Mar 22, 2020
Today is the 90th birthday of our greatest living composer of Broadway musicals, Stephen Sondheim. His career has spanned the past sixty odd Broadway seasons, during which he wrote or co-wrote many of the most important, influential and successful shows in history.
He collaborated on two classics as lyricist – first with Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story – 1957) and then Jule Styne (Gypsy – 1959), before creating A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, his first work of both music and lyrics. He struggled to find continued success for the rest of the Sixties, producing the admired Anyone Can Whistle, but no real hits.
From 1970 on, he worked with producer Harold Prince on a series of innovative musicals that made him a legend – the hits Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) and the unsuccessful Merrily We Roll Along (1981). With James Lapine as a collaborator, he rebounded with three more classics: Sunday in the Park With George (1984) which won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Into the Woods (1987) and Passion (1994). He wrote the music for two Warren Beatty movies, Reds and Dick Tracey, the latter of which won him an Academy Award.
Since then, he has only sporadically produced new work for the New York stage, most notably Assassins (1990 – Broadway debut 2004). COVID-19 notwithstanding, his musicals West Side Story, Assassins and Company are all expected to be running in New York this season,
In all, Sondheim has won eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy awards, an Oscar and even an Edgar award for Best Mystery Novel for The Last of Sheila, which he co-write with his friend Anthony Perkins.
While Broadway songs have been the basis for the Great American Songbook, Sondheim’s work, save for the omnipresent “Send In the Clowns” has often been overlooked by jazz musicians. He has been accused of failing to write “hummable tunes” and working with harmonies that do not lend themselves to improvisation. Recent recordings of his work by jazz musicians, most notably Cyrille Aimee’s Move On – A Sondheim Adventure in 2019, show that this may well be changing, and we can look forward to more interpretations in the future.
Podcast 733 is my birthday tribute to Stephen Sondheim, featuring jazz versions of some of my favorite Sondheim compositions, including:
Grover Washington, Jr. – “Every Day a Little Death” – A Little Night Music
Melissa Errico – “Children and Art” – Sunday in the Park With George
Sean Jones, Orrins Evans, Luques Curtis, Obed Calvaire - “Not While I’m Around” - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Cyrille Aimee – “With So Little to Be Sure of” - Anyone Can Whistle
Jim Hall – “What Can You Lose?”- Dick Tracey
Sarah Vaughan – “Send In the Clowns” - A Little Night Music
Herbie Hancock – “Color and Light” – Sunday in the Park With George
Dianne Reeves – “I Remember” – Evening Primrose
Trotter Trio – “Broadway Baby” – Follies
Nancy Wilson and Terence Blanchard – “Anyone Can Whistle” – Anyone Can Whistle
Wayne Shorter and Holly Cole – “Losing My Mind” – Follies
Tierney Sutton Band – “Somewhere” – West Side Story