brent johnson digs up another lost treasure, this week from Stephen Sondheim …
If you ever debate who the greatest living songwriters are, feel free to mention Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Bryan Ferry, Elvis Costello, Prince, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood.
But you should also include Stephen Sondheim.
Even if you’re not a fan of the stage, you’ve probably heard his work. He wrote the lyrics to West Side Story. His most famous song, ‘Send In The Clowns,’ was a hit in 1975 for Judy Collins. Tim Burton turned his 1979 masterwork Sweeney Todd into a successful movie a few years back. Oh, and he’s also won more Tony awards — seven — than any other composer.
Still, for all its brilliance, Sondheim’s work has never been as ubiquitous as someone like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s or Stephen Schwartz’s. Sondheim never wrote a mega-smash like Webber’s Cats or Schwartz’s Wicked. Maybe it’s because his music is more complex than anthemic — with compound rhythms and subtle melodies. Some say his songs aren’t as “hummable” as Broadway tunes should be.
But few Broadway composers stretch the boundaries of musical theater like Sondheim. Take the opening 10 minutes from 1970’s Company, the play that brought him his first Tony.
It opens with a choir singing a gorgeous aria. Only, they’re not chanting in Latin. They’re reciting the lead character’s name to the melody.
Bobby, Bobby …
Bobby is a charming bachelor celebrating his 35th birthday. We meet the many women who leave him voice messages (note how the flutes mimic the beeps of his answering machine). We meet the married friends throwing him a surprise birthday party that’s not quite a surprise. We learn that Bobby isn’t interested in joining them in holy matrimony.
And we see it all crescendo into a wonderful mash of voices singing the musical’s title song. It’s hardly Sondheim’s most famous composition. But it’s one of his most impressive. (The version below is from the 2006 revival of the play, starring the great Raul Esparza.)
The task of writing a musical has always seemed nearly impossible to me. To get all the character’s voices into the lyrics while trying to tell a story. To find enough memorable melodies to fill two hours. Sondheim shows you just how intricate it can get. To a songwriter, listening to his work is both incredibly inspirational and profoundly humbling.