By Brian Scott Lipton
In a time where any cause for celebration seems scant, musical theater lovers will still want to throw a “private” party in their homes on Sunday, March 22 to honor the 90th birthday of musical theater’s greatest composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Luckily, other than a couple of party favors and a cupcake, all you really need is access to YouTube, which literally hosts hundreds and hundreds of videos featuring Sondheim’s songs from cast recordings, previous birthday celebrations, cabaret shows and more. The list below is by no means meant to be comprehensive, it’s just some of my favorite renditions of his songs by some of my favorite performers, guaranteed to remind all of us of the man’s unparalleled genius.
Seth Rudetsky Deconstructs Another Hundred People
Talk about two greats for the price of one: The hilarious Seth Rudetsky “deconstructs” one of Sondheim’s trickiest compositions, “Another Hundred People” (from Company), here heard on the show’s Original Broadway Cast recording performed by the woman it was written for: the peerless Pamela Myers.
Andrea Marcovicci and Todd Murray: The Little Things You Do Together
Many cabaret performers have tackled Sondheim works, but this pairing of the peerless Marcovicci and special guest Todd Murray on this comic gem (from Company) — recorded live last June at Marcovicci’s “A Sondheim Evening” at the Gardenia in Los Angeles — is the true definition of a rare treat.
Patti LuPone: Being Alive
If there was no pandemic, we’d all have the joy of hearing the incredible Patti LuPone perform her now-signature tune “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the Broadway revival of Company. This video is no mere consolation prize: her roof-raising, emotionally shattering rendition of another of that show’s classic melodies, “Being Alive,” captured here at Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1990, is nothing short of a master class in musical performance!
Betty Buckley: Children Will Listen
Another unforgettable moment from that unforgettable concert occurred when Tony Award winner Betty Buckley appeared on stage, alongside a children’s choir, to belt out these classic words of wisdom from Into The Woods. (Those of you with kids, please listen carefully to Sondheim’s good advice!)
Barbara Cook: In Buddy’s Eyes
During her lifetime, the late Barbara Cook proved to be one of Sondheim’s greatest interpreters on Broadway and beyond. And this behind-the-scenes and on-the-stage clip of Cook singing the gorgeous “In Buddy’s Eyes” from 1985’s Follies in Concert is something we can always treasure!
Audra McDonald: The Glamorous life
Full disclosure, one of the greatest nights of my life was being present at Sondheim: A Birthday Celebration at Lincoln Center in 2010! And one of the greatest performances of that astonishing evening was McDonald’s almost effortless take on this incredibly difficult and poignant song that Sondheim specifically composed for the young Fredericka in the 1977 film version of A Little Night Music. Hi, ho indeed!
Donna Murphy: Could I Leave You
Had it been on Broadway, City Center Encores! 2007 production of Follies might well have picked up a slew of Tony Awards, including a third trophy for Donna Murphy, whose brilliantly brittle performance as the unhappy socialite Phyllis Rogers Stone was one for the ages. Luckily for us, she re-created her most shining moment in that show, the stinging “Could I Leave You,” in 2010’s Sondheim: A Birthday Celebration.
Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin: Move On
Trust me, you could have a heard pin drop when the original stars of Sunday in the Park With George teamed up again at Sondheim: A Birthday Celebration for this magnificent ballad from the show. (Also full disclosure: it’s my personal favorite Sondheim song.) Now, if we could all “stop worrying” — about everything and anything — wouldn’t that be wonderful!
Simon Russell Beale, Daniel Evans, Julian Overden, Bryn Terfel: Everybody Ought To Have a Maid
The Brits also got into the act for Sondheim’s 80th birthday with a special BBC Proms concert that featured many marvelous performances. But when I want cheering up, listening to this quintessential quartet deliver this ultra-clever patter song from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum never fails to put a smile on my face.
Angela Lansbury and George Hearn: The Worst Pies in London
“Wait, a customer!” My body still fills with delight every time I hear Angela Lansbury utter this seemingly simple line from this delicious ditty from the 1979 Broadway musical Sweeney Todd. It was little wonder Lansbury won her fourth Tony Award for her work as the delightfully ditzy yet devious shop owner Mrs. Lovett. (The clip here comes from a 1982 taped-for-TV production; Lansbury and Hearn toured with the show after she left the Broadway production.)
Lea Salonga: Anyone Can Whistle
Tony winner Lea Salonga is, as her true fans know, so much more than a mere Disney princess: she’s a musical theater queen who makes everything she touches sound better. That’s true once again in this special concert performance where she serves up a gorgeous interpretation of the introspective title tune from Sondheim’s “flop” 1964 musical.
John Barrowman and Ruthie Henshall: Unworthy of Your Love
One of Sondheim’s most melodic tunes was introduced in the Off-Broadway musical Assassins as a duet for would-be Presidential killers John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme. Here, as performed in the Broadway version of the revue Putting It Together, it is reinterpreted by two of the world’s most sublime vocalists as a basically straightforward love song that will have you swooning in your seat.
Regina Resnik: Liaisons
Back in 1990, New York City Opera put on a production of Sondheim’s glorious A Little Night Music that people who were there (like me) still talk about. And there was no greater cause for chatter than the indelible performance by opera legend Regina Resnik of the rueful “Liaisons.” To hear her utter, “not even figs…raisins” was literally worth the price of admission.
Original Broadway Cast: Someone in a Tree
While the musical Pacific Overtures, about Japan’s attempt to fight American trade intervention in the 19th Century, is not one of Sondheim’s most universally-loved creations, Sondheim has repeatedly gone on record to claim this as his all-time favorite song. This unusual clips syncs up visuals from a Japanese production of the show with the audio from the Original Broadway Cast recording.
Judy Kuhn: Loving You
Audiences at Off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company had the true privilege of watching (and hearing) the sterling-voiced Judy Kuhn take on the role of the terminally ill and arguably misunderstood Fosca in Passion. Here, everyone can marvel at her skill singing one of the show’s most moving ballads at WQXR Presents Stephen Sondheim: Live at the Green Space.
BONUS TRACK: Lauren Bacall: The Saga of Lenny
I couldn’t resist including this clip, recorded at a 70th birthday celebration for Sondheim’s good pal and collaborator, Leonard Bernstein, in 1988. Here, Sondheim composed all new — and typically witty — lyrics to the musical theater standard “The Saga of Jenny” (with music by Kurt Weill), and it was performed to sheer perfection by the one-and-only Lauren Bacall. It may really best to watch this one alone so you don’t disturb anyone else with your laughter!