Today is the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim, one of the true legends of musical theater. The composer and lyricist is responsible for many of the most acclaimed theatrical productions of the past six decades. He has won the Pulitzer Prize (for Sunday in the Park With George), an Academy Award (for “Sooner or Later” from Dick Tracy), and a record eight (for a composer) Tony Awards. It’s impossible to imagine the landscape of American musical theater without him.
Here are 10 of our favorite Sondheim performances.
The role of Mama Rose in Gypsy is considered the musical theater equivalent of Hamlet, an Olympian role for any female performer. The character was originated in 1959 by Ethel Merman, who was passed over in favor of Rosalind Russell for the 1962 film version. A creative fan has given us the opportunity to imagine what might have been.
One of the shows most closely identified with Sondheim is 1970’s Company, about a group of married couples who offer advice to their single friend Bobby. Elaine Stritch, another bona fide theater legend, who played Joanne, struggles to get through her trademark number, “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
The rapid patter of the “Getting Married Today” lyrics sung by Amy, the self-destructing bride in Company, is tricky enough to defeat the most accomplished vocalist. Beth Howland, best known as scatterbrained Vera from the 1970s sitcom Alice, originated the character and delivers what is still the definitive version of the difficult number.
“I’m Still Here” from 1971’s Follies is a cultural road map of a musical number that name-checks an array of media darlings, fads, and politicos. It’s been performed by virtually every female entertainer of a certain age. Shirley MacLaine wrings every ounce of “been there, done that, and I’m not going anywhere” attitude she can from the showstopping number in a scene from the 1990 film version of Postcards From the Edge.
“Send in the Clowns” from 1973’s A Little Night Music is one of the most performed songs from the Sondheim canon. It’s been recorded by artists as diverse as Shirley Bassey, Judy Collins, and Barbra Streisand. Elizabeth Taylor performs the reflective ballad in 1977 film version.
Sweeney Todd, the 1979 production about the murderous barber of Fleet Street, features some of the darkest material in any musical. Sondheim’s witty lyrics offer a respite from the carnage. Angela Lansbury performs “The Worst Pies in London” at the Tony Awards in 1980, where she took home the prize for best actress in a musical.
Another of the standards that came from Follies is “Broadway Baby.” The song’s lyrics fit Bernadette Peters, a performer since childhood, to a tee. Peters performs the song at a concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
When Warren Beatty made the film version of the comic strip Dick Tracy in 1990, he enlisted Sondheim to write five songs. Madonna, who played Breathless Mahoney in the film, performs Sondheim’s Oscar-winning “Sooner or Later” at the Academy Awards in 1991.
Neil Patrick Harris and Mario Cantone are among the cast members of the 2004 Broadway production of Sondheim’s Assassins, a review-type show about men and women who have attempted to assassinate presidents of the United States. Here the cast performs “Everybody’s Got the Right” at the 2004 Tony Awards.
Patti LuPone, yet another iconic figure of musical theater, exorcised the ghost of her fabled star-making turn in Evita when she finally tackled Mama Rose in the acclaimed 2008 revival of Gypsy. LuPone won her second Tony for the performance, and here she sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” at the awards broadcast.