My Favorite Sondheim: Broadway Songwriters Choose Their Most Cherished Sondheim Songs
By Kenneth Jones
To mark the 80th birthday of groundbreaking composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Playbill.com asked Broadway songwriters to do the impossible — pick their favorite songs by the master. From Ahrens to Zippel, we got an earful.
Considering that Sondheim's professional songwriting career ranges from 1954 (Saturday Night) to 2010 (the current Broadway revue Sondheim on Sondheim), there are hundreds and hundreds of songs — and "another hundred," even — from which to pick. Our songwriter sources grumbled that choosing just one was madness, but that was the deal, with the understanding that the kinder way to package this list would be to say that the choice made should be considered "a" favorite among many rather than "the" favorite.
We spread our net wide and snagged the composers and lyricists we could, concentrating on those in the generations that came after Sondheim changed the face of the American musical theatre. (Hey, we love Charles Strouse, John Kander and Jerry Herman, but we sought out writers who might have grown up on Sondheim, or who came of age, creatively, during his rich career.)
Happy birthday, Mr. Sondheim. Give us more to see.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer-lyricist of In the Heights, chooses "Barcelona" from Company. "It is unbearably beautiful, funny, and concise. Can anyone ever write a morning-after song after 'Barcelona'? Once again, Steve invents a new type of song, and executes it perfectly. And bit by bit, song by song, he has expanded the world of what musical theatre can encompass."
Alan Menken, composer of "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," Sister Act, Leap of Faith and Little Shop of Horrors, chooses "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. "Simple, fun, hilarious, brilliantly infectious, clever and, yet, uncomplicated. It's what the best of Broadway is all about."
Steven Sater, lyricist of Spring Awakening, chooses "Pretty Women" from Sweeney Todd. "Two men who have loved the same woman, one about to slit the other's throat (for having taken her) — and somehow they are of one heart, one mind in song. A long melodic line of yearning, followed by the swift pulsing need to count the ways of female beauty ('Letter writing/Flower picking') — as if the mind were chasing after the legato of the heart. It is surely one of the most sublime and arresting moments of song-as-theatre."
Jeff Marx, composer-lyricist of Avenue Q, chooses "Good Thing Going" from Merrily We Roll Along. "It's so simple, so sweet, so smart, and so lovely. It runs through my head so often. I just love it."
Robert Lopez, composer-lyricist of Avenue Q, chooses "Another Hundred People" from Company. "Because it makes me sorry/grateful that I cannot find space in our apartment for an electric harpsichord. When I was a teenager growing up in Manhattan, I checked the scratchy LP of Company out of the Jefferson Market public library, and this song kindled in me an incredibly strong sense of New York ethnocentrism. I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else. It lasted until I had kids, and finally developed an appreciation for peace and quiet. We then moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn. Ahhhh."
Scott Frankel, composer of Grey Gardens and Happiness, chooses "With So Little to Be Sure Of" from Anyone Can Whistle. "This song has always touched me. It manages to convey simple and direct thoughts with a musical lyricism deftly counterbalanced with just the right amount of harmonic tension. Sigh. Happy Birthday, Steve!"
Maury Yeston, composer-lyricist of Nine, Phantom and Titanic, chooses "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park With George. "It is impossible for me genuinely to specify any individual song by Stephen Sondheim that could so rise above all of his other great ones that it could rank as my single standout favorite. But if my life, or someone else's, depended on it, if I was compelled to declare one (out of all the masterpieces of humor, pathos, simultaneous contradictory emotions, soaring melody, patter, catchy tune, atonal riffs)...it would have to be 'Finishing the Hat.' Why? Because it's about what we do when we write, paint, sculpt, compose, and I personally never cease to marvel at how we put something there that wasn't there before. And it's about the aching frustration of capturing (or trying to) wisps of experience — the ephemera that constantly elude us and never quite translate into our work as we imagined. It is a tour de force of songwriting. And the music depicts the rhythm and musical cadence of intellect better than anything I've ever heard. In Mann's 'Dr. Faustus,' a teacher declares to the young protagonist that the one human emotion more powerful than love is: interest. I never quite understood the profundity of that line until I heard 'Finishing the Hat.'"
Michael Korie, lyricist of Grey Gardens, Happiness and The Grapes of Wrath, chooses "Someone in a Tree" from Pacific Overtures. "[It] reminds us that history is subjective as an old man, his ten-year-old self, and a warrior recall the signing of a treaty, not by facts recorded in books but by what these ordinary folks personally glimpsed and overheard — clinks, thumps and murmurs, fragments which form the whole. It's a song that is simultaneously suspenseful, funny, inspiring, thrilling to hear and to watch, and so deeply compassionate about what it means to be human. The first time I heard it during a preview of the original production, I honestly think it changed my life, and it still stuns me every time."
Andrew Lippa, composer-lyricist of jon & jen, The Wild Party and The Addams Family, chooses "In Praise of Women" from A Little Night Music. "When I was in high school I couldn't stop listening to 'In Praise of Women' from A Little Night Music. First, its cleverness always astonishes: 'Fidelity like mine to Desiree/and Charlotte, my devoted wife.' Brilliant. And second, I loved that final F-sharp that Laurence Guittard sang. I'd lift the arm of my record player over and over and over and play that note incessantly. I tried to sing along but was never as good as him!"
Stephen Flaherty, composer of Ragtime, Seussical, A Man of No Importance and Once On This Island, chooses "Johanna" from Act Two of Sweeney Todd. "My favorite Sondheim score is Sweeney Todd. If I have to pick a favorite musical moment from that score I'd chose the 'Johanna (Quartet)' near the top of Act Two. It is sheer perfection in its combination of several memorable themes, all of which are brilliant individually and musical-theatre heaven when combined. Murder never sounded so beautiful!"
David Yazbek, composer-lyricist of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Full Monty, chooses "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company. "Because of the 'everybody dies' line. You've listened to most of this witty, sardonic bossa-nova with clever rhymes and a clever rhyme-scheme sung by a clever, jaded, New York character and it's almost the end of the song and he's saved the up-note and now he gives it to you and it's on the word 'Dies' and you understand the terror behind it all. Especially when it's Stritch and the note comes out with no vibrato like a drill-bit into your heart."
Jeff Bowen, composer-lyricist of [title of show], chooses "God, That's Good" from Sweeney Todd. "Nobody does giant plot-driven ensemble numbers like Mr. Sondheim and for me 'God That's Good' takes the cake...or rather...pie."
Lynn Ahrens, lyricist of Ragtime, Seussical, A Man of No Importance and Once On This Island, chooses "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park With George. "In one last line, Sondheim manages to sum up the bliss of creating something new. And the childish urge to show it to someone. 'Look, I made a hat...where there never was a hat.' Who among us can't relate?"
Greg Kotis, lyricist of Urinetown and Yeast Nation, chooses "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" from Sweeney Todd. "No other show-opener prepares us so well for what we're about to see. Thrilling and terrifying."
William Finn, composer-lyricist of A New Brain, ...Spelling Bee and Falsettos, chooses "A Bowler Hat" from Pacific Overtures. "I'm not sure I'll feel this way when it gets light out, but now, at two in the morning: 'A Bowler Hat,' from Pacific Overtures. (And everything from Sweeney Todd.)"
Brian Yorkey, lyricist of Next to Normal, chooses "Beautiful" from Sunday in the Park With George. "I don't know how to pick one from my dozens of favorites — songs that truly changed my life — so I'll go with the first that came to mind when I was asked the question: 'Beautiful' from Sunday. 'Pretty isn't beautiful, Mother/Pretty is what changes/What the eye arranges is what is beautiful.' That exquisite song, like that whole show, blew my mind and broke my heart. And made me want to make beautiful things myself."
Scott Wittman, Tony-winning lyricist of Hairspray, chooses "Company" from Company. "I was 15 and saw the original cast on Broadway. It's what I imagined went on behind closed doors in Manhattan and I wanted to move in to the Seagram's Building and drink Vodka Stingers. I've never been the same."
Frank Wildhorn, composer of Jekyll & Hyde, The Civil War and The Scarlet Pimpernel, chooses "Losing My Mind" from Follies. "It's one among my many favorite Sondheim songs. Great songwriting that works so beautifully in the show, yet has transcended the show as well to have a great life...great melody, great lyric, and a soulfulness that lets singers play. Linda Eder's version of 'Losing My Mind' is sublime!"
Michael John LaChiusa, composer-lyricist of Hello Again, The Wild Party, Marie Christine and First Lady Suite, chooses the Overture (complete with "liebeslieder singers") from A Little Night Music. "I have too many favorites of Sondheim, but my favorite of the moment is the A Little Night Music Overture."
Marc Shaiman, composer-lyricist of Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can, chooses "A Weekend in the Country" from A Little Night Music (among others). "My favorite Sondheim song? That's easy, 'A Weekend in the Country.' Or 'In Buddy's Eyes.' No, wait, it's 'Sorry/Grateful.' Or 'Sunday.' Scratch that, it's definitely 'A Bowler Hat.' Well, maybe 'Everybody Ought To Have a Maid.' Good God, this is impossible. OK, final answer — 'Anyone Can Whistle.' That is, besides..."
Mark Hollmann, composer-lyricist of Urinetown and Yeast Nation, chooses "Losing My Mind" from Follies. "I find the melody haunting, and the lyric expresses in deceptively simple, everyday terms the depth of a woman's heartbreak. I love how Mr. Sondheim uses those commonplace images, like 'the coffee cup,' to eloquently convey that character's pain."
Tom Kitt, composer of Next to Normal and High Fidelity, chooses "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park With George. "The first time I heard that piece of music I was completely floored. The beautiful piano chords, the steady building pulse, the wonderfully artful and poetic lyrics, and that gorgeous vocal arrangement and orchestration make, to put it simply, a perfect song."
Joe DiPietro, lyricist of Memphis, The Thing About Men and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, chooses "Loving You" from Passion. "Besides being hauntingly beautiful, it's the perfect expression of subjugation in a love affair. And, like many love affairs, just as you begin to bask in it, it's over. A perfect, breathtaking two minutes of music."
Stephen Schwartz, composer-lyricist of Pippin, The Magic Show, Wicked and Godspell, chooses "Move On" from Sunday in the Park With George. "The first time I saw the show and heard the song, I was at a very low point in my life and career and feeling extremely discouraged. When I heard it, I felt as if it had been written for me to tell me what I needed to hear, and it helped to bolster my will to continue writing. So thank you, Steve, and happy birthday."
David Zippel, lyricist of City of Angels, Princesses, The Woman in White and "Hercules," chooses "Impossible" from …Forum (among others). "Choose my favorite Sondheim song? Impossible. Well maybe, 'Impossible' from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Well, that may not be my very favorite but may I change the assignment? Most moving: 'Sunday' (from Sunday in the Park); favorite lyric with other composer: 'Ya Gotta Have a Gimmick' tied with 'If Mama Was Married' (from Gypsy); favorite comedy song: 'I Never Do Anything Twice' (from 'The Seven-Percent Solution'); favorite book song: 'A Weekend in the Country' (from A Little Night Music). I will stop now. Even this is too hard, but, thanks, Steve!!"
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. His favorite Sondheim song is the one yet to be written. Share your choice of a favorite Sondheim number by e-mailing email@example.com. We may put your thoughts in our PlayBlog.)
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