Saturday, November 27, 2021

Weekend Post on Stephen Sondheim

Like everybody, I was devastated to learn yesterday of Stephen Sondheim's death.  He was 91 and active until the end but still!  I've read numerous testimonials that list his many accomplishments in the theatre -- all the awards he's won, etc.  But they all leave out one credit.  This is a re-post from just this January.  Usually I don't re-post anything that recent, but in light of yesterday's passing I thought it would be my way to salute him in a way you won't find elsewhere.  

I should also mention that I had the pleasure of meeting him once.  Just like in TIK...TIK...BOOM!, he attended a workshop of a musical I was involved with in 2004 and 2005.  It was a Sunday afternoon in the black box theatre of a New York performance school, on the fifth or sixth floor of a building in lower Manhattan.  I just met him.  My daughter, Annie, was lucky enough to sit next to him for the performance.  Talk about a memory.  

Anyway, here's that post.  Hopefully it introduces you to a different side of the man and an even greater appreciation of his talent... if that's even possible.   RIP Stephen Sondheim.  The WORLD loves you. 

 In 1953 a new sitcom premiered called TOPPER.  It was based on the movie TOPPER (which was based on a book) about a stuffy buttoned-down banker haunted by two carefree ghosts.  Cary Grant and Constance Bennett played the ghostly couple.   On TV the hot couple was played by Anne Jeffreys & Robert Sterling, and Leo G. Carroll (Mr. Waverly from THE MAN FROM UNCLE) played Cosmo Topper.  

One of the writers was a 23 year-old kid named Stephen Sondheim.  

He showed a lot of promise.  Wrote eleven episodes.  And they're among the best. But he gave up comedy writing to go into song writing.  Pity.  He could have had a very successful career. 

But seriously, how does Stephen Sondheim wind up in Los Angeles writing for TOPPER?   His mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II introduced him to George Oppenheimer, a playwright and screenwriter.  Oppenheimer had been hired to write TOPPER and wanted someone to help him shoulder the load.  

Sondheim got the job although he had never written a professional script.  He moved out to LA and was paid $300 a week.  Once he had saved enough money to rent an apartment in New York he left.  

The rest of course is history.  But for one brief moment Sondheim was slumming as a sitcom writer.  He went on to become one of the greatest Broadway composers of all-time.  And me, I'm singing, "I'm still here."  



15-Seconds said...

My favorite cast member of the TV Topper was the St Bernard. On the show he was called "Neil" but his real name was Buck. No word on whether he went into songwriting after the run of the run.

Lemuel said...

Check out Elaine Stritch's "Ladies Who Lunch" from 1971

Charles Bryan said...

We feel the loss because of how much we gained. There are people who know songs by Sondheim who don't even know that they're songs by Sondheim. So many lives, so many careers, touched and enriched by him.

Craig Gustafson said...

When the cast album for "Assassins" was released, I went to every theater I know, trying to be the first one in Illinois to direct it. No takers. So I planned an evening where I staged scenes from the show, in order to drum up interest. My favorite song in the show, "The Gun Song," was not included in the vocal selections book, and the full score hadn't yet been published.

As always, operating under "all they can say is no," I wrote to Stephen Sondheim, explaining my plan and asking if there was some secret place from which I could get "The Gun Song."

Sondheim wrote back immediately, saying that the plan would need to be approved by MTI (his licensers), but he told me who to contact and gave me permission to say I had his blessing.

He had also xeroxed and sent me his own copy of "The Gun Song."

Darwin's Ghost said...

I wonder if Spielberg screened his new West Side Story for him.

I imagine the film will now be dedicated to him in the credits.

Bill Prady said...

Jon Stone, a fellow writer on Topper and later the Emmy-winning director of Sesame Street would tell the story of Sondheim coming to him for advice on an opportunity.

"Listen Steve," Jon reports himself as having said, "you have a good job here at Topper and no one is going to want to see a musical about gangs."

Joe said...

Rest in peace, Mr. Sondheim. Thanks for all the amazing shows.

Meanwhile, this tweet hits a lot of buttons for Ken.

Michael said...

Charles Bryan said it better than anyone except Sondheim could have said it.

One of the great nights I had was when he and Frank Rich were doing a tour where they would have a conversation about his career, and someone asked what he learned from working with Leonard Bernstein. He said he learned how to drink booze while writing. The audience was hysterical.

D, McEwan said...

"Darwin's Ghost said...
I wonder if Spielberg screened his new West Side Story for him."

Sondheim DID see the new Spielberg West Side Story. Here's what he said about it: “It’s really terrific. Everybody go. You’ll really have a good time. And for those of you who know the show, there’s going to be some real surprises.”

Topper was perhaps the first sitcom I ever loved, back even before I started school. I used to pretend I was a ghost haunting my own home. (Also, I would sometimes ignore my parents orders, and when called on it, I would say, "I can't see you or hear you. Only Topper can see or hear you." This didn't sit well with Mother.) Years and years later, I read the books (There are two, Topper and Topper Takes a Trip, both written by Thorne Smith), and loved them as well. Topper sits still on my bookshelves, next to two other hilarious novels by Thorne Smith, Nightlife of the Gods (Which contains a scene in which the ancient Greek Gods stand around a 1920s Manhattan fish stall and slap each other with fish, which may be the funniest four pages I have ever read) and Turnabout.

If you love Topper in any of his incarnations, read the books, which are funnier and more ribald than any of the TV or movie versions. Then read the rest of Thorne Smith, a nearly-forgotten great comic novelist, the pre-Patrick-Dennis Patrick Dennis. There's always a fantasy element, always a LOT of drinking (He wrote his core works during prohibition), always very ribald (Hal Roach's films of Smith novels couldn't approach how bawdy the books are. In Nightlife of the Gods, a major character is a very horny, foul-mouthed, female leprechaun endlessly determined to get into the pants of an inventor), and always, always, always very funny.

Sondheim wrote my favorite musical of all, Sweeney Todd. He was high on my list of idols.

A few years back I collaborated with a song writer friend on a musical, I devised the story and was writing the book. The project fell apart for various reasons, most of them my fault. My collaborator was being mentored by Sondheim. I'd get notes from Charlie that contained phrases like "Steve really likes the title," or "Steve had this suggestion." I asked who "Steve" was, and Charlie said, "Sondheim, of course." He was showing my first drafts to Sondheim. I freaked. It was nice to have a compliment or a useful suggestion delivered second-hand from Sondheim, but it also just froze me. I'd only want Sondheim to see finished, polished work. I began obsessing about Sondheim's reactions in advance. "Will 'Steve' like this, or that?" I was second-guessing myself, because I just wasn't prepared to have such an idol looking at my first drafts and my outlines. It contributed to the project breaking down, because feeling Sondheim looking over my shoulder 3000 miles away as I wrote was paralyzing me. It would be like trying to write a play with Shakespeare looking at your first drafts.

Fred said...

Craig Gustafson
“When the cast album for "Assassins" was released, I went to every theater I know, trying to be the first one in Illinois to direct it.”

• The team of Sondheim Weidman and Prince brought Bounce to the Goodman in 2003,
with a cast including Jane Powell and Richard Kind (the latter of whom just re-united with Mr Sondheim in “Tick, Tick... Boom!”)

• I wound up seeing Bounce five times — box seats, at about ~$25.00 (!!) a ticket.
After one late-in-the-run performance, the cast and creators visited in the lobby, and I gifted — if that’s the verb — Mr Sondheim with a McFarland* doorstop/hardback I’d purchased just that day:
Danny O Crew—“Presidential Sheet Music : An Illustrated Catalogue of Published Music Associated with the American Presidency and Those Who Sought the Office” (2003)

• Among the book’s catalogued tunes are markedly different songs by Irving Berlin (from “Mr President”) and Mr Sondheim (from “Assassins”) .... JFK (boredom?) and HST (appendicitis) both left “Mr President” at intermission. Though President Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to Mr Sondheim, it is doubtful he or any of his predecessors ever saw a minute of “Assassins.” Alas, the show was never booked at Ford’s Theatre in the Maga era.

* McFarland & Co side-specializes in high priced show biz and sports books presumably rejected by the larger publishers. For instance, one of their (seldom-deleted) volumes is devoted to Hillbilly Silents (titled, more precisely “Southern Mountaineers in Silent Films: Plot Synopses of Movies about Moonshining, Feuding, and Other Mountain Topics, 1904-1929”)

Leighton said...

I've always enjoyed "Evening Primrose,"...Twilight Zone Sondheim. 1966 made-for-TV ABC film - "ABC Stage 67." It aired in color, but only black and white prints survive. It was about an hour long.

Here is an article from NPR:

A pristine black and white print has been transferred to DVD, but YouTube only has an older, flawed full transfer (that I can find). However, you can find individual musical numbers online, from the DVD.

"Take Me to the World"..."I Remember"

Sue T. said...

Leighton -

A BW print of "Evening Primrose" is posted at Except for the added Russian subtitles, it appears to be the original full-length TV broadcast.

Al in PDX said...

Could one of the Monty Python crew have read "Nightlife of the Gods" before coming up with the Fish Slap Dance sketch?

ByKenLevineFan said...

Been trying to figure out where to post this... Here seems like a good place.

RIP Steve: "Here's to you, who's like you, damn few..."

[It's a paraphrase of a quote from Merrily We Roll Along, for the non-geeks among the commenters here.]

estiv said...

Sondheim also has a co-writing credit for the movie The Last Of Sheila from 1973. Like his songs, the level of craft in the screenplay is striking compared to most other work you'll find.

Ben K. said...

Growing up in the suburban Midwest, I had an excellent musical-theater teacher who taught us multiple Sondheim works (his actual shows were generally considered too "racy" to be performed at our school). And I can still recall that many of the musical numbers on the old "Carol Burnett Show" were from his shows. Then I was lucky enough to see "Sweeney Todd" and "Sunday in the Park With George" on Broadway with their original casts -- experiences I'll never forget. BTW, I recommend that anyone who's interested in the creative process should read Sondheim's books on writing lyrics, "Finishing the Hat" and "Look, I Made a Hat."

Leighton said...

@ Sue

Link didn't work for me...but, but thanks.

Rick Whelan said...

I’ve been watching a bunch of Youtube interviews with Sondheim. He said some very strange things … like in one from the NY Times, he said that when he listens to West Side Story now he is embarrassed! What??? He went on to say that he and Bernstein kept arguing about the lyrics. Leonard wanted Sondheim to make them beautiful, artful poetry and Stephen kept saying “These are New York street gangs …. they don’t say things like “I feel pretty. Oh so Pretty. It’s a pity how pretty I feel!” Wow! Wish I could be fly on the wall for some of those conversations.

Diane KH said...

I often listen to Sondheim's anthem of survival, "I'm Still Here" to deal with the follies of life. It's such bitter irony that I can't bring myself to listen to it to deal with the folly of death. I'm still here, but life, like the lights of Broadway, has become dimmer.

Spike de Beauvoir said...

Thanks for this great comment. I'm also a fan of Thorne Smith's Night Life of the Gods, it's sort of rambling and nutty with lots of unexpected twists. The inventor and 900-year-old leprechaun are the oddest couple but their antics drive the story. I haven't had a chance to see the movie, I think it stars Alan Mowbray. Thorne's The Passionate Witch inspired Rene Clair's I Married a Witch, which is also the uncredited forerunner of Bewitched.

The first season of Topper is streaming free on Tubi.

Spike de Beauvoir said...

The only biography to date of Warren William, "Magnificent Scoundrel," was published by McFarland a few years ago and seems to still be in print. I highly recommend the book, it's a solid overview of the life and career of this fabulous and practically forgotten star. His best work was in the precodes, especially Employees' Entrance and Skyscraper Souls, but I also really enjoy his minor efforts in B-movie series like The Lone Wolf and Perry Mason.

Spike de Beauvoir said...

I loved this quote from Sondheim in the Hollywood Reporter obit:

He once said, “When I write words, I’m very careful. When you write lyrics, there are so few lyrics in the song, so few words … in a lyric, each one has enormous weight. You know, a line in a song is like a scene in a play.”

Spike de Beauvoir said...

Diane KH: Have you seen Albert Brooks's Defending Your Life? It always gives me a soulful boost if I'm in a dark place.

Here's a list of some "death positive" songs, but my personal favorite is Louis Armstrong's "I'll be glad when you're dead you rascal you" (there's a film clip on YouTube with Louis and dancer Velma Middleton).

ScarletNumber said...

I knew Leo G. Carrol was over a barrel when Tarantula took to the hills