If you are a fan of Broadway or American popular music, chances are you are familiar with the work of Stephen Sondheim and have one of his songs or musicals that you can easily call to mind. Taken as a whole, Mark Steyn observes in a largely unadmiring chapter on Sondheim in Broadway Babies Say Goodnight that, taken as a whole, Sondheim’s catalogue is a one-man history of American pop and theater music. Today is his seventy-ninth birthday and notice should be taken.
As Mark Steyn recounts in his excellent chapter on Sondheim in Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, Sondheim started his Broadway career with three solid hits, one after another: West Side Story (Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music), Gypsy (Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Jule Styne’s music) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics). They were followed by Anyone Can Whistle, “his first cult flop” (in Mark Steyn’s words).
Mark observes that sometimes it seems that, in an effort to avoid selling out, Sondheim has chosen to play out his career in reverse, starting with popular hits and ending with cult failures. Among the highlights in his long and distinguished career are Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. His one stand-alone hit is “Send In the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, a song Sondheim produced on order from producer Hal Prince in two days.
In the video above, Zero Mostel performs “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing at the 1971 Tony Awards broadcast. It’s a wonderful song that vividly displays Sondheim’s prodigious gifts with words and music. Check it out and don’t stop before Mostel’s enactment of “tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight” at the end of the song.