Feature CD Review: Stephen Sondheim – The Story So Far

Written by: Michael Darvell

A four-disc tribute to the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, with other music by Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, Mary Rodgers Martin Charnin and Richard Rodgers

Excerpts from the original cast recordings of West Side Story, Gypsy, A funny thing happened on the way to the forum, Hot Spot, Anyone can whistle, Do I hear a waltz?, The Mad Show, Evening Primrose, Sweeney Todd, Merrily we roll along, Sunday in the park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion, Bounce, The Frogs, Company, Follies, A little night music, Pacific Overtures, All that glitters, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Saturday night, I believe in you, Invitation to a march, Passionella, The thing of it is, The enclave

Also music from the films Stavisky, The seven-percent solution, Reds, Dick Tracy, Singing out loud (unreleased song featured on A Celebration at Carnegie Hall), and Putting it together (Sondheim theatre compilation), Follies in concert by the New York Philharmonic, A little night music (film version), Sweeney Todd (2005 US theatre revival), Into the Woods (proposed television production)

Plus rare, cut and previously unreleased songs written, performed and recorded by Stephen Sondheim (taken from his own archive)

Performers include Chita Rivera, Marilyn Cooper, Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence, Eddie Roll, Grover Dale, Hank Brunjes, Tony Mordente, David Winters, Ethel Merman, Zero Mostel, Stephen Collins, Christopher Durang, Michael Rupert, Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury, Carol Bruce, Stan Stanley, Rose Mary Jun, Linda Lavin, Anthony Perkins, Charmian Carr, Pamela Myers, Elaine Stritch, Dean Jones, Barbara Cook, Carol Burnett, Mandy Patinkin, George Hearn, Howard McGillin, Jim Walton, Daisy Prince, Liz Callaway, D Jamin-Bartlett, Hermione Gingold, Glynis Johns, Patrick Kinser-Lau, Ernest Harada, Timm Fujii, Gedde Watanabe, Leslie Watanabe, Mako, Mark Hsu Syers, Len Cariou, Sarah Rice, Patti Lupone, Michael Cerveris, Ann Morrison, Lonny Price, Robert Westenberg, Chuck Wagner, Bernadette Peters, Maureen Moore, Kim Crosby, George Lee Andrews, John Cameron Mitchell, William Parry, Terrence Mann, Greg Germann, Jonathan Hadary, Eddie Korbich, Lee Wilkof, Annie Golden, Debra Monk, Victor Garber, Patrick Cassidy, Marcus Olson, Marin Mazzie, Jere Shea, Donna Murphy, Richard Kind, Jane Powell, Nathan Lane, Roger Bart, Cy Walter, Stan Freeman, Jack Cassidy, Arte Johnson, Regine, Madonna, Mel Tormé, Janis Siegel, Cheryl Bentine, Lorraine Feather, Liza Minnelli & Billy Stritch

CD Number



5 hours

Stephen Sondheim

This handsome set of four CDs and a substantial accompanying book goes a long way to summing up the career of America’s premier living composer-lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. It is offered as a tribute to both the success and originality of the man’s work. He will be eighty years old next year (2010) and, if he never writes another note or word again, he has a body of work that is more impressive than the output of any other twentieth-century musical artist. Among his contemporaries there is nobody with quite his breadth of vision. You could say that the Gershwins’ output, apart from “Porgy and Bess”, was mainly in the light musical comedy genre so popular in their day. You could also say the same about Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern (pace “Show Boat”) and even Rodgers, Hart & Hammerstein stayed more or less in the same groove when writing their musical shows. Whereas Sondheim pushes the envelope that much further, this is not to belittle any of the aforementioned talents because collectively they are the 20th-century’s geniuses at creating the classic Broadway musical and in the process they wrote the standard Great American Songbook material. Their work, like Sondheim’s, will never die.

Stephen Sondheim, possibly the least commercially successful among this company, will be remembered not only for writing great scores and brilliantly literate and witty lyrics but also for the range of his subject material. To quote one of his own songs, he will “never do anything twice”. Not for him to turn out the latest inconsequential musical comedy as per Cole Porter or Rodgers & Hart, for he lives in different times and has proved that writing the Broadway musical is much more than just a trivial pursuit. Others (beginning with Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” and continuing with Gershwin and Rodgers & Hammerstein) have tried but no other American composer has quite pinned down the seriousness of the job in hand without veering into the field of opera.

You only have to look at the choice of material from the first three discs in this collection to understand Sondheim’s range of subject matter and styles of music. In an introduction in the excellent accompanying book (which includes the lyrics to previously unreleased songs) Sondheim’s long-time colleague, director Harold Prince, admits that “Nuggets of pure gold are scattered generously in this celebration of Steve Sondheim’s career… Stunning as in “causing astonishment or disbelief” or perhaps, more accurately, stunning as in “strikingly impressive in beauty and excellence”, the tracks offered here are a drop in the bucket.” That said they form some pretty big drops and it’s a really enormous bucket containing all the hits, the misses, the incidental music and songs from plays and films (made and unmade), and songs written for revues and television productions. The only missing work would appear to be Sondheim’s unfinished attempt at “Mary Poppins” long before Disney and the Sherman Brothers had a go.

Leonard Bernstein

The first disc opens with three songs from “West Side story”, Sondheim’s first Broadway show for which he wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music. The three songs, ‘America’, ‘Tonight’ and ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ all became favourites. Next comes Ethel Merman singing ‘Everything’s coming up roses’ from “Gypsy”, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim, and then ‘Comedy tonight’ and ‘Everybody ought to have a maid’ representing “A funny thing happened on the way to the forum”, the first Broadway show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics. Also included here is a number, ‘There’s something about a war’, written for the Miles Gloriosus character but dropped in favour of ‘Bring me my bride’. It is sung here by Sondheim himself and is the first of many rare and cut songs hitherto unreleased which are included in this collection.

Sondheim was lucky to begin his Broadway career with these three hit shows in, respectively, 1957, 1959 and 1962. However, he had to wait another seven years before his next big commercial success. “Hot spot” (1963) with music by Richard Rodgers’s daughter Mary starred Judy Holliday as a woman who joins the Peace Corps. Sondheim contributed one song, ‘Don’t laugh’, which he sings here. The show had 43 performances, slightly more than his next musical, “Anyone can whistle” in 1964. Despite having a cast including Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury, it ran for just nine performances. An unappealing book about business and corruption in a small US town didn’t help, but Sondheim’s music and lyrics yielded some classic songs such as the title number, ‘A parade in town’ and, also included here, ‘A hero is coming’, sung by the composer.

Sondheim didn’t really want to work on “Do I hear a waltz?” (1965), even though Arthur Laurents saw his play “The time of the cuckoo” as a possible musical. It had been a David Lean film, “Summertime” (“Summer Madness” in the UK) with Katharine Hepburn as an older woman finding love in Venice. Sondheim did not want to write just lyrics again but gave in when he was offered Richard Rodgers as a composer. In the end even Laurents thought that nobody did their best work on this project which ran for six months but lost all its money. On the album it is represented by a comedy number ‘This week, Americans’, sung by the owner of a holiday pensione, plus two cut numbers, ‘Everybody loves Leona’ and ‘Perhaps’. Again it was an interesting score with snappy lyrics but they were trapped in a dull show. Subsequent productions at the Guildhall School of Music and the Landor fringe pub theatre in Clapham, south London, have proved otherwise.

Disc 1 ends with ‘The boy from…’, a revue number from “The Mad Show” with music by Mary Rodgers and lyrics by Sondheim which came to light in “Side by side by Sondheim”, the first and most successful of the Sondheim compilation shows which proved that the wide range of available material is eminently suited for such portmanteau treatment. Finally, “Evening primrose” was a one-off teleplay for the ABC TV network in 1966 with Anthony Perkins as a poet seeking refuge in a department store after closing time, only to find it occupied by a group of hermits, and where he falls in love with a young girl. Lasting no more than an hour, it was actually filmed in a Manhattan store. Sondheim contributed five songs, two of which, ‘I remember sky’ and ‘Take me to the world’, have become moderately well-known through his compilations. This is the first authorised release of the songs sung by the original cast, although the ‘show’ has been staged in London in the “Lost Musicals” series at Sadler’s Wells.

Elaine Stritch

Discs 2 and 3 cover the period of Sondheim’s working life during which he finally became established as the most eminent composer-lyricist of his generation. “Company” in 1970 ran for 690 performances on Broadway and played for over 300 in London. It’s a series of sketches around the hero Bobby’s relationships with his friends for which Sondheim produced one of his best scores in which every song is a winner. Included here are ‘Another hundred people’, ‘The ladies who lunch’ (sung by Elaine Stritch) and ‘Being alive’. Sondheim himself sings ‘Happily ever after’, which was replaced by ‘Being alive’. The spectacle that was “Follies” followed in 1971 and lost a fortune ($800,000), famously selling more posters than tickets. It had to wait sixteen years to reach London for which production Sondheim then wrote some new songs. Included here are numbers from the New York Philharmonic’s concert performances with Elaine Stritch singing ‘Broadway baby’, Barbara Cook in ‘Losing my mind’ and Carol Burnett doing ‘I’m still here’, with Sondheim providing the cut song that ‘I’m still here’ replaced in the original production, ‘Can that boy fox trot!’, a cutely clever and witty number which Yvonne de Carlo introduced on the pre-Broadway, out-of-town, tryout tour.

“A little night music” (1973), based on “Smiles of a summer night” an Ingmar Bergman film comedy, was surprisingly popular and has enjoyed a successful revival in London in a scaled-down production by Trevor Nunn. It is a stylish, elegant operetta that is emotional and polite but funny about sex, too, and has one of Sondheim’s most appealing scores in three-quarter time. ‘Send in the clowns’ was the hit number which has gone on to become a standard for popular, jazz and cabaret artists and one of Sondheim’s most commercially successful songs. Sondheim here contributes two songs originally cut, ‘Not quite night’ and ‘Silly people’, the latter having now been restored to the London production at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre.

In “Pacific Overtures” (1976) Sondheim took another entirely different direction. It dealt with Commodore Perry and his opening-up of Japan to early diplomatic and trade relations with the US. Staged in Kabuki style with Oriental-sounding music, it is an astonishing piece that drew critical indifference towards its original production, although it did manage to win the New York Critics’ Prize for Best Musical. London first saw it in a production by English National Opera that was just too grand and unwieldy. Later, more intimate revivals at, for instance, the Donmar Warehouse in London showed the worth of the piece. This has happened to many Sondheim shows where initial failure has later been turned into complete and surprising success.

This also happened to Sondheim’s next show, “Sweeney Todd”, which was a success on Broadway but not at Drury Lane in 1980. Subsequent productions have turned it into a major classic of musical theatre as it has been embraced by many opera houses and even small London fringe venues such as the Union Theatre, its recent staging comparable to the Royal National Theatre’s production. Again it has a faultless score and, as far as one can tell, there are no cut songs for this one.

George S. Kaufman (left) and Moss Hart in 1937, the year of the Pulitzer Prize for ''You Can't Take It With You.''

“Merrily we roll along” in 1982 was an interesting experiment that didn’t work on Broadway, at least it did but only for sixteen performances. Based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart about friendship and relationships, the action takes place in reverse order. We first see the characters as disenchanted old-people who then gradually become younger and subsequently more positive as they journey back from the 1980s to the 1960s. The score was in a more traditional vein than, say, “Pacific Overtures”, the most affecting songs being ‘Old friends’, ‘Not a day goes by’ (both included here) and ‘Like it was’. Not a success at the time but revivals have given it new life such as the first UK production by Ian Judge at the Guildhall School of Music, using a fine student cast.

The failure of “Merrily we roll along” nearly drove Sondheim away from the theatre but the necessity of earning a living kept him working. He next developed an idea by photographer and designer James Lapine based on Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” which has many people in the picture who, thought Lapine, might well be the basis of a play speculating on the relationships between some of them. The result was “Sunday in the park with George” in which the painter creates the whole picture before the audience’s eyes. Not a great critical success, it did, however, win a Pulitzer Prize. Still, that didn’t stop it from losing about $50,000. In London it was staged under the aegis of the National Theatre. Again, subsequent productions have turned it into a success, not least the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, whose tiny staging with its brilliant projections transferred not only to the West End but also moved on to Broadway.

The rest of the material on Disc 3 brings the Sondheim story more or less up to date. “Into the woods” (1987) was Sondheim and Lapine taking the famous children’s storybook characters of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Rapunzel, and throwing them all together to form a sort of adult moral and allegorical pantomime of great originality. It was reasonably successful in the US and the UK and has been revived many times, including at the Donmar Warehouse, the Royal Opera House and at the Gatehouse in Highgate (Christmas 2008). The songs ‘Agony’ and ‘Children will listen’ demonstrate the potency of Sondheim’s music and also included here are the cut numbers ‘Have to give her someone, ‘Interesting questions’ and ‘Second midnight’, performed by the cast of an intended television production.

“Assassins” (1990) dealt with the men who attempted to kill the US Presidents. Typically American audiences gave it the thumbs-down but subsequent revivals fared better. The Donmar Warehouse staging in London was quite brilliant and it has had other successful revivals. “Passion” (1994) was a love story about obsession based on an Italian film. It had a short run in New York and a reasonable one in London with Maria Friedman and Michael Ball, but it is possibly Sondheim’s least successful project, although it does have its admirers. “Bounce” (2003) originally played Chicago and Washington and as “Road Show” played off-Broadway in Autumn 2008. The piece, about the Mizner brothers and their adventures from the Gold Rush to the Florida real estate boom, has never really found its feet. It may now be a lost cause and it is debatable whether London will ever see it. Finally, “The Frogs” was written for the Yale School of Drama in 1974. Its eight performances opened the Yale Swimming Pool. It was revived in New York in 2004 for 92 performances with Nathan Lane and Roger Bart who here perform ‘Invocation and instruction to the audience’. The UK premiere was at Brentford Public Baths in west London in the 1980s.

Disc 4 is the real eye- or ear-opener as it contains perhaps the most elusive of Sondheim’s output. It has the earliest composition by Sondheim in this compilation. This is ‘I must be dreaming’ from a show called “All that glitters” (based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly called “Beggar on horseback”) which Sondheim wrote in 1948 when he was in his junior year at Williams College. It already shows great promise for an eighteen-year-old and in fact sounds very much like the sort of romantic ballad that Broadway or Hollywood would have produced at the time. It shows that Sondheim had already perfected the idea of producing pastiche songs but in his own style, the type of approach he has since used, most notably in “Follies” and “Merrily we roll along”. The score is played here by pianists Cy Walter and Stan Freeman.

Julius J. (left) & Philip G. Epstein

In 1952 Sondheim wrote ‘The two of you’, a song rejected from “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”, a show created by puppeteer Burr Tillstrom whose executive producer returned it without ever letting Burr hear it. In 1978 Sondheim surprised Burr by including it in a Chicago production of “Side by side by Sondheim”. “Saturday night” dates from 1954. It is based on “Front porch in Flatbush”, a piece about youngsters investing in the stock market in 1929. It was the last play written by twin brothers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein who had won an Oscar for their screenplay of “Casablanca”. “Guys and Dolls” composer Frank Loesser turned it down, Sondheim was auditioned and accepted and then the producer Lemuel Ayers died and so did the show. Here there are four songs, ‘Class’, ‘Love’s bond’, ‘In the movies’ and ‘I’m all for you’, sung by some of the original cast including Jack Cassidy, Alice Ghostley and Arte Johnson. After the success of “Gypsy” in 1959 there was renewed interest in the project by songwriter Jule Styne and director-choreographer Bob Fosse but ultimately Sondheim did not want to turn back the clock and it was shelved again. Its world premiere was at the tiny Bridewell Theatre in London’s Fleet Street in 1998 and it is about to have another London premiere – with new songs – at the Jermyn Street Theatre in February 2009.

‘(They ask me why) I believe in you’ is from “I believe in you”, a not-produced television musical from 1956, here sung by Sondheim. Again it is a mature piece for a 26-year-old: simple, direct and, despite popular opinion, tuneful. “Invitation to a march” was a play from 1960 by Arthur Laurents about a Long Island wedding with Celeste Holm, Jane Fonda and James MacArthur, for which Sondheim contributed some pleasant incidental music here played by John Barrow, French horn, and unidentified harpist, clarinettist and flautist. In 1962 “Passionella” had a single performance in Clinton, New Jersey. Based on the work of Jules Feiffer, it was Mike Nichols’s directorial debut. Sondheim wrote ‘Truly content’ for a girl who’s dying to be a glamorous movie star. Sondheim sings this and the next song, ‘No Mary Ann’ from 1969 written for “The Thing of it is”, a screenplay by William Goldman about a composer who follows his wife around the world in an endeavour to mend their marriage. The film was never made.

“The Enclave” (1973) was another Arthur Laurents play for which Sondheim wrote incidental music, played here by Daniel Troob, piano, and Sondheim’s long-time conductor Paul Gemignani on percussion. The remaining tracks are all film scores, with Alain Resnais’s “Stavisky” (1974) being the most notable, closely followed by “The seven per cent solution” (1976), writer Nicholas Meyer’s spoof of Sherlock Holmes. The madame’s song, ‘I never do anything twice’, sung by Regine in the film, made more impact when it was featured in “Side by side by Sondheim”. “Reds” (1981) is Warren Beatty’s film about John Reed, author of “Ten days that shook the world”. The main theme is played by Jean-Pierre Rampal, flute, and Claude Bolling, piano, with orchestra conducted by Paul Gemignani. “Dick Tracy” (1990) was another Warren Beatty epic, noted for an appearance by Madonna, who also sang some of Sondheim’s songs including ‘Sooner or later’, ‘More’ and ‘What can you lose?’ with Mandy Patinkin. Mel Tormé sings ‘Live alone and like it’ and ‘Back in business’ is also included. Finally, ‘Water under the bridge’ is a song for another unreleased William Goldman film, “Singing out loud” sung here by Liza Minnelli and Billy Stritch at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1992.

The songs on CD 4 would make a good single album, given new arrangements and orchestrations, new interpretations and proper studio recordings (the Sondheim archive-material is of historical interest but not exactly hi-fi). No doubt a performer such as Barbara Cook or Cleo Laine, Andrea Marcovici or Maude Maggart could do real justice to some of the early Sondheim material.

Anyway, all four discs provide a fascinating insight into the career of America’s greatest living composer. This collection is a must for Sondheim fanatics and for anyone remotely interested in the history of the American musical.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content