In good Company: Stephen Sondheim and his fans

April 23, 2010 at 12:37 am (Uncategorized)

Stephen Sondheim is having a heck of a birthday party. The titan of musical theater turned 80 last month, and tributes to his work—which includes West Side Story, Company, Follies and Sweeny Todd—have filled New York with a little night music. The Philharmonic celebrated with performances by Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Elaine Stritch; it was announced that Broadway’s Henry Mill’s Theater will be renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theater; and yesterday marked the opening of a new Broadway review, Sondheim on Sondheim.

For all the respect they command, and the revolutionary impact they had on the genre of musical theater, Sondheim’s shows are not easy, friendly blockbusters. As a composer and lyrisist, he took risks in both style and content, favoring striking arrangements and dissonant chords over catchiness (this is a man fascinated with murderers and assassins, after all). He aimed beyond comfort and familiarity, striving for something new, dark, clever, funny, moving, bitter, longing. As he says in a Fresh Air interview from earlier this week,

“The problem with so much music… was that you went into the theater humming it. You know, if you hum something on first hearing it, it might be because it is so immediately memorable, but more likely, it’s because it reminds you of something else.”

Sondheim developed a sound that was recognizably his own. His success, and resulting stature, didn’t make him world’s cuddliest composer; as this New York magazine article reveals, some theater stars have been terrified to work with him. But the best quote comes from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote In the Heights and did the translation of West Side Story for its recent bilingual revival:

“You know, he could seriously just, like, smack people around all day and just be like, ‘I’m Sondheim; cook me a steak.’ But he’s actually still really nice and really generous and really generous to younger artists.”

In honor of the huge influence Sondheim’s work has had on younger artists and musical theater fans, here are a few of my favorite Sondheim homages and pop culture moments.

Camp (2003)

Set at a musical theater summer camp for teenagers, this movie is predictably packed with show tunes and theater trivia. Sondheim gets a nod early on, when the hot new guy sees a photo of an older man on the nightstand by his roommate’s bed.

“Is that your father?” he asks. The roommate is aghast—how could you not recognize Stephen Sondheim?

But the showstopper comes when mousey Fritzi, who has spent the summer slaving for her bitchy, spotlight-hogging roommate Jill, poisons Jill before the performance of Company. As Jill pauses during “Ladies Who Lunch” to vomit, Fritzi (played by Anna Kendrick, now an Oscar nominee for Up in the Air) swoops in for a biting, fiery performance. I’ll drink to that.

Tick, Tick…BOOM!

In Tick, Tick…BOOM!, an early musical by Jonathon Larson of Rent, the main character is, like Larson, an aspiring musical theater composer who idolizes Sondheim. The song “Sunday” is a clear parody of the song of the same name in Sunday in the Park with George, inspired by pointillist Georges Seurat.

But while Sondheim’s song evokes a painting, Larson’s is about brunch, at the diner where he works to pay the bills.

Sondheim’s lyrics:

Sunday, by the blue purple yellow red water

On the green purple yellow red grass

Let us pass through our perfect park

Pausing on a Sunday

By the cool blue triangular water

On the soft green elliptical grass

As we pass through arrangements of shadow

Toward the verticals of trees

Forever

—–

Larson’s lyrics:

Brunch

Sunday

In the blue, silver chromium diner

On the green, purple, yellow, red stools

Sit the fools

Who should eat at home

Instead, they pay on

Sunday

For a cool orange juice or a bagel

On the soft, green cylindrical stools

Sit the fools
Drinking cinnamon coffee

Or decaffeinated tea

Forever

In the blue, silver chromium diner

A performance of Sondheim’s “Sunday”:

And a recording of Larson’s:

Desperate Housewives

The show’s creator Marc Cherry (who has been, um, a little busy lately) is a huge Sondheim fan. Nearly every episode of the show, which is now in its sixth season, takes its title from a Sondheim song name or lyric. Some examples:

Episode 1.12, Every Day a Little Death (from A Little Night Music)

Episode 3.11, No Fits, No Fights, No Feuds (a lyric from Gypsy)

Episode 4.9, Something’s Coming (from West Side Story)

Episode 6.5, Everybody Ought to Have a Maid (from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)

This Sunday’s episode is called Epiphany, after the Sweeny Todd Song.

What are your favorite Sondheim songs, references or memories?

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1 Comment

  1. Liz said,

    The musical my junior year of high school was Into the Woods. I’d never heard of it and was very sad that Anything Goes had been passed up. How wrong I was. As a kidslit and fairy tale enthusiast, I think Into the Woods is the smartest, most deeply-thought through retelling of fairy tales in popular culture. Plus, this:

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