Where to start with Stephen Sondheim: 10 of the best from the maestro

Discover the musical theatre titan through the life-changing cast album of Company, Imelda Staunton’s phenomenal turn in Gypsy, birthday concerts and his essential book on lyric writing

Sondheim is gone but his songs and shows, as Cameron Mackintosh said, will be performed forever. Fortunately there is a wealth of material – recordings, documentaries, books – that give us a good idea of his impact on the culture of his times. I here offer a list of 10 of the best that is highly selective and intensely subjective; but then each of us has our own store of Sondheim memories and favoured works.

1. Company

I hugely admired Marianne Elliott’s re-gendered version, currently playing in New York, but I’ve gone back to the original Columbia recording for a variety of reasons. One is that I stumbled into the Broadway show one late summer night in 1970 and can truthfully say that I had a life-changing experience. I had never realised a musical could jettison plot and still be compelling and, although recently married, I instinctively recognised its portrait of bachelor solitude: Hal Prince’s production also perfectly caught the neurotic frenzy of Manhattan life. As a bonus, I’d recommend DA Pennebaker’s brilliant documentary about the recording of the album, showing Elaine Stritch working her way to the desired perfection.
Original cast album from Amazon; the documentary is on Blu-ray from Criterion

2. Side by Side by Sondheim

Sondheim’s work, like Shakespeare’s, has inspired any number of anthologies. The first – and in many ways, still the best – was this 1976 compilation that began at the John Dankworth-Cleo Laine festival at Wavendon and that had a triumphant London first night at the Mermaid in 1976. It hit any number of targets: it showed Sondheim’s skill as a musical dramatist, his mastery of dramatic monologues and his capacity to write affectionate pastiche. Urbanely compered by Ned Sherrin and dazzlingly performed by David Kernan, Julia McKenzie and Millicent Martin, the show consummated Sondheim’s long love affair with the British theatregoing public.
Original cast album from Amazon

3. Pacific Overtures

WS Gilbert was said to have been inspired to write The Mikado by going to a Japanese exhibition in South Kensington. Sondheim had a similar revelation when encountering a threefold Japanese screen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The bold idea of making a musical out of the collision of American and Japanese culture had originated with John Weidman. But Sondheim claimed that the spectacle of a luxuriant tree dominating an otherwise white triptych taught him the cardinal lesson that, in art, less is more. The result is one of the most revolutionary musicals ever. I’d recommend both the original cast recording and that by English National Opera as well a visual record of Hal Prince’s Kabuki-influenced Broadway production.
Original cast album and ENO recording from Amazon

4. Sweeney Todd

I’m on record as dubbing this, in 1980, “one of the two (My Fair Lady being the other) durable works of popular musical theatre written in my lifetime.” I should have added West Side Story but I stand by what I said since I’ve seen the show over the years work in countless spaces, big and small. From that first piercing industrial whistle, we are gripped by a revenge-drama that mixes rage at social injustice with romantic tenderness. All Sondheim’s emotional complexity is there – Hal Prince’s wife once said there was a touch of Sweeney in Sondheim himself – and his brilliant score has echoes of Britten, Copland and Stravinsky. Wherever it is staged, we still attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
Original cast album, with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, from Amazon

Stephen Sondheim with James Lapine in 1985.
Stephen Sondheim with James Lapine in 1985. Photograph: Sara Krulwich/Getty Images

5. Passion

This has always been one of Sondheim’s least-loved shows but it remains one of his most captivating and mysterious. Based on an Italian movie, which itself derived from a 19th-century novel, it is the story of a handsome officer relentlessly pursued by a sickly young woman in a remote garrison. The theme, in Sondheim’s score and James Lapine’s book, is the incurable obsessiveness of love. However you classify it – and Sondheim himself said it was close to a chamber opera, like Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia – it haunts you as tenaciously as the fevered Fosca does her object of desire. It was excellently revived by Jamie Lloyd at the Donmar Warehouse in 2010.
Original cast album from Amazon

6. Gypsy

I tend to cherish my original cast recordings of Sondheim shows – although here he was purely the lyricist, with Jule Styne writing the score and Arthur Laurents the book – but this is one occasion where the revival outstrips its predecessor. Angela Lansbury was so forceful as Momma Rose in 1973 that you felt the character would have been a Broadway star. But Jonathan Kent’s 2014 Chichester production made total dramatic sense. Imelda Staunton was the eternal bustling showbiz wannabe, even popping up on stage during her daughter’s big audition. Yet when it came to the solo numbers that end each act, Staunton unforgettably suggested a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
DVD, Blu-ray and to stream from Amazon

7. Six by Sondheim

This award-winning HBO documentary, directed and co-produced by James Lapine, uses six classic Sondheim songs as a way of exploring his craft and examining his life. The analysis of the songs is fascinating. We learn how Something’s Coming from West Side Story was written in one heady day with Leonard Bernstein and used baseball metaphors to convey Tony’s propulsive energy. But the songs are spliced with interviews from various stages of Sondheim’s life. The verbal wit is there, as when he says “I osmosed myself into the Hammerstein household”. So too is the emotional pain as in his revelation that his mother, on the eve of open-heart surgery, sent him a note saying the only regret in her life was “giving you birth”.
On HBO and Now TV

A lot to celebrate … (from left) Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, David Hyde Pierce, Elaine Stritch, Donna Murphy and Marin Mazzie at the Avery Fisher Hall concert to mark Sondheim’s 80th birthday.
A lot to celebrate … (from left) Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, David Hyde Pierce, Elaine Stritch, Donna Murphy and Marin Mazzie at the Avery Fisher Hall concert to mark Sondheim’s 80th birthday. Photograph: Richard Termine/AP

8. Birthday Concerts, 2010

Sondheim’s 80th birthday led to a wealth of celebrations. Two concerts, in particular, stand out. One was at Avery Fisher Hall in New York in March, where the stars turned out in force: Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters gave us the best of Sunday in the Park With George, Elaine Stritch proclaimed I’m Still Here and Michael Cerveris wielded the razor over George Hearn, a previous Sweeney Todd, in Pretty Women. Not to be outdone, the Proms staged their own Birthday Concert in July: the highlight for me was Simon Russell Beale, Daniel Evans and Julian Ovenden rendering Everybody Ought to Have a Maid (“Fluttering up the stairway, Shuttering up the windows”) with skittish vaudevillian glee.
On DVD and YouTube

9. The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies edited by Robert Gordon

Sondheim has yielded a fair amount of study in book form and we keenly await David Benedict’s biography. In the meantime, this excellent book offers 27 essays that combine academic and theatrical analysis. In the former category Dominic Symonds traces the connections between Oscar Hammerstein and Sondheim, showing how the palindromic structure of South Pacific – in which themes and songs are echoed and repeated – impacts on Into the Woods. Meanwhile Keith Warner, who directed Pacific Overtures for ENO, makes a passionate case for subsidised theatre embracing not just Sondheim but experimental works such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro. A book for buffs that takes Sondheim seriously.
Published by OUP

10. Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim

This is, arguably, the one truly necessary book on musical theatre. It not only contains all Sondheim’s lyrics from Saturday Night to Merrily We Roll Along (a succeeding volume brings us up to date). It is, above all, a study of the craft of lyric writing: it argues that the three great principles are Content Dictates Form, Less is More and God Is in the Details and goes on to show where Sondheim himself and his fellow lyricists have succeeded and failed. If Sondheim is often harsh on others (Alan Jay Lerner is “a chameleon of one colour”, Noel Coward is “too darn chilly”) he is even harsher on himself. But the book is proof that Sondheim was throughout his life a restless perfectionist whose gnawing dissatisfaction was the source of great and enduring art.
Published by Penguin Random House


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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