20 Stephen Sondheim Songs to Listen to Right Now

The career of Stephen Sondheim, the celebrated Broadway songwriter who died on Friday at the age of 91, spanned decades and included 20 major productions, including forays into television and film.

But in this song, performed here by Liz Callaway, Sondheim depicts a level of dewy-eyed optimism — “Why, I can see half a tree/And what more do I need?” — that will become rare in his later musicals, which tended to pull the rug out on his clearly deluded dreamers.

But it fell upon Sondheim to depict the inchoate yearnings of a street youth, played by Larry Kert, and offer a plausible glimpse into a mind barely able to glimpse it himself.

How to pick just one song from what many consider is the greatest musical ever? None other than Cole Porter gasped at one of Sondheim’s lyrics in “Together, Wherever We Go,” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” earned the 29-year-old a spot in Bartlett’s book of quotations.

And they were this close to instead hearing an opening number called “Love Is in the Air,” which is sprightly and charming and the absolute wrong way to kick off an evening of vaudeville turns and eunuch jokes.

Leaving that aside, the song — performed on the original cast recording by Lee Remick — is a bittersweet oasis in a show stuffed with ideas and set pieces and pastiche numbers and the sorts of Big Ideas that Sondheim would soon learn to convey more adroitly.

Sondheim didn’t want to go back to solely writing lyrics, and he quickly regretted teaming up with Richard Rodgers, the longtime writing partner of Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II.

This quirky made-for-TV romance, in which the female lead ruminates on the years she has lived inside a department store and pines to see the sky again, had all but disappeared until Mandy Patinkin invited his “Sunday in the Park With George” co-star Bernadette Peters to record the score with him on a 1990 album.

Possibly the greatest artistic hot streak of the 20th century began with this quasi-Brechtian look at marriage through the eyes of 35-year-old Bobby, who — maybe, sort of, kind of — wants no part of it.

But while the “Follies” score is chockablock with such barn burners as “Broadway Baby” and “I’m Still Here,” along with the piercing “Losing My Mind,” this character study, sung on the original cast album by John McMartin, sublimely lays the groundwork for the misgivings to come.

The haunting “Every Day a Little Death” and the virtuosic triptych of lust that is “Now/Soon/Later” would be career-defining works for just about anyone else.

In this adaptation of an Aristophanes comedy, Shakespeare squares off against George Bernard Shaw in an agon, the high-stakes debate that was common in ancient Greek comedies; Sondheim’s gossamer arrangement of this soliloquy from “Cymbeline,” sung here by George Hearn, helps earn the Bard a ticket out of the underworld.

Lovett, followed by a ghoulish list song — possibly the greatest of Act I finales — in which the two, here Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou on the original cast album, make macabre sport of listing the various individuals they plan to grind into meat pies.

As a teenager, I thought this depiction of creation — and the combination of rigor and abandon that it requires — ended on a note that was equal parts proud and rueful.

So many of the most astonishing moments in Sondheim’s lyrics come from decisions made then and there: young Gypsy Rose Lee finding her voice mid-striptease, Bobby in “Company” resolving to be alive by not being alone, Sweeney Todd settling on the idea of mass slaughter.

But this early set-piece, in which Booth mashes up grandiose poetry, self-pity, cogent criticism and vile racism in a plaintive cri de coeur, went a long way toward reminding audiences that they were in very good and very frightening hands.

Sondheim’s original duet has become a heart-rending solo for the likes of Audra McDonald, Gavin Creel and, from his virtual 90th-birthday celebration, Judy Kuhn.

This song comes late in the piece, just as she reappeared in a way that had people around me snickering and groaning at the mere sight of her.

This show — which started as “Wise Guys” and then became “Bounce” before settling as “Road Show,” each time with a starry new director and a commensurate lurch in direction — went through very public growing pains, including an ill-fated reunion with Hal Prince and lawsuits with Scott Rudin.

…Read the full story