We are now onto the third of my new weekly musical theatre podcast series ShenTens. This week I count down my top ten favourite Sondheim songs — at least my favourites right now. This list is, frankly, constantly changing, and I could easily choose another ten right away, as my own life changes in relation to his songs. There is something infinitely wise and prophetic about his songs; he seems to have experienced, or at least profoundly articulated, exactly some of the same life experiences or feelings I have faced long before me, so there’s always something new to speak to me.
It was while preparing this podcast that I suddenly heard, as if for the first time, how accurately and movingly Sondheim captures the pain of trying to make sense of an absent father — something he knew about first hand, when his father left his mother when he was a young boy. Just recently in my own life I’ve had to come to terms with a hole in my own heart when I finally realised that my narcissistic father, now 88, had always rejected me, and it wasn’t just an uneasy, unexplained sixth sense I’ve had throughout my life.
The song is called ‘No More’, from Into the Woods (premiered in 1987), in which an adult baker, doomed to childlessness because of a curse that his father’s behaviour had caused to be put on him until he’s able to get it reversed, finally confronts that father, and tells him:
No more curses you can’t undo, left by fathers you never knew
No more quests
No more feelings.
Time to shut the door.
His father, in turn, replies:
Running away, go to it
Where did you have in mind?
Have to take care…unless there’s a ‘where’
You’ll only be wandering blind
Just more questions… different kinds
Where are we to go?
Where are we ever to go?
Running away, we’ll do it
Why sit around, resigned?
Trouble is, son, the farther you run
The more you’ll feel undefined
For what you have left undone, and more
What you’ve left behind
I’m no longer running away: a few months ago, I finally confronted this undone, previously unspoken business. And at last, with the utter clarity that has come from understanding the totality of my father’s rejection throughout my life, I’m no longer feeling undefined. And Sondheim being Sondheim, he’s even buried an amazing ‘Easter egg’ in the lyric: ‘Trouble is, son, the farther you run/the more you’ll feel undefined’; farther, of course, is also father.
In March, Sondheim will turn 91 (he shares a birthday with Andrew Lloyd Webber, coincidentally — March 23), and since his first Broadway credits as lyricist (to Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story and Jule Styne on Gypsy respectively in 1957 and 1959), he emerged as the pre-eminent composer/lyricist of the last 58 years since achieving his first hit as that double-credited talent with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum which premiered in 1962 — the same year I was born, so his life as a composer spans my own.
The first time I interviewed the director, musical arranger, translator and general genius Jeremy Sams more than 20 years ago, he said this to me about Sondheim:
“I venerate him as a human being and an artist, and the only thing I have against him is that he’s covered every exit and nailed it up, and it’s very, very hard for everybody else. He is as big to musicals as Wagner is to opera, and the history of the musical will never be the same again until he is written out of it, and that will take a century.”
I’d love to know what Jeremy’s top ten Sondheim songs are; but these — for now — are mine!
1. Too Many Mornings (Follies, 1971)
This masterpiece of yearning regret, for what could have been but can now never be from two former partners who are now both unhappily married to others, captures perfectly the pain of life’s missed opportunities:
Too many mornings
Waking and pretending I reach for you,
Thousands of mornings
Dreaming of my girl.
All that time wasted,
Merely passing through,
Time I could have spent
Wasting time with you.
In 1985, there was a stunning, all-star concert performance of Follies at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall (now the David Geffen), and as I’d made my first-ever trip to New York just two years before, it would have been possible to have been there, and had I known then what I know now about this show and that night, I would have been. (I was too young, by any measure, to have been able to attend — or least begin to comprehend what I was seeing — had I had the opportunity to see the original 1971 Broadway production; I would have been just nine years old).
Today, these are the two productions I’d most like to be able to time travel to see first hand; fortunately, there is video of the second one to take me there. Here are Barbara Cook as Sally and George Hearn as Ben performing Too Many Mornings in 1985:
I first heard the song on the 1971 original cast recording sung by Dorothy Collins and John McMartin; I first heard it on stage sung by Julia McKenzie and Daniel Massey in the show’s London premiere in 1987 at the Shaftesbury Theatre; and most recently at sung by Imelda Staunton and Philip Quast at the National in 2017. Each of those performances live on forever in the cast albums of each.
2. Move On (Sunday in the Park with George, 1984)
Sondheim’s first post-Hal Prince musical Sunday in the Park with George — which saw him working with an adventurous off-Broadway writer/director James Lapine for the first time (and would see them go on to produce two more masterpieces, Into the Woods in 1987 and Passion in 1994) — is, of course, a thrilling work of art about the mysterious process of creating art; and Sondheim provides the ultimate guidance to any fellow artists:
Stop worrying where you’re going
If you can know where you’re going
Just keep moving on
Just keep moving on
Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see
Just keep moving on
Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see
The original Broadway cast was led by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, who recreated their performances of this song in a 2010 concert that celebrated Sondheim’s 80th birthday:
The show’s most recent Broadway outing, which followed a concert staging at City Center in 2016, starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford in 2017. Here, earlier this year, they recreated their performances for a digital celebration of Sondheim’s 90th birthday:
3. No More (Into the Woods, 1987)
I’ve already written in my introduction above how uniquely and powerfully this song speaks to be right now.
It was performed in the original Broadway cast by Chip Zien as the Baker son, and Tom Aldredge as his father, the Mysterious Man.
And here, Chip Zien reprises it for the digital 90th birthday concert for Sondheim last March:
4. Our Time (Merrily We Roll Along, 1981)
Sondheim and George Furth’s 1981 musical was a fast flop first time around, running for just 16 performances. But this time-travelling musical — that tells the story of its characters personal and professional lives in reverse, from whey their fractured, adult selves are to when they first met as students — is a show whose time eventually came. It is now a solid part of his repertoire, a beautiful portrait of changing friendships and changing times. Our Time, one of the most tenderly optimistic songs of any Sondheim has ever written, finds its characters, at the very end of the show (which in fact is the very beginning, chronologically speaking, of their relationship), looking forward to the future, when a lifetime of possibilities stretches ahead of each of theme and they sing:
Our time, breathe it in
Worlds to change, and worlds to win
Our turn, we’re what’s new
Me and you pal, me and you…
In a 2010 BBC Prom celebrating Sondheim’s 80th birthday, a trio of London drama students performed it:
5 . The Road You Didn’t Take (Follies, 1971)
In another song of eternal regret from Follies, Ben wonders aloud if he made the right choice when he chose Phyllis as his life partner instead of Sally:
You take one road,
You try one door,
There isn’t time for any more.
One’s life consists of either/or.
One has regrets
Which one forgets,
And as the years go on.
The road you didn’t take
Hardly comes to mind,
It is performed here by John McMartin, who created the role of Ben in the original 1971 production, in a concert many years later:
It is immediately followed in the show by Sally singing the equally tentative and exquisite In Buddy’s Eyes, trying to convince herself that she did make the right choice with Buddy, but in fact it’s Ben she’s always loved.
The song was replaced for the 1987 London premiere at the Shaftesbury Theatre, at producer Cameron Mackintosh’s request, by ‘Country House’.
6. Finishing the Hat (Sunday in the Park with George, 1984)
Sondheim’s most powerful expression of the cost — as well as the satisfaction — of the process of creating art, Finishing the Hat ends with a statement that literally ends the show:
“White. A blank page or canvas. His favourite. So many possibilities.”
It was performed in the original 1984 Broadway production by Mandy Patinkin as the artist George Seurat, describing his lonely, obsessive artistic practice.
Mapping out a sky.
What, you feel like planning a sky?
How you feel when voices that come
through the window
Until they distance and die.
Until there’s nothing but sky.
And how you’re always turning back too late
from the grass or the stick
or the dog or the light.
How the kind of woman willing to wait’s
not the kind that you want to find waiting
to return you to the night
Dizzy from the height
The song title became the title of the first edition of Sondheim’s collected lyrics, spanning the years 1954-1981 (so not actually appearing in that edition, as Sunday in the Park didn’t premiere till three years later); the second edition, in which it actually appears, is called Look I Made a Hat, 1981-2011.
In a 2015 interview in the London Times, Tim Teeman asked him about his legacy, and he replied that it’s of no concern to him: “I won’t be around to enjoy it.”
But he still loves writing: “Then you think of the other things. How will it be received? Will people be disappointed? Do you have any fresh ideas left? All the self-doubt . . . and then when you’re finishing the hat” — he smiles — “it’s really good.”
7. Someone in a Tree (Pacific Overtures, 1976)
Sondheim has called Someone in a Tree his own personal favourite of all the songs he’s written.
In a 1984 review of Pacific Overtures, New York Times critic Frank Rich called the song “a compact Rashomon – and as fine as anything Mr. Sondheim has written.” Rashomon, based on Kurosawa’s 1950 film masterpiece of the same name, is where different characters provide subjective, contradictory versions of the same event, in this case by two men who, as much younger men, remember the signing of a treaty between Japan and the US from the different vantage points they had on it, one watching from a tree, the other underneath the floorboards of the treaty house.
It perfectly captures how we view everything through the prism of our own relationship to it:
It’s the fragment, not the day
It’s the pebble, not the stream
It’s the ripple, not the sea
That is happening
Not the building but the beam
Not the garden but the stone
Only cups of tea
And someone in a tree
It is performed here by Broadway actors George Lee Andrews, Kate Baldwin, Michael Cerveris, and Alexander Gemignani in a concert at Lincoln Center in 2015.
8. Every Day a Little Death (A Little Night Music, 1973)
This painfully bitter song is sung by a wife, Countess Charlotte, to Anne Egerman, informing her that her husband sung Magnus is having an affair with Desiree Armfeldt, and so is Anne’s husband Frederick Egerman.
Every day a little sting
Every day a little dies
In the heart and in the head
In the looks and in the lies
Every move and every breath
And you hardly feel a thing
Brings a perfect little death
Here it is performed by Carol Burnett and Ruthie Henshall in the 1999 Broadway production of the Sondheim revue Putting It Together:
The title of this song also became the title of an episode of the TV series Desperate Housewives.
9. Being Alive (Company, 1970)
This extraordinary celebration of the decision to embrace life and the possibility of relationships is sung at the end of Company, Sondheim’s 1970 exploration of urban partnerships, sung by a commit-phobe 35-year-old who observes the relationships of his various partnered friends and decides to finally seek out one for himself (in the original version, when the character was called Robert, or Bobby), or herself (as the character became Bobbie in the most recent iteration of the show in the West End).
Someone you have to let in
Someone whose feelings you spare
Someone who, like it or not
Will want you to share
A little a lot
Someone to crowd you with love
Someone to force you to care
Someone to make you come through
Who’ll always be there
As frightened as you
Of being alive
There were three other songs that were placed in this spot before Sondheim finally wrote Being Alive, the others being Multitude of Amys (which was moved to act one); Marry Me a Little (which became the title song for a revue of out-takes from Sondheim musicals); and Happily Ever After.
Originally sung by Dean Jones in the original Broadway cast, it has become a standard for both male and female vocalists. In the 2019 film Marriage Story about an imploding marriage, Adam Driver sings the entire song in a piano bar. Here, Raul Esparza, who played Bobby in the 2006 Broadway production of Company, sings it at the 2007 Tony Awards:
10. The Best Thing That Ever Happened (Road Show, 2008)
From Sondheim’s most recent completed musical Road Show (premiered at New York’s Public Theatre in 2008), Best Thing that Ever Happened was first sung in an earlier version of the show, entitled Bounce (produced in Chicago and Washington in 2003), by Wilson Mizner to his wife Nellie; in 2008, it became an expression of the love between his brother Addison and his gay lover, Hollis Bessemer.
Hollis was played in that production by Claybourne Elder, who sings the song in a later event at the Public Theatre:
As such, it became Sondheim’s first explicitly gay song, finally acting as a kind of professional coming out for Sondheim himself, who’d only come out at the age of 40 and only had his own first relationship at the age of 60. He is now married to Jeff Romley, who he met when he was 80 and Jeff was 32, so there is a 48-year age gap between them.
You are the best thing that ever has happened to me.
Alright then, one of the best things that’s happened to me.
They say we all find love.
I never bought it.
I never thought it would happen to me.
Who could foresee?
You are the god-damnd’est thing that has happened to me…
When did I have this much happiness happen to me?
Over the years, there’s been a lot of speculation about Sondheim’s sexuality; in a 2015 interview with the London Times, he officially ended the one about there being a sex dungeon in the basement of his Manhattan townhouse. “There is no basis of truth in it whatsoever. It bothers me. What it represents is people trying to put me down and trash me. It’s like saying, ‘So and so’s a drunk’, ‘Who does he think he is?’ If you go downstairs there’s a washing machine and a boiler. There’s one great thing down there and that’s a cedar closet with all my original manuscripts in it.”
AND FINALLY, WHAT’S MISSING:
There’s inevitably a lot left out. There’s nothing, for example, from Sweeney Todd, which I regard as Sondheim’s absolute masterpiece — but for me, it’s the entirety of that score that makes it so, and I don’t want any of it to be served out of context, as much as I love individual melodies.
I’ve also left out entirely any choices from two Broadway shows, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or Passion, or Saturday Night (unproduced until a fringe theatre in London, the Bridewell, offered its professional premiere in 1997), The Frogs (originally produced in a swimming pool at Yale University in 1974), or Evening Primrose, the TV musical he wrote in 1966.
My ShenTens podcast and feature here will count down my personal top ten favourite flop musicals.
Special thanks to my producer Paul Branch; Howard Goodall, for theme music; and Thomas Mann for the logo design