MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”
Welcome to Afterglow, [a show of vocal jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook], I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
Few people had as much influence on the Broadway musical as the late great composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim [who passed away last November at age 91]. From his early start writing lyrics to West Side Story, to his heights with shows like Company and Sunday In The Park With George, Sondheim’s contributions to the stage were among the most innovative, musically creative, and intellectually stimulating as anything that Broadway has seen. But what about off the stage? This hour, I’ll explore Sondheim songs not in the context of a musical, but rather as interpreted by the great jazz and pop singers of the American Songbook.
It’s The Artistry Of Stephen Sondheim, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - DIANNE REEVES, “I REMEMBER SKY”
The Stephen Sondheim song “I Remember Sky,” recorded there by jazz singer Dianne Reeves in 1991 on her Blue Note album I Remember. That Sondheim song originally comes from one of his most curious projects, a 1966 television musical which aired on ABC called Evening Primrose. The musical was about a man (played by Anthony Perkins) who breaks into a department store after hours and falls in love with a mysterious young woman (played by Charmian Carr), who turns out to be a mannequin come to life.
MUSIC CLIP - BILL CHARLAP TRIO, “COOL”
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re saluting the songs of the great theatre composer Stephen Sondheim [who passed away at age 91 at the end of November 2021], by looking at some interpretations of his music off the stage.
There’s hardly a composer who elevated and transformed the Broadway stage more than Stephen Sondheim. In fact, the only other person who can probably lay claim to shaping the American musical in such a transformative way was Oscar Hammerstein II, who just so happened to be Sondheim’s mentor.
Sondheim grew up as a precocious and musically-talented child in a middle class household in New York City. He eventually moved to Pennsylvania, where he attended a prep school, and befriended a boy named James Hammerstein, the son of famed Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. When he was 15 years old, Sondheim wrote a musical for a school production, and brought it to his friend’s father for notes. He wanted some real objective criticism. So, Hammerstein told him, objectively, it was the worst thing he ever read, and then proceeded to give him detailed instructions on how to improve it. Sondheim later recalled, quote, “I guess I learned most of the things about writing lyrics in that afternoon: 25 years of experience crammed into three hours” (end quote).
He continued to serve as Hammerstein’s protege for the next several years, writing new material for him to critique, attending rehearsals and acting as a production assistant on musicals like South Pacific and The King and I. Meanwhile, he continued his music studies, studying with noted classical composer Milton Babbitt. In 1953, at age 23, he wrote his first professional musical called Saturday Night, which never made it to Broadway, but did manage to attract the attention of others in the business.
One of those was Arthur Laurents, who was working on a new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with composer Leonard Bernstein. Their preferred lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, were unavailable, and Laurents was impressed enough with Saturday Night that he decided to take a chance on the young songwriter. Sondheim, who was interested in writing music and lyrics, was reluctant, but Hammerstein encouraged him, given the rare opportunity it afforded someone so young.
MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “I FEEL PRETTY”
The result was West Side Story, one of the landmark works of American musical theatre, and it was released to critical acclaim in 1957, when Stephen Sondheim was only 27 years old. Almost every song from the show is memorable— “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “Maria,” “America,” “Cool” — interpreted countless times over the years by countless artists. Let’s hear one of those memorable songs now.
This is Nancy Wilson in 1963 from the album Broadway - My Way, with the Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim song “Tonight,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - NANCY WILSON, “TONIGHT”
Nancy Wilson in 1963 with “Tonight,” written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim for the 1957 musical West Side Story.
After the success of West Side Story, author Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins approached Stephen Sondheim again to help him work on a new musical about the life of notorious stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Sondheim agreed, thinking that this would be his opportunity to finally write both music and lyrics to a show. However, when Broadway legend Ethel Merman signed onto the production to play the role of Gypsy’s mother Mama Rose, she insisted on working with a more experienced composer. So again, Sondheim was tasked with writing lyrics, this time to the music of veteran composer Jule Styne.
Gypsy was another major success, the second smash hit for Sondheim before his 30th birthday. Memorable songs from this show include “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “All I Need Is The Girl,” “Small World,” “Together (Wherever We Go),” and “Let Me Entertain You.” Let’s hear one of those now.
This is Tony Bennett in 1962 performing with pianist Dave Brubeck at the White House, with the Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim song “Small World,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - TONY BENNETT AND DAVE BRUBECK, “SMALL WORLD”
Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck, live at the White House in 1962 with the song “Small World,” written by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim in 1959 for the Broadway musical Gypsy.
MUSIC CLIP - ROLAND HANNA, “COMEDY TONIGHT”
In 1960, Stephen Sondheim’s mentor Oscar Hammerstein passed away. It was at this moment that the 30-year-old finally emerged from under the shadow of the previous generation of the “Steins” (Hammerstein, Bernstein, and Jule Styne) to develop his own independent voice as a composer. In 1962, he opened his first Broadway musical where he wrote both the words and music, called A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. The show, developed with writer Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbert, was based on the farces of ancient Roman Plautus. It starred Zero Mostel in the lead role, and became a smashing success, earning Sondheim his first Tony Award for Best Musical.
The most well-known song from the show is likely “Comedy Tonight,” the opening number (although not one that shows up often on jazz and pop records).. But I’m going to play for you now another song written for the show that’s been recorded a handful of times. In fact, this song was the original opening number, but was later cut from the show in favor of “Comedy Tonight.”
Here is the husband and wife jazz duo Jackie and Roy (Jackie Cain and Roy Kral) live at Michael’s Pub in New York City in 1982, recorded for their all-Sondheim album simply titled Sondheim. This is “Love Is In The Air,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - JACKIE AND ROY, “LOVE IS IN THE AIR”
MUSIC - PEGGY LEE, “DO I HEAR A WALTZ”
Peggy Lee in 1968 off of the 2010 reissue of her live album Two Shows Nightly. That was the song “Do I Hear A Waltz,” the title song of the 1965 musical of the same name, written by Stephen Sondheim with composer Richard Rodgers, an unsuccessful venture for both gentlemen. Before that, another live recording, this one from 1982 on the album titled Sondheim by the duo Jackie and Roy. That was “Love Is In The Air,” originally written for (and subsequently removed from) Sondheim’s 1962 musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.
The musical Do I Hear A Waltz was just one of the many flops for Sondheim in the mid-1960s. He started out strong out of the gate with West Side Story, Gypsy, and A Funny Thing Happened—three absolute legendary shows. But his Anyone Can Whistle from 1964, Do I Hear A Waltz from 1965, and the television musical Evening Primrose from 1966 never caught on with audiences in the same way.
After a four-year hiatus and a couple of false starts (including a failed musical with Leonard Bernstein), Sondheim returned to the stage in 1970 for a show that would elevate the Broadway musical once again. It was called Company, a concept musical about marriage and relationships, centering around a single man Bobby, his married friends, and his love interests. The show kicked off a series of creative successes for Sondheim with director and producer Harold Prince, and earned Sondheim another Tony Award for best musical.
The cast album is fantastic—featuring killer performances from stars Elaine Stritch and Dean Jones, the recording of which was captured in a famous D.A. Pennebaker documentary. But let’s hear one of the highlights from the show, the song “Being Alive,” a final act revelation for Bobby as he begins to understand the meaning of love and commitment.
This is Tony Bennett in 2004 from his album The Art Of Romance with Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - TONY BENNETT, “BEING ALIVE”
Tony Bennett in 2004 with the Stephen Sondheim song “Being Alive,” a showstopper from Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company.
MUSIC CLIP - J.J. JOHNSON, “LOVELY”
Coming up in just a moment, we’ll hear more songs written by the great Stephen Sondheim. Stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow
MUSIC CLIP - DAVE BRUBECK, “SOMEWHERE”
MUSIC CLIP - MARIAN MCPARTLAND, “SEND IN THE CLOWNS”
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring the songs of Stephen Sondheim this hour, as interpreted by the great jazz and pop singers. [Sondheim passed away at age 91 in November of last year, after an incredible Broadway career.]
In the 1970s, Sondheim continued to make a string of successes with director and producer Hal Prince, including Follies in 1971 and A Little Night Music in 1973. Follies used Broadway’s past as its inspiration, a story of rekindling old flames as told through a Ziegfeld Follies-type stage revue. A Little Night Music was inspired by an Ingmar Bergman film, and also deals with the complex love lives of its characters, all set to the light, 3/4 lilt of waltz time. Both shows earned Sondheim a Tony Award for Best Original Score (his third in a row, including Company), and A Little Night Music produced Sondheim’s most beloved song and his first true pop standard.
“Send In The Clowns,” a lamenting ballad sung from the perspective of an older woman, regretting past mistakes, and looking at her current love life as the stuff of farce, became a classic not long after the show premiered. It’s one of Sondheim’s most austere melodies. Cabaret singer Bobby Short made it part of his live set in 1973, where it was heard and then recorded by Frank Sinatra, who helped solidify it as a genuine hit, even earning Sondheim a Grammy for “Song Of The Year” in 1976.
This is Frank Sinatra in 1973 from his album Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back with the Stephen Sondheim song “Send In The Clowns,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “SEND IN THE CLOWNS”
MUSIC - LEA DELARIA, “LOSING MY MIND”
Singer and actor Lea DeLaria in 2001 from her album Play It Cool, with the song “Losing My Mind,” originally from the 1971 Stephen Sondheim musical Follies. Before that, Frank Sinatra in 1973 with Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns” from the 1973 show A Little Night Music.
Stephen Sondheim’s next musical, Pacific Overtures from 1976, was an attempt to marry the Broadway stage with elements of Japanese Kabuki Theatre, and was met with mixed reviews and an apathetic audience. In 1979, Sondheim and director Hal Prince found more success by turning from 19th-century Japan to 19th-century London, telling the horror story of the so-called “demon barber of Fleet Street” Sweeney Todd and his penchant for slitting the throats of his customers. The musical Sweeney Todd was another Tony-Award winner, and created a new raft of memorable songs. Let’s hear one now, one of the few touching ballads from the show, from act II.
This is Kurt Elling, also from 2001, on his album Flirting With Twilight, and the Sondheim song “Not While I’m Around,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - KURT ELLING, “NOT WHILE I’M AROUND”
Kurt Elling in 2001 from his album Flirting With Twilight and the song “Not While I’m Around,” written by Stephen Sondheim for the 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Stephen Sondheim continued to have various levels of critical success in the 1980s and 90s, but rarely felt the same level of commercial success he had in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1988, he won the Tony Award for Best Original Score for Into The Woods, an imaginative retelling of Brothers Grimm fairy tales. In 1994, he won the Tony for Best Original Score AND Best Musical for Passion, a show that yet again delved deep into the complex romantic lives of individuals. And in 1985, his musical about French pointillist painter George Seurat, Sunday In The Park With George, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
I’ll play a few reinterpretations of songs from a few of those shows now. First, this is singer Holly Cole and her trio along with guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves in 1995, off the compilation album titled Color And Light: Jazz Sketches On Sondheim. From the musical Sunday In The Park With George, this is the tune “Children and Art,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - HOLLY COLE TRIO, “CHILDREN AND ART”
MUSIC - CYRILLE AIMEE, “LOVING YOU”
Singer Cyrille Aimee in 2019 from her album Move On: A Sondheim Adventure. That was the Stephen Sondheim tune “Loving You,” from the 1994 musical Passion. Before that, the Holly Cole Trio in 1995 with “Children And Art,” from the 1985 Sondheim musical Sunday In The Park With George.
Stephen Sondheim, who passed away at age 91 in November 2021, left behind dozens of songs over the course of his decades long career, each of which grapples with some of the complexities of the human experience. His songbook is a rich and complex text, often overlooked by jazz and pop artists for the musical and emotional challenges that lie within. It’s fertile ground for singers who are up to such a challenge.
However, many would argue that the best interpretations of Sondheim songs come from those stage actors who flew in Sondheim’s orbit. So to close off this hour, I’ll feature a version of a Sondheim song sung by one of Sondheim’s favorite interpreters, on her 1996 solo album I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.
This is singer Bernadette Peters with a Sondheim song from the 1988 musical Into The Woods called “No One Is Alone,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BERNADETTE PETERS, “NO ONE IS ALONE”
Thanks for tuning in to this edition of Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - GEORGE SHEARING, “ANYONE CAN WHISTLE”
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow.