If memory serves, my very first exposure to a certain composer was the opening theme music that was used on the game show Seven Keys which was hosted by Jack Narz. Listen to the first 30 seconds or so of this episode from 1960 and see if you recognize the music that is being played as the announcer introduces the contestant.
I recall watching that game show and absolutely loving that theme music, even though I had no idea what it was.
And of course, that music was not composed by Stephen Sondheim; he had only supplied the lyrics, while Jule Styne provided the music.
The show was, of course, Gypsy, and the music was the opening of its knock-em-dead Overture.
My next encounter with something by Sondheim was the soundtrack recording of the movie version of West Side Story, for which Sondheim had also supplied only the lyrics with Leonard Bernstein composing the music. I don’t recall being terribly impressed one way or the other by that recording; I think I liked it, but it wasn’t one that I played very often, so I didn’t really get to know the music or the lyrics very well. For some reason or other, I never got to see the movie itself. And the only name I associated with it was Lennie’s.
Then sometime in 1963 the film version of Gypsy came to the Neptune Theatre in Richland, and I definitely went to see that. I remember it well. I finally figured out what that theme music to Seven Keys was.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t know much about it in advance, although I did know who Gypsy Rose Lee was, as I had seen her on television once or twice, but I’m not sure if I associated her with the movie before I saw it.
But, wow! Did that movie grab me! I realize it’s not very well thought of these days, not least because it starred Rosalind Russell in the Ethel Merman role of Momma Rose (or Madame Rose, if you like), but I didn’t know that until a few months later when I heard someone talk about how Merman was denied tohe chance to recreate her greatest role for that movie.
No matter. I loved the movie and I loved the music. Sometime later, maybe a year or two, I borrowed the Original Cast Album that did feature Merman from the Lebanon Library and made a copy of it on my tape recorder. I wore out that tape.
But I still couldn’t have named Sondheim as the writer of the lyrics, and if I knew who did the music, I probably pronounced Jule Styne’s first name as “Jewel” rather than “Julie”.
On November 16, 1966, I watched ABC Stage 67 as I always did. That was the ABC television network’s attempt to upgrade their image by offering quality programming rather than the vast wasteland that characterized so many of their shows. I nearly always enjoyed that program and I was really looking forward to the show that evening as it was an original musical done just for that series. It was entitled Evening Primrose and it starred Anthony Perkins, an actor I had liked since ever I saw him in the movie version of The Matchmaker (you were expecting some other film, perhaps?). I recall very little of the show that evening, however, as I was not captivated by the story or the songs. Not sure I even watched the whole thing. And I made no note of the person responsible for the songs. Some things are best forgotten quickly.
A year later I was at Penn State, and the Thespians put on West Side Story as one of their three musicals that season. And I was in awe of that show. Now that I saw all the songs in context, they just blew me away. I was especially impressed with “Gee, Officer Krupke” because the lyrics were hilarious, though I don’t think I still knew the name of the lyricist. I also especially liked the Quintet; the idea of several groups of characters singing about different things simultaneously was a revelation for me. Yeah, I really hadn’t listened to the recording very much.
Jump forward another year or so and I saw a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at a summer stock theater, Green Hills, I think it was called, near Reading, PA. Loved the show (it was hilarious), thought the score left something to be desired. And now I did check the name of the composer/lyricist. Stephen Sondheim. Hmmm. I saw that he had previously done the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. He really ought to stick to lyric writing, which was the only thing he was good at, in my opinion.
Take that opening number, “Comedy Tonight”. The music consisted of little more than repeating the opening phrase over and over. Couldn’t Sondheim do any better than that? (It didn’t occur to me that some of the greatest works of music by some of the greatest composers consisted of repeating a motive over and over. I had certainly heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by then. And Ravel’s Bolero.)
I’m afraid that for me, Sondheim’s music was not love at first hearing. And as it turned out, the key to learning to love Sondheim’s music was Richard Strauss and his opera Der Rosenkavalier. But that was not for another four years. In the meanwhile, I was to have an unhappy non-encounter with his show Company.