With composer Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday in March, there have been a great number of articles and programs paying him tribute. So I figured I too should give it a crack.
I began to wonder what I could possibly say about one of the most prolific, legendary writers of my generation that has not already been said by others or by himself.
I think Mr. Sondheim’s life, career and works would be better served by my directing you to read about it in his own words.
“Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes,” was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2010, and draws its title from the lyrics in the American composer’s personal favorite musical, “Sunday in the Park with George,” inspired by the famous Seurat painting on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.
It’s about the composer’s greatest musicals of the period, including “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “Company” and “Sweeney Todd.”
The second book released a year later, “Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany,” is about the musicals and accomplishments not included in the first — “Sunday in the Park,” “Passion,” “Into the Woods,” and lyrics from “Follies” and “A Little Night Music.”
Both books are not only a memoir but are detailed accounts of the creative process for all his works, including self critiques and commentary on other major lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart and his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II.
Sondheim gives an honest and in-depth description of his lyrical technique by stressing the use of the perfect rhyme and syllables, while providing examples of his own initial work and changes.
This is the perfect master class for anyone aspiring to a career in writing lyrics for stage, screen or advertising.
You want more on the personal views and additional insight into his creative process, you can always find it in the numerous documentaries made about his life.
My personal favorite is “Six by Sondheim,” an 2013 HBO production, directed by his frequent collaborator James Lapine.
The organizing thread of this documentary is six signature Sondheim songs.
This excellent production presents not only all of the marvelous stars who performed his music, including Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury and Yvonne DeCarlo, it also focuses on how, during various stages of his life, he encouraged and instructed them how to do their best. Sondheim always relished and loved his role as a teacher.
There is no greater tribute.
With Sondheim reaching 90, music lovers across the country began compiling their lists of his top hits.
I, of course, have mine, but coming from a different angle.
As the former head writer of the Chicago Bar Association’s annual political satire show for many years, my fellow writers and I, who at the time included Len Rubin and the late Phil Citrin, had our personal choice of parodies from the Sondheim collection.
In 1983, after Harold Washington became Chicago’s first black mayor, he and Ald. “Fast Eddie” Vydrolyak became engaged in a skirmish known as Council Wars. We saw a similarity with the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks in “West Side Story.”
So we put together a medley of Sondheim’s lyrics, which became a suite where “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way” became “When you’re with Ed, you’re with Ed all the way.”
“Tonight, Tonight” became Washington supporters singing “Too white. Too white. The council’s been too white,” and Ald. Roman Pucinski — who had begun to waver in his support, received a send up of “A Boy Like That.” “A guy like that, he fired your brother, he lost his job, can’t find another, stick with your own kind.”
“I feel pretty” became “I feel witty” for a local TV commentator.
When Jim Finks was still coach of the failing Bears, he (a la former John Marshall dean John Corkery) sang “Send in the Clowns,” adding “Back came the ball, no one was there.”
When the sanitary district was having a scandal, Jenner & Block’s late John Tucker changed “Everything’s Coming up Roses” to “Everyone’s holding their noses.”
And when the CBA was building its new headquarters, Cliff Berman, who, along with David Miller, would later become head writers, played architect Stanley Tigerman singing “Putting It Together.”
Sometimes, Sondheim’s songs merited multiple applications.
Such was the case when several years after Watergate, Richard Nixon, who emerged as a possible candidate to head Major League Baseball, sang “I’m Still Here.”
So did Bill Clinton following his impeachment, adding the line, “Everyone tried hard to topple us, even my friend Stephanopoulos.”
My personal favorite use of a Sondheim lyric is the one which I have used repeatedly through the years to open a show.
It is from the first musical for which he wrote both words and music — “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” which opened in 1962.
With all due respect, I’d like to close this “tribute” using the final verse of his with some minor changes of my own.
“ … Strike up the band, turn up the light / From our cast of players — governors and mayors / Lots of politicians, filing high positions / Panderers, philanderers, stupidity, cupidity / Mistakes, fakes, hacks, claques, mumblers, grumblers, fumblers, bumblers / No tapes allowed, no photographs / Tonight we play it strictly for laughs / We’ll be sarcastic, iconoclastic / We’re not politically polite, apologies tomorrow, comedy tonight.”
Happy Birthday, Steve.