Who The Heck Is Stephen Sondheim?

If you read my interest in my bio, I list musicals as one of them, actually I love musicals so much I might be a bit gay. Its unfortunate we do not get much of that sub-culture being in Asia because musicals are so much fun. The storylines and songs are better because they all have a backdrop. When conversing with friends who also said they love musicals, when I mention Stephen Sondheim, not many would know what he had done.


The first layer of musical 101 would be loving to bits The Sound of Music, The King & I , West Side Story (Bernstein / Laurents) and My Fair Lady. If you did not dig beyond that, you have a whole treasure trove to unearth. The ones behind some of the greatest musicals had to be

Rodgers & Hammerstein:
The King & I
The Sound of Music
Flower Drum Song
South Pacific

Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe:
My Fair Lady

Stephen Sondheim basically was the musical force in the 1970s-2000s, though many would not have the chance to view all his works. His major works include:

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
Sunday In Park With George

His more popular ones:

Sweeney Todd
Into The Woods
A Little Night Music

His music and lyrics were made for the theatre, I don't think he could write a song on its own. He thrives in the story, the settings, the characters, the nuances ... and although his music compositions are sublime, its his lyrics that sets him apart from the humdrum. Musicals usually have a light hearted feel about everything, until he came along and broke the mould. Emotional, cynical, sarcasm, morbidity ... all enveloped with his brilliant comic timing and honing in on the underlying scarred feelings of his characters.

Here, I would like to feature just a few songs from his repertoire:

Send In The Clowns, plenty of people loved the song, but may have misconstrued the deeper meanings to the lyrics. Its not about circus clowns. The lyrics "up in midair" may have misled many thinking there is a trapeze artist about. This is easily Sondheim's best composition, more so for his lyrics. It was from the musical A Little Night Music, another under rated musical. I shall not bore you with the background of what the musical was about. The song is bitterly sad, sung by one who is middle aged, who has had her share of adventure and the good life, and a few relationships. It was unrequited love twice. Once when she was young and wanted to do her stuff, now she is older and knows what she wants, but he is not available anymore. The lyrics are heart wrenching and gut bursting.

Why then send in the clowns? When you are in an intimate conversation with your loved one and things got so awkward, not knowing what else to say and high-strung, you wanted something to fill the dead air, a tension breaker ... so send in the clowns. Which is all the more poignant when Sondheim ended one of the chorus with "don't bother they're here" meaning to mock themselves as the clowns are the two of them in fact. ... and the best versions would be by Bernedette Peters and believe it or not, Judi Dench.

Isn't it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.

Isn't it bliss?
Don't you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can't move.
Where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.

Just when I'd stopped opening doors,
Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again with my usual flair,
Sure of my lines,
No one is there.

Don't you love farce?
My fault I fear.
I thought that you'd want what I want.
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don't bother, they're here.

Isn't it rich?
Isn't it queer,
Losing my timing this late
In my career?
And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.

We have all heard the song Somewhere, a very beautiful soaring heartfelt tune, but the lyrics completes the masterpiece. On its own its a feel good song, but in the context of West Side Story it was the yearning for all the down trodden for a place and time where equality and fairness are for everyone. Guess what, the music was by Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by Sondheim, that was before he embarked on writing full musicals on his own. ... and nobody sings that song better than Barbra Striesand.

There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us

There's a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time to spare,
Time to look, time to care,
We'll find a new way of living,
We'll find a way of forgiving

There's a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we're half way there.
Hold my hand and I'll take you there


This following song was from the morbid Sweeney Todd, yes most would know that movie musical starring Johnny Depp, but it was a huge musical success for Stephen Sondheim. In the musical, the song is sung amidst a lot of killings and cannabalism, Sondheim fleshed out the motivations of two deluded souls who can still be around each other despite them being crazed killers. ... again its Barbra that does it justice.

Nothing's gonna harm you, not while I'm around.
Nothing's gonna harm you, no sir, not while I'm around.

Demons are prowling everywhere, nowadays,
I'll send 'em howling,
I don't care, I got ways.

No one's gonna hurt you,
No one's gonna dare.
Others can desert you,
Not to worry, whistle, I'll be there.

Demons'll charm you with a smile, for a while,
But in time...
Nothing can harm you
Not while I'm around...

Being close and being clever
Ain't like being true
I don't need to,
I would never hide a thing from you,
Like some...

No one's gonna hurt you, no one's gonna dare
Others can desert you,
Not to worry, whistle, I'll be there!
Demons'll charm you with a smile, for a while
But in time...
Nothing can harm you
Not while I'm around...

Lastly, another song from Sweeney Todd, Pretty Women ... combined with The Ladies Who Lunch from the musical Company. Putting the two songs together was a great idea, sung by Barbra again. About pretty women who have too much time on their hands. You get an idea of how brilliant Sondheim is as a lyricist, and the music is spectacular of course. On their own, the songs are very good but they are even more textured when viewed and listened as part of a musical.

Pretty women
Sipping coffee,
Dancing... pretty women
Pretty women
Are a wonder.
Pretty women!

Sitting in the window or
Standing on the stair
Something in them cheers the air.

Pretty women
Stay within you,
Glancing... stay forever,
Breathing lightly...
Pretty women,
Pretty women!

Blowing out their candles or
Combing out their hair,
Even when they leave
They still are there.
They're there

Ah! Pretty women, at their mirrors,
In their gardens,
How they make a man sing!

Proof of heaven as you're living,
Pretty women! Yes, pretty women!
Here's to pretty women,
Pretty women,
Pretty women,
Pretty women

Here's to the ladies who lunch--
Everybody laugh.
Lounging in their caftans
And planning a brunch
On their own behalf.
Off to the gym,
Then to a fitting,
Claiming they're fat.
And looking grim,
'Cause they've been sitting
Choosing a hat.
I'll drink to that.

And here's to the girls who just watch--
Aren't they the best?
When they get depressed
Its a bottle of scotch,
Plus a little jest.
Another chance to disapprove,
Another brilliant zinger,
Another reason not to move
Another vodka stinger

I'll drink to that.

And here's to the girls who play wife--
Aren't they too much?
Keeping house but clutching
A copy of LIFE,
Just to keep in touch.
The ones who follow the rules,
And meet themselves at the schools,
Too busy to know that they're fools.
Aren't they a gem?
I'll drink to them!
Let's all drink to them!

So here's to the girls on the go--
Everybody tries.
Look into their eyes,
And you'll see what they know:
Everybody dies.
A toast to that invincible bunch,
The dinosaurs surviving the crunch.
Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch--
Everybody rise!
Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!


cina.fong said…
Wow a man of many facets you are Mr Dali. 5.40am and I am starring at you. having my bout of insomnia haha...

What about Opera, do you like them they are so beautiful I think. One of my favourite musical is Madam Butterfly so hauntingly tragic and beautiful too. The musical Cats too

Have a good day.
tanhc said…
Dali, for once, you've hit the right note in the right key in your search for pretty women! All those beauties from the big screen...Here's to Hollywood for all these pretty women who rightfully should be gracing Dali's rolling pages! And ooh, how not to get high listening to the unmistakable one and only voice of Barbra Streisand doing more than justice indeed to songs which seemed to have been specially written for her by Stephen Sondheim?
Thank you, and, please sir, can I have more?
Xabi Espara said…

Another Malaysian girl making a wave in US after Zee Avi.
Search for 'Yuna' in youtube and you will be mesmerized by her voice.
Salvatore_Dali said…

You can type in zee avi at the top left of my blog n search for my posting on her... yes she is good, i featured her a year ago.

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