10 Stephen Sondheim songs we’ll never stop listening to: NPR

Bernadette Peters leans in to discuss the recording of the album “Sunday in the Park with George” with Stephen Sondheim and producer Thomas Z. Shepard in June 1984.

Marty Reichenthal / Associated press

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Marty Reichenthal / Associated press

Bernadette Peters leans in to discuss the recording of the album “Sunday in the Park with George” with Stephen Sondheim and producer Thomas Z. Shepard in June 1984.

Marty Reichenthal / Associated press

On the day Stephen Sondheim died, making a list of his songs you’ll never stop playing is like inviting an argument – and I do.

Sondheim passed away at 91, and I encourage you to read every obituary, every piece of historical background. I can only offer the fact that almost always, at some level, there is Sondheim music in my head; it takes almost nothing to wake it up from sleep and trip it over my lips while I’m doing the dishes or driving my car.

I was not so much a Sweeney todd nobody – it freaked me out. I was really a Society anybody. I watched a VHS tape of In the woods when I was babysitting in high school, and I never stopped loving it. A dear friend took me Follies. I sent another friend a clip of Sunday in the park with George after having had a professional disappointment.

I invite you to hear mine, but love your own, however you first heard them.

1. “Get married today”, from Society

I don’t remember why, but one day when we were all working in person in the NPR offices, Ari Shapiro came to my office when I wasn’t there and left me a note. It said: I came here to repeat to you from memory the words to “I am not getting married”, and you have decided to leave. What, I ask you, could be more important than that? – Guess (which is also the last word of another Sondheim song. You know which one?)

The note says: I came here to deliver the words of "i am not getting married" for you from memory, and you decided to leave.  What, I ask you, could be more important than that?  - To guess.

“Getting Married Today” is a song in which a woman expresses her extraordinary worry on her wedding day, repeatedly stating that in fact, she won’t be getting married after all. (Before changing your mind at the end.) It’s a song that’s also a sporting event, because – as this note suggests – the barrage of quick lyrics gives you bragging rights. But lest you think that means it is alone patter, when Beth Howland slams her way through like a champ during the DA Pennebaker documentary Original album from the cast: Company, Sondheim said to him, “I don’t want to upset you, but I would like to have the melody.”

2. “No one is alone” In the woods

This innocuous title belongs to a song that speaks, as it should, about the fact that we are rarely as isolated as we feel. But because Sondheim is Sondheim, he appears in a moment of deep sorrow, and he presents this fact as a comfort and a warning. You are not alone, he said, because people will be there with you, to love you. And you are not alone, he said, so be aware of the consequences of your actions. “You just move a finger / say any word / something has to linger – be heard.”

3. “Go forward” Sunday in the park with George

A woman’s vision appears to a frustrated artist and pushes him to continue his art. It would be so easy for this song to collapse into a pep talk, but one of Sondheim’s many gifts was his understanding of creation itself – which is part of why he makes such a charming character in all just released Tic Tic … Boom.

George doesn’t just need encouragement, he needs to be told that there is no certainty in trying to build beauty, and that an artist will continue anyway. A booming duo that originally reunited Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, two muses of Sondheim, he speaks with a specificity of creative insecurity: “Stop worrying if your vision is new / let others make that decision, they usually do. ”

4. “Being alive”, Society

Many Sondheim devotees consider themselves to be passionate about a show above all else: they are a Sweeney todd nobody, one Sunday nobody, one Follies anybody. I am, more than anything, one Society anybody.

The story of Bobby, a man surrounded by couples and terribly skeptical of marriage, ends with this culminating admission that what is terrifying about privacy is the same that is precious about him. “Someone who needs you too much / someone who knows you too well / someone to get you out of the woods / to put you through hell.” Although it does have a bridge, this song mostly repeats and builds itself as Bobby is encouraged by his friends – unlike a lot of Sondheim’s songs that weave and change. Along the way he offers little dizziness like “someone to fill you with love”. What about this bridge? “Confuse me / laugh at me with praise / let me be used / vary my days”? It’s a particularly effective combination of a big, big moment in a song and a superficially mundane feeling like “vary my days.”


5. “Send the clowns” A little night music

I’ll Die On This Hill: Few songs got a chord as unfair as “Send In The Clowns”. At one point, the combination of the fact that it was a pop hit for Judy Collins and the fact that there were “clowns” in the title made people think it was a tune. cheesy and easy to listen to, when it’s actually – like so much of Sondheim – quietly, memorably devastating. Look for one of Dame Judi Dench’s performances, which brings out the tragedy in this story of two people who fear they’ve missed their moment. The clowns talk about absurdity, silliness, and the images are, over and over again, devastating: “Me here at last on the ground / you in the air.”

6. “May I leave you?” ” Follies

Up there at number 1, when Ari’s note said “guess” is the last line of another Sondheim song, he was talking about “Could I leave you?” Follies is a great one if you like your musicals … well, mad, both in terms of anger and, at times, in terms of frenzied energy.

This particular number allows a woman to finally tell her husband how much she doesn’t love him, but maybe because so many Follies Concerning the scene, it starts off as a much more conventional love song which is, of course, thematically reminiscent of “If Ever I would Leave You” Camelot. It doesn’t end in the same emotional place, let’s say.

7. “Side by side / What would we do without you?” ” Society

Well i told you i love Society. And one of the things I particularly like about it is that while Bobby ultimately seems to see the value of marriage through the eyes of his friends, his friends are not spared in their treatment of their single friend. “extra”.

Sondheim always hides a knife in a cupcake, so of course Bobby sings this very happy “ports in a storm / cozy and cozy” affair about their closeness, then they join in and sing about how much they love him, and soon we we come up with: “Who is a flirt, but never a threat / Reminds us of our birthdays that we always forget?” Bobby is praised for helping with the dishes, never complaining, listening to them complain, keeping their secrets from each other – his friends make up his celibacy even if they worry about it and try to change it.

8. “Forever” In the woods

The genius of In the woods is that the first act is like an ordinary fairy tale with happy endings, and the second act complicates them all: people become unfaithful and get killed and stop loving each other in the same way. “Ever After” is the bridge between these sections, arriving right at the end of the first act, and if you don’t pay too much attention to it, it really seems like kind of a conclusion. In fact, he is explicit on this point: “Trip over, everything is fixed, and not just for today / but for tomorrow and extended, forever.”

Unfortunately, you start to feel that something is wrong. But part of what I love about it is that Sondheim had a way of writing these absolutely evil, almost swaying melodies that I consider Bernadettes – like in “I’m sure only Bernadette Peters can sing that. exactly as it should be. ” And “Ever After” has a bunch of them, mixed in with some playful rhymes that occurred to me when I first saw Hamilton. “I was perfect,” the witch sings, “I had everything but beauty, I had power and a girl like a flower in a tower.”

9. “The song of the jet”, West Side Story

I know, I know, he only wrote the lyrics. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music. And I know sometimes he said he didn’t even like the lyrics. But long before you’re ready for the emotional notes of Society or the second act of In the woods, I listened to the casting album of West Side Story at home without end, without end.

Apparently as a little kid I wasn’t prepared for the themes of resentment and intimacy that populate his other work, but the murder I handled very well. I will always credit my dedication to musical theater in general to those distribution albums I listened to as a kid, long before I knew anything about composers – this one, Annie, A choir line (apparently these themes were just as good?). And while I will never stop appreciating the tragedy and the reach of some of them from an adult perspective, it was children’s music for me.

10. “Finish the hat” Sunday in the park with George

How not to end with Sondheim’s own song about the power and cost of creation? He called his two coffee table lyrics books Finish the hat and See I made a hat. There are some amazing videos of Sondheim teaching young musicians that were shown on TV many years ago, and seeing how he was correcting a breath or the finest point of pronunciation – gently, kindly, but resolutely. – made it clear how serious he was about what he did.

“Finishing the Hat” is a song that features some of his favorite moves, including this little trinket that is repeated when George sings “window”. But more than anything, I consider this song to be the work of an incredibly imposing and incredibly demanding writer, and who saw creativity as something totally absorbing, whether it be the creation of a song, a painting or of a hat.

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