I want to decide if I want to explore the work of Stephen Sondheim
September 26, 2018 2:07 PM   Subscribe

YOU can help me figure out if Sondheim is what Im hoping he is and how to proceed accordingly

My strongest contender for 2018 album of the year is The Lemon Twigs' monumentally excellent glam rock opera Go To School. Its a musical about a couple that adopts a chimp as their son and that chimp has trouble fitting in and ultimately burns down the school. What begins as a silly lark turns poignant and ultimately tragic. It's my single favorite piece of pop culture the year has yet produced. What does this have to do with Sondheim? Several reviewers have noticed a major Sondheim influence in the work, referencing his Assassins specifically. This has piqued my interest and now I want to know more, but more importantly I want to know if I want to know more.
I of course love West Side Story like any man with two hands full of snapping fingers and a heart but in general musicals and theater culture leave me cold. Wide eyed earnestness is not my stick. I came up on Rocky Horror so there are a handful of musicals I adore but I tend to need them to have some grit to them somewhere in the mix. The Glee/Pitch Perfect model of pretty people singing perfectly doesn't do much for me unless they are singing about something.
Further complications:in spite of what I literally just typed I also love the 2003 movie Camp, about a bunch of kids attending a performing arts camp (which apparently is a thing) and they are all Sondheim acolytes and several of his numbers (and he himself) appear in the film. It feels like his beat isn't just performance for its own sake.
So what do I like and hope to find in his work? Well heres why I think he might be up my alley: my tastes place a premium on the sardonic and wordplay specifically. Sarcasm. A darker undercurrent. This number from Camp (a crazy young Anna Kendrick doing "Ladies Who Lunch" makes me feel like this could be a thing for me.
So, sorry for the length of the ask but I figured some context was key. Is this a good dive for me to take? And if so where to?
posted by Senor Cardgage to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sunday in the Park with George is the best musical ever. There's important meaning in every scene. They are "singing about something."

Be sure to look up Georges Seurat so you're don't start the show thinking "who are all those weird people standing around on the grass." Not that you would.
posted by JimN2TAW at 2:22 PM on September 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

There isn't much wide eyed earnestness in Sondheim – in fact, the opposite. He's often tearing down the facade of that earnestness found in musicals. Follies in particular is all about that. Also Into the Woods.

If you're into wordplay, look no further. That's what he's all about.

Where to begin? I'd start with Sweeney Todd -- I think that's his masterpiece (not the Johnny Depp film, though. If you're looking for video vs recordings, look at the Angela Lansbury/George Hearn version.) Assassins, as you mentioned. Company (the show with "The Ladies Who Lunch") has that cynicism and wordplay throughout.

Sondheim fans will argue about rankings of shows – and there's a lot to discover in each of his works. Off the top of my head, I'd say a good way to approach his work is by period. Like so:

Early (working as a lyricist) West Side Story, Gypsy

His musical comedies: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle

Hitting his stride: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music

Exploring genre: Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd Both have lots of wordplay -- check out "Chrysanthemum Tea" in Pacific Overtures and "A Little Priest" in Sweeney.

Return to musical comedy: Merrily We Roll Along

New sound/deeper feeling: Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods

Comedy with a hard edge: Assassins

Personal/operatic: Passion (caveat: my least favorite by far and I wouldn't start there.)

So this answer is huge but -- dive in, you'll like it.
posted by profreader at 2:23 PM on September 26, 2018 [11 favorites]

If you have Amazon Prime, you can listen to Assassins or you can check out bootleg videos on YouTube. The filmed stage versions of Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George are very good and should be easy to get from the library or Amazon.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:24 PM on September 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Holy crap he did Sweeney Todd? Thats one of the ones I love (having only seen the Depp film which I guess people didn't love but I thought was fantastic). Dude has been everywhere and is apparently still alive sipping from a wooden chalice made by a jewish carpenter somewhere.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 2:24 PM on September 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Without question, yes. I mean, Assassins is deep cuts not beloved of most Sondheim fans, and West Side Story isn't his music, but the sardonic tone and the wordplay are pretty much his calling cards. Company is dated in a certain way but full of gems. A Little Night Music is...actually I think I'll link a song from A Little Night Music but anyway it's peak musical theater. Follies, my god, though it's a very strangely structured stage work. You may be familiar with "I'm Still Here," sung here by Yvonne de Carlo, tv's Lily Muenster, whose career the song briefly references.

Honestly if you ask about Sondheim, you're going to get a lot of Sondheim fans coming out of the woodwork and being very enthusiastic.
posted by Smearcase at 2:53 PM on September 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

Yes, absolutely. Start with one of the concert versions of Sweeney Todd - Len Cariou will not steer you wrong, nor George Hearn. Sunday in the Park next. Carry on from there. You’re gonna be fine.
posted by Stacey at 2:56 PM on September 26, 2018

And make sure to listen to "The Ladies Who Lunch" sung by Elaine Stritch. She has kind of a beat-up voice but it's a number for a weary, angry middle-aged woman married into the upper class, not a teenager.
posted by Smearcase at 3:00 PM on September 26, 2018 [6 favorites]

As others have suggested, do seek out the stage versions to watch whenever possible. Movie versions often have to leave out some of the best bits. "Into The Woods," for example, while a pretty decent movie in my opinion, loses something very important in the final scenes where a song for the Baker and his Father got cut.

"Company" is the source show for "Ladies Who Lunch," the song you mention liking with Anna Kendrick. I like the recent concert staging starring Neil Patrick Harris and an all-star cast. A concert staging works for this show because it's somewhat free form and abstract in structure to begin with. This 2007 revival starring Raul Esparza is also very good (I really love his performance of "Being Alive"), though the gimmick of having the performers also play the instruments may or may not work for you. (My feeling is that the instruments provide an interesting new take on the material to folks who know the show, but might be odd and confusing to those who don't already know it.)
posted by dnash at 3:17 PM on September 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

There's a wonderful version of Into the Woods on YouTube with Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason. It was a PBS-filmed production in the early 90s, I think.
posted by suelac at 4:12 PM on September 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also flagging a staged version of Sunday in the Park with Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin as very worthy of review if you can find it.
posted by missmobtown at 4:32 PM on September 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

In 2018, there's no real reason not to explore music you're interested, no matter the level of your interest. Services like Spotify and YouTube have made the transaction costs for listening to new music almost nonexistent. No longer do you have to determine what works you want to listen to and then track down copies. You can literally just type in "Sondheim" into a search box and they'll tell you what's best (or at least most popular). Just spend twenty minutes on the top handful of results, and you'll get a better idea of whether it's something you should dive deeper into than any possible response on here.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:41 PM on September 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

I am in awe that anyone could actually make the words “while her withers wither with her” make perfect sense as they do in “Into the Woods”. Sondheim is word play personified!
posted by royboy at 6:42 PM on September 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding the recommendations to watch the stage versions of Company and Into the Woods on Netflix and YouTube, respectively. You will probably enjoy them, and Into the Woods, in particular, is complex enough that you’ll probably then enjoy listening to the cast recording afterwards.

And then definitely take any chance you get to see a talented company perform his plays. With the caveat that there is a G-rated version of Into the Woods out there that was reworked for kid-friendly shows and it’s really not as good. Into the Woods is about fairy tales, but it’s deeply grown up, full of adult mistakes and longings and emotions.
posted by lunasol at 7:00 PM on September 26, 2018

I do not like Broadway-style musicals as a rule. (I make an exception for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies, but it’s not really the music I’m responding to in the movie musicals I like. Ditto ALL THAT JAZZ which is amazing.) Show tunes in general bore me. HAMILTON makes me cringe. GLEE repels me. But I adore Stephen Sondheim and I think SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE is close to the greatest thing in the world. When he dies I will cry for hours.

So I don’t know from the Lemon Twigs but absolutely do not let your disinterest in Broadway culture scare you away from Sondheim. He is The Best.
posted by Mothlight at 7:14 PM on September 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

OHHH - Sweeney Todd - depp - NOOOO.

Angela Landsbury in the PBS recorded performance - YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!
posted by jbenben at 9:42 PM on September 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm not massively into musicals but I enjoyed Follies - fun but also with a darker, poignant side. Definitely recommended
posted by JonB at 1:58 AM on September 27, 2018

I like musicals generally, but I've found it difficult to get into Sondheim. I think it's primarily the music that turns me off: I like a show to have at least a few catchy songs, something that has me humming as I leave the theater, and I don't get that out of the Sondheim I've seen. But YMMV, and it sounds like that may not be the most important thing to you.

I do love West Side Story, but critically, only the lyrics are Sondheim's there, and the music is Bernstein's.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:50 AM on September 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't love musical theater but have been fully obsessed with Sondheim since my youth.

Yes, Sunday in the Park with George is the best musical ever written.

But you really can't go wrong. Pacific Overtures, A Little Night Music, Company, Merrily We Roll Along. It's all amazing.

It's worth taking a deep dive and watching some interviews and things where he talks about his process and how he writes. For example, here he is talking about his favorite song he has written.
posted by Lutoslawski at 6:50 AM on September 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

you: should I explore Sondheim? I like *list of things that Sondheim is all about*.

Yes. You should explore Sondheim. The PBS Great Performances (I think?) has some recordings of stage productions to check out. There's the Lansbury Sweeney Todd, the Bernadette Peters Into the Woods, the Patinkin Sundays in the Park, etc. And there are tons of streaming opportunities. Poke around YouTube/Amazon Prime/Spotify and explore.

I will say that if wordplay specifically excites you and you're open to the musical style, it's also worth looking at Hamilton, which has some GORGEOUSLY clever lyrics and rhyme schemes; the annotations on genius.com for the Hamilton lyrics are fascinating and well worth a look.
posted by oblique red at 7:49 AM on September 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

There's a very interesting documentary on Netflix called "The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened." It concerns the creation of the show "Merrily We Roll Along." The challenge of the show is that it's written backwards - it starts with the main characters as bitter, angry adults, and moves backwards in time to end with their high school graduation when they were full of optimism. It rather famously flopped, and one of the reasons was the original production chose to cast all very young teenage newcomers, which made all the "grown up" scenes fall flat. The film reunites many of the cast who share about their experiences.

(The show got some re-writes and has gone on to be a favorite of Sondheim-ites. Though nowadays it's more common to cast full adults.)

There's also "Six By Sondheim" on HBO, which focuses on the creation of six specific songs.
posted by dnash at 8:23 AM on September 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Stop what you are doing right now and listen to this song from the under-appreciated Pacific Overtures.
posted by wittgenstein at 2:04 PM on September 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

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