the very start, Stephen Sondheim’s ambition
was to write his own music and lyrics, but
his first Broadway assignment was to
co-write lyrics with Leonard Bernstein to
Bernstein’s music for “West Side
It was only at the urging of Sondheim’s
mentor, Oscar Hammerstein (of Rodgers &
Hammerstein), that he took the job.
As the work progressed, because of
Bernstein’s heavy conducting schedule and
the fact that Sondheim’s lyrics were
first-rate, Sondheim wound up writing
virtually all of the lyrics.
At the time of the Broadway opening in 1957,
Bernstein graciously offered to take his
name off the lyrics (which Sondheim
gratefully accepted) and give up his
lyricist’s share of the royalties (which
Sondheim foolishly declined).
So let’s look at some clips of “West Side
Story” songs that have become classic
by the original Tony (Larry Kert)
and Maria (Carol Lawrence)
Performed by Johnny Mathis (who had
a big hit with this back in the day)
An interplanetary interpretation by
Barbra Streisand in 1985
From the 1961 movie version of
“West Side Story”
After the success of “West Side Story,”
Sondheim thought he had earned the right to
do both the lyrics AND the music for his
He was so relieved when he was signed to do
both for “Gypsy.”
But there was a hitch.
Ethel Merman was the star.
She had had a bad experience with new
songwriters on her last show, “Happy
She had no intention of working with a
Merman wanted Jule Styne (see Day 13
of the Holiday Advent Calendar) to
do the music.
Sondheim could do just the lyrics -- she
would agree to that.
Sondheim’s inclination was to say
Hammerstein advised him to say “yes.”
"Writing for a star will be invaluable
experience for you," said Hammerstein.
Sondheim agreed, but he wasn’t happy about
The role of Mama Rose is the “King Lear” of
Every musical theater diva wants to play
Even Dolores Umbridge -- Imelda Staunton --
got her chance in London.
Barbra Streisand said she would do a movie
remake of “Gypsy” as recently as 5 years
The one who wanted it the most - but didn’t
get the chance - is Liza Minnelli.
Here’s what we think of as her audition from
30 years ago at Radio City Music Hall:
When “Gypsy” was in rehearsals, Merman took
Styne and Sondheim up to Cole Porter’s
apartment in the Waldorf Astoria
After 20 years of pain and 34 operations,
Porter had finally and very recently had a
leg amputated that had been injured in a
horseback riding accident.
To cheer Porter up, she wanted him to hear
the songs Styne and Sondheim had written for
her. Sondheim recalls Porter sitting
silently through the impromptu recital until
The lyric …
“Wherever I go I know he goes
Wherever I go I know she goes
No fits, no fights, no feuds
And no egos, amigos together”
… made Porter smile and sigh
contentedly. He loved the rhyme of “no
egos” and “amigos.” Sondheim silently
observed it was the kind of rhyme Porter
might have written in his prime.
Here are three prominent troubadours of the
20th century having fun with the song:
So ingrained in the American vernacular is
the phrase “everything’s coming up roses”
that some of you will find it impossible to
believe that prior to “Gypsy,” the phrase
It is totally the invention of
It’s one of the reasons Merman always said
of Sondheim (whom she didn’t like):
“Stevie is very clever.”
By the way, the animus was mutual.
Privately, Sondheim, who had no respect for
Merman as an actress, referred to her as
"the talking dog.”
Here’s Merman near the end of the original
run of “Gypsy,” showing that “clever Stevie”
certainly knew how to write for a star:
Within a dozen years, “Everything’s
Coming Up Roses” was so famous, it
was ripe for satire.
Rita Moreno used to sing it at showbiz
parties, assuming the persona of "Googie
Gomez," bad Latina singer of songs.
Terence McNally incorporated the character
into his play, “The Ritz,” and Moreno won a
Tony Award in the process:
Lyrics AND Music! At last!
In 1962, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way
to the Forum” gave Sondheim the chance to
write complete songs.
Out of town, the show was bombing.
Audiences didn’t know what to make of it -
was it a comedy or what?
Sondheim came up with an opening number -- “Comedy
Tonight” -- that spelled out
exactly what the show was about and what the
audience could expect.
That turned the tide, and then it was on to
a 2+ year run.
The original star was the incomparable Zero
There have been several first-class revivals
of “A Funny Thing ...” through the years,
including one with the equally-incomparable
With some help from Bernadette Peters AND
Liza Minnelli, here’s the same number done
live to open that year’s Tony Awards
Writing both lyrics and music, Sondheim has
only had one gold-plated standard -- "Send
in the Clowns," from 1973’s “A Little Night
As a song, it’s all about the acting of the
words, not so much about the perfect singing
voice. It was performed brilliantly by
Glynis Johns in the original Broadway
Here -- also quite brilliant -- is Dame Judi
From 1981’s commercial failure “Merrily We
Go Along” -- only 16 performances -- come
three songs that are well on their way to
featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda
(post-“In The Heights,” but prior to
Lonny Price singing on
the original Broadway Cast album
from a “Sondheim at 80” celebratory
in England just over a decade ago
Sondheim rarely wrote songs for the movies,
but Warren Beatty corralled him to write 5
songs for Madonna to sing in the movie “Dick
One of them, “Sooner
or Later,” won the Oscar for Best
Here’s Madonna selling it on that year’s
Academy Award telecast -- the year she went
to the Oscars with Michael Jackson as her
Stephen Sondheim wrote dozens of songs for
stage and film.
We haven't even touched on several of our
favorites -- especially songs from:
and "Sunday in the Park with George."
Here is a wondrous video tribute --
featuring wooden dolls -- to serve as a
recap of Sondheim’s amazing Broadway career: