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Living with an aspiring musical theater actress for six years gave me a basic understanding of Steven Sondheim and his incredible music. And if you don’t know the name Sondheim, you do definitely know his music. He’s worked on some of the biggest and most critically acclaimed musical productions on the stage and screen in the past fifty years. Opening with his work on West Side Story, which I didn’t even realize he wrote the lyrics for, we get a walk through his career as told by him now, in previous interviews dating back to the ’60s and through clips of his six biggest tracks.

The six songs spotlighted:

“Something’s Coming” from West Side Story

While growing up with Oscar Hammerstein II as a mentor, it’s no wonder Sondheim has had such success in this world. While his first big break was on the now classic West Side Story, it was anything but a dream project at the time. He was hired on as just a lyricist and barely got any credit under Leonard Bernstein. None of the reviews mentioned him, though he was crucial to the play and played a pivotal role in brainstorming “Something’s Coming that helps to introduce the male lead. After the reviews largely ignored his role, Bernstein offered to update the writing credits so he was the sole lyricist. He even offered to change the royalties, but Sondheim naively passed on that offer.

“Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along

The most autobiographical piece he’s ever written, it follows three writers as they try to break in to the big time. The highlight of the segment is the performance from Darren Criss (Glee), America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) and Jeremy Jordan (Smash).

“Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music

This may be the biggest song of his career, and yet I had not really listend to it before. To highlight just how many times it’s been covered over the years and by such huge stars, the use a YouTube style montage with each star getting one line. While it was originally written as a quick scene for Glynis Johns’ (Mary Poppins) breathy voice, it’s impressive to see the variations in how other musicians cover it.

“I’m Still Here” from Follies

Showing that sometimes inspiration and your biggest successes can come from unlikely places, this track was written as a throwaway song to appease a movie star in a production. He originally wrote “Oh Boy, Can That BoyFoxtrot!” but it was a one-note joke that quickly wore out its welcome. With lyrics specifically inspired by Hollywood legend Joan Crawford. The performance segment for this song is sadly the weakest of the bunch, featuring Jarvis Cocker of the rock band Pulp in a new segment directed by Todd Haynes. While a great singer, the song sounds out of sorts with Cocker’s voice as compared to the stage version.

“Being Alive” from Company

This is the song that I most recognized of the six and it was a treat to see Dean Jones, the star of the original Broadway production, performs“Being Alive” in an excerpt from the classic documentary “Company: Original Cast Album,” directed by D.A. Pennebaker. It makes me want to track down the documentary in full to see more.

“Sunday” from Sunday in the Park With George

With a career spanning over 50 years, it’s interesting to hear that this show is the one he loves the most. A project that came about after his first failure, it was never intended for broadway. He worked on it off-broadway with friends, inspired by Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” this certainly seemed like a niche, passion projecat the time.  For this song in particular, it was interesting to hear insight in to how he went about crafing songs. Since the painting’s subjects must have never known they were going to be immortalized, he went with an “almost funereal” beat that becomes a triumphant march and builds to the word “forever.”

Hearing one of the musical theater masters talk through his process, his influences, and his work is incredible. He’s so well-spoken and eloquent, he provides true insight into his music.


HBO playdates: Dec. 12 (9:30 a.m., 6:30 p.m.), 15 (11:45 a.m.), 17 (12:30 a.m.), 20 (10:45 a.m.) and 28 (2:00 p.m.)

HBO2 playdates: Dec. 11 (8:00 p.m.), 23 (10:15 a.m.) and 26 (6:05 p.m.)

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The Author

Kristal Bailey

Kristal Bailey

With a soft spot for movies that fall into the “So Bad They’re Good” category, Kristal Bailey regularly watches B-movies, 80s comedies, and sci-fi from the 50s and 60s. She also refuses to grow up if that means she has to hide her love for Disney and Pixar films.

In her free time, she enjoys reading graphic novels or books that are soon to be turned into movies, watching hours and hours of television, and spending way too much time on Twitter.