Four By Sondheim

With Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday coming up in a few days, there are articles about his contribution to musical theater appearing all over the place, some of them detailing the favorite songs of various people. I could probably list at least 50 or more songs of his that I love and still not be finished, but I’m going to pick just four for this post.

First up is the title song from the show he wrote with Arthur Laurents, Anyone Can Whistle. A lovely ballad, it’s a lament about the difficulties of doing the things that seemingly are so simple for everyone else. “What’s hard is simple, what’s natural comes hard.” I first heard this sung by Estelle Parsons in a tiny cabaret in New York City in the mid-70s, where she made it the centerpiece of her act. Some years ago, must have been in the mid-90s, when I subscribed to the Sondheim mailing list, someone asked the members to name the Sondheim song that best described them. This was the song that was mentioned most often.

Here it’s sung by Lee Remick from the Original Cast Album.

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The same year that Anyone Can Whistle opened, 1964, saw the births of Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly! As it happens, each of these shows includes a song with a parade in the title. There’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (Funny Girl) and “Before the Parade Passes By” (Hello, Dolly!), both big numbers from their respective shows.

In his book of his lyrics, Finishing the Hat, Sondheim describes the genesis of his parade number. Angela Lansbury had been cast as Cora, and after a couple weeks of rehearsal she told Sondheim that she felt she needed to leave the show because Cora was a cartoon character and she didn’t know how to play a cartoon. But didn’t she know that when she accepted the part, asked Sondheim, afterall it was a satirical show and all the characters were at least somewhat cartoonish. She insisted that there was no emotion for her to play. After Sondheim countered several more of her objections, she finally blurted out that Fay (Lee Remick’s part) had five songs and Cora only had four. Sondheim couldn’t argue with that logic, so he wrote “A Parade in Town”, which actually gave Cora some emotional depth.

Here is Lansbury singing it from the Original Cast Album. In the show there is an actual parade of voters campaigning for her rival Hapgood, and Cora is reacting to that, but the parade can just as easily be interpreted as a metaphor for life; if so, the final line is absolutely devastating.

I’ve often wished that some singer would combine those three parade numbers into a medley; it could make a very interesting piece.

For the movie version of A Little Night Music, Sondheim reworked “The Glamorous Life” into a solo number for Desiree’s young daughter Fredrika, in which she imagines what kind of life her actress mother must lead. The movie, of course, juxtaposes comic images of the decidedly unglamorous life that her mother is actually leading, but what comes through most clearly is the loneliness of the daughter, who is being raised by her grandmother and sees her mother only very infrequently.

Here’s a performance by Audra McDonald.

And finally for a change of pace, “A Little Priest”, a comic number from that delightful black comedy Sweeney Todd—The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sweeney has just killed a man who was trying to extort money from him, and now Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, who owns a meat pie shop, have to figure out how to dispose of the body. Mrs. Lovett comes up with a novel solution.

Here are Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, the original Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd, recreating their roles for Sondheim’s 75th birthday tribute. The video and audio are not very good, but it’s so great to see them together.

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