It’s weird that I just got through watching tick, tick… Boom! on Netflix, in which Bradley Whitford portrays Stephen Sondheim and does an expert imitation of the composer’s tics, when I heard that Sondheim himself had passed away. He was a Broadway songwriter, but his work reverberated into corners far beyond the New York stage. The man was 91 and lived to see himself become an institution, whole musical revues devoted to his work and films made of many of his stage shows. (Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story will be a monument to him now.) He carried the torch for the Broadway musical as a vehicle for exploring adult emotions through decades when crowds were flocking to the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber spectacle. He seeped through to the culture at all levels, being parodied on The Simpsons and by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who converted Sondheim to rap music late in his life). His fans are legion, and I am one. Here are some songs that meant something to me.
Let’s start off with an obscurity. Between West Side Story (where he shared credit with more famous collaborators) and his first solo success with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he wrote some fascinating songs for shows that didn’t work. Here’s Kelli O’Hara singing how much she loves New York and its awfulness in “What More Do I Need?”
Sondheim made a cameo appearance in the 2003 movie Camp, about a musical-theater summer camp where the kids put on Company, among others. Here’s a teenage Anna Kendrick poisoning the show’s leading lady, taking her place, busting out “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and bullying the audience into a standing ovation. Even back then, I thought, “This is fire.”
When Follies had its London premiere, Sondheim rewrote the song “Loveland” for reasons he couldn’t recall decades later when he wrote his memoir/manual on songcraft, Finishing the Hat. The show is meant to mimic the opulent Broadway spectacles like the ones Florenz Ziegfeld staged. Check the swirling choral harmonies in background of the rewritten version for a note-perfect evocation of an older era of musicals.
I mentioned when I reviewed Marriage Story that Adam Driver’s rendition of “Being Alive” was the part that stuck with me the longest. He plays a man whose acrimonious divorce has at last been finalized, and while commiserating with actor friends at a piano bar, he pours his misery and grief and feelings of failure into this. Driver should have won the Oscar just for this.
He wrote “Water Under the Bridge” for a 1980s Rob Reiner film project that never came to fruition. The song is sung by the main character, a singer who becomes famous over the course of the story, and it’s fascinating to hear Sondheim write in the vein of 1980s pop.
In Assassins, failed presidential killers John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme sing the duet “Unworthy of Your Love” about their respective love for Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. The Netflix drama The Politician had its high-school characters staging the show, so let’s hear Ben Platt and Zoey Deutch take this one on.
Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (a film ahead of its time, in some ways) was the moment when it clicked into place for a lot of people that Madonna could actually sing. Sondheim won his Oscar for the excellent torch song “Sooner or Later,” but I find that I prefer this more contemplative duet for her and her pianist (Mandy Patinkin). In the second volume of his autobiography, Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim recalled balking at Beatty’s request to write a song for Patinkin because the character was poorly drawn. Beatty recommended that he look at the pianist’s dialogue for suggestions, and the song came out of the line, “What can you lose?”
In this century, Sondheim wrote his unloved 2008 musical Road Show, which never made it to Broadway. A few months before his death, he told Stephen Colbert that he was working on a new show. Let’s hope we get to hear what he had at some point. Barring that, he produced no new songs, not even for the film versions of Sweeney Todd or Into the Woods. (It’s common practice for Broadway songwriters to pen a new number for movie adaptations, so they’ll be eligible for Oscars.) Even so, it’s hard to say that he gave us anything less than all he had, and he made our lives richer in the process. As Mel Brooks once said, “Sondheim, send in the clowns.”