2008. I had seen a previous version of the show, called *Bounce,* at the Kennedy Center in 2003. Here's the finale from the show, the *Road Show* version:
Sondheim had been working on a new show for a few years, an adaptation with David Ives (who wrote *Venus In Fur*) of two films by Luis Buñuel - - the first act was based on *The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,* the second act on *The Exterminating Angel.* I'm always excited about a new Sondheim show but this one had me screaming with delight because I'm such a big Buñuel fan. The Public did a workshop of it in 2016 but the show remains unfinished. I wonder if someone will finish it...?