Where to start with Stephen Sondheim: 10 of the best from the maestro | Stephen Sondheim

Sondheim is gone, but his songs and shows, as Cameron Mackintosh said, will be listed forever. Fortunately, there is a wealth of material – recordings, documentaries, books – that gives us a good idea of ​​his influence on the culture of his time. I offer here a list of 10 of the best that are very selective and intensely subjective; but then we each have our own stock of Sondheim memories and favorite works.

1. Company

I hugely admired Marianne Elliott’s re-sexed version currently playing in New York, but I’ve gone back to the original Columbia recording for various reasons. One is that I fell into the Broadway show one late summer night in 1970 and can truthfully say I had a life-changing experience. I had never realized that a musical could cast a plot and still be compelling, and even though I was recently married, I instinctively recognized its portrait of bachelor loneliness: Hal Prince’s production also perfectly captured the neurotic madness of life in Manhattan. As a bonus, I would recommend DA Pennebaker’s ingenious documentary about the recording of the album, which shows Elaine Stritch working her way to the desired perfection.
Original cast album from Amazon; the documentary is on Blu-ray from Criterion

2. Side by Side at Sondheim

Sondheim’s work, like Shakespeare’s, has inspired a number of anthologies. The first – and in many ways still the best – was this compilation from 1976, which began at the John Dankworth-Cleo Laine Festival in Wavendon and which had a triumphant London first night at the Mermaid in 1976. It hit any number of targets: it demonstrated Sondheim’s skill as a musical playwright, his mastery of dramatic monologues, and his ability to write loving pastiches. Urban composed by Ned Sherrin and dazzlingly performed by David Kernan, Julia McKenzie and Millicent Martin, the show completed Sondheim’s long love affair with the British theater audience.
Original cast album from Amazon

3. Pacific Openings

WS Gilbert is said to have been inspired to write The Mikado by going to a Japanese exhibition in South Kensington. Sondheim had a similar revelation when he encountered a triple Japanese display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The bold idea of ​​making a musical out of the clash of American and Japanese culture had arisen with John Weidman. But Sondheim claimed that the sight of a lush tree dominating an otherwise white triptych taught him the cardinal lesson that less is more in art. The result is one of the most revolutionary musicals ever. I would recommend both the original cast and the one from the English National Opera as well as a visual recording of Hal Prince’s Kabuki-influenced Broadway production.
Original cast album and ENO recording from Amazon

4. Sweeney Todd

I registered as a dubbing of this in 1980, “one of the two (My Fair Lady is the other) enduring works from popular musical theater written in my lifetime.” I should have added West Side Story, but I stand by what I said as I have seen the show over the years work in countless spaces, large and small. From the first penetrating industrial whistle, we are gripped by a revenge drama that mixes rage over social injustice with romantic tenderness. All of Sondheim’s emotional complexity is there – Hal Prince’s wife once said there was a touch of Sweeney in Sondheim himself – and his ingenious score has echoes of Britten, Copland and Stravinsky. Wherever it’s staged, we’re still watching the tale of Sweeney Todd.
Original cast album, featuring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, from Amazon

Stephen Sondheim with James Lapine in 1985.
Stephen Sondheim with James Lapine in 1985. Photo: Sara Krulwich / Getty Images

5. Passion

This has always been one of Sondheim’s least beloved shows, but it’s still one of his most captivating and mysterious. Based on an Italian film, which in itself originates from a 19th-century novel, it is the story of a beautiful officer who is relentlessly pursued by a sick young woman in a distant garrison. The theme of Sondheim’s score and James Lapine’s book is the incurable obsession of love. No matter how you classify it – and Sondheim himself said it was close to a chamber opera, like Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia – it haunts you just as tenaciously as the feverish Fosca does. It was excellently revived by Jamie Lloyd at the Donmar Warehouse in 2010.
Original cast album from Amazon


I tend to appreciate my original cast recordings of Sondheim shows – although here he was solely the lyricist where Jule Styne wrote the score and Arthur Laurent’s book – but this is an occasion where the revival surpasses its predecessor. Angela Lansbury was as powerful as Momma Rose in 1973 that you felt the character would have been a Broadway star. But Jonathan Kent’s 2014 Chichester production made absolutely dramatic sense. Imelda Staunton was the ever-busy showbiz wannabe who even appeared on stage during her daughter’s big audition. But when it came to the solo numbers that end each act, Staunton unforgettably suggested a woman on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
DVD, Blu-ray and streaming from Amazon

7. Six of Sondheim

This award-winning HBO documentary, directed and co-produced by James Lapine, uses six classic Sondheim songs as a way to explore his craft and explore his life. The analysis of the songs is fascinating. We learn how Something’s Coming from the West Side Story was written on a hectic day with Leonard Bernstein and used baseball metaphors to convey Tony’s driving energy. But the songs are spliced ​​with interviews from different stages of Sondheim’s life. The verbal wit is there, as when he says “I osmosed myself into the Hammerstein household”. The same is the emotional pain as in his revelation that his mother, on the eve of an open heart operation, sent him a note saying that the only regret in her life was to “give birth to you”.
On HBO and Now TV

Lots to celebrate… (from left) Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, David Hyde Pierce, Elaine Stritch, Donna Murphy and Marin Mazzie at the Avery Fisher Hall concert to mark Sondheim's 80th birthday.
Lots to celebrate… (from left) Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, David Hyde Pierce, Elaine Stritch, Donna Murphy and Marin Mazzie at the Avery Fisher Hall concert to mark Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Photo: Richard Termine / AP

8. Birthday Concerts, 2010

Sondheim’s 80th birthday led to a host of festivities. Two concerts in particular stand out. One was at Avery Fisher Hall in New York in March, where the stars showed up: Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters gave us the best of Sunday in the park with George, Elaine Stritch proclaimed I’m Still Here and Michael Cerveris had scrapes over George Hearn, a former Sweeney Todd, in Pretty Women. Not to be outdone, Proms staged their own birthday concert in July: the highlight for me was Simon Russell Beale, Daniel Evans and Julian Ovenden, who reproduce Everybody Ought to Have a Maid (“Fluttering up the stairway, Shuttering up the windows”) with beards vaudevillian joy.
On DVD and YouTube

9. Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies edited by Robert Gordon

Sondheim has given a number of studies in book form, and we are eagerly awaiting David Benedict’s biography. Meanwhile, this excellent book offers 27 essays combining academic and theatrical analysis. In the former category, Dominic Symonds traces the connections between Oscar Hammerstein and Sondheim and shows how the palindromic structure of the South Pacific – where themes and songs are repeated and repeated – affects Into the Woods. Meanwhile, Keith Warner, who directed Pacific Ouvertures for ENO, argues for a subsidized theater that includes not only Sondheim, but also experimental works such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro. A book for buffs who take Sondheim seriously.
Published by OUP

10. Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim

This is without a doubt the only really necessary book on musical theater. It not only contains all of Sondheim’s lyrics from Saturday Night to Merrily We Roll Along (a subsequent volume brings us up to date). It is above all a study of the craft of lyric writing: it argues that the three great principles are Content Dictates Form, Less is More and God Is in the Details and goes on to show where Sondheim himself and his other lyricists have succeeded and failed. If Sondheim is often harsh on others (Alan Jay Lerner is “a chameleon in one color”, Noel Coward is “too damn cool”), he’s even tougher on himself. But the book is proof that Sondheim throughout his life was a restless perfectionist whose gnawing dissatisfaction was the source of great and enduring art.
Published by Penguin Random House

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