[Originally published April 25, 2014.]
Lists in my favorite Sondheim lyrics.
By Gregory Jacobs-Roseman (Composer-Lyricist)
Like many Musical Theatre artists, I love all things Stephen Sondheim. I discovered his work in middle school, when a music teacher of mine decided to pop in a VHS of Into The Woods (a show I lovingly refer to as “beginner’s Sondheim”) instead of teaching class. I was in awe. The music! The characters! The story! I remember loving the scene in act two when all the characters are gathered onstage together deciding whom to give to the lady giant. I remember thinking how cool it was that the Narrator got pulled into the story. There was something about the very three-dimensional characters in that show that I had never experienced before – having at the time only been exposed to musicals in the vein of Grease and Guys And Dolls (also good shows, but not nearly on the level of Sondheim).
That first exposure to Sondheim set off an all-out obsession. I would fiendishly tear through the showtunes section at Borders Books in Newark, Delaware for any album that had the name Stephen Sondheim on it. I remember listening for the first time to Sunday In The Park With George in my bedroom and thinking I hated it, then playing it again, and again, and again, until I couldn’t stop. I tried to write alternate endings to Sweeney Todd where Johanna was able to discover that Sweeney was her father. In high school, I would blast A Little Night Music in my car on the drives down Paper Mill Road to see my secret boyfriend (if that’s not the gayest thing you’ve ever heard, I’m curious what is).
After that first Into The Woods class, I opened a notebook and attempted to make a list of all the characters in the show. I wanted to see visually on a piece of paper all the people gathered from different stories in one place. I’ve always liked making lists. There’s something about them that for me creates order out of scattered thoughts – and I have a lot of scattered thoughts. But lists can also be used for another purpose: to create truly beautiful and insightful song lyrics. Since Into The Woods is about morals and storytelling, many of the lyrics in the score are what I call “story-songs.” They travel a narrative arc. But another Sondheim show that I’ve loved for years contains a multitude of list songs, and I didn’t realize it until it was pointed out to me.