This most interesting list of songs Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim wishes he wrote himself (at least in part), originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2000 and was a fascinating sidebar to a Frank Rich piece honoring the composer on his 70th birthday.  I only wish that Sondheim had elaborated and expressed why he made these choices.  In some cases, it is fairly obvious as these song selections reflect—to use Mr. Rich’s word,”Sondheimesque” qualities.  To drill down further, why does the mystery-loving maestro’s specifically make the cryptic reference “at least in part,” without getting specific as to which part of the song he wishes he wrote.  With Sondheim it is always puzzles and games.

In the spirit of both encouraging the American Popular Songbook to continue to flourish and with an interest in illuminating the artistry of inarguably our greatest living musical theater composer, I decided to expand upon Mr. Sondheim’s ideas.  The embedded recordings are Stargayzing additions.  All of the commentary is mine; only the song choices themselves come from the venerable Mr. Sondheim.  I learned many new songs I had never heard from researching this piece.

I hope you will too, and please be sure to let me know which version of these songs is your favorite (in many cases, there were so many great recordings).

Sondheim piano

Sondheim photographed in New York: Piotr Redlinski/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

SONGS I WISH I’D WRITTEN

(AT LEAST IN PART)

By Stephen Sondheim 

Sondheim compiled this list, organized by composer, of art songs, Hollywood standards and show tunes for a Library of Congress concert in his honor on May 22. Among the particularly Sondheimesque choices are those from Kelly, We Take the Town and The Yearling, all big-time theatrical fiascoes.

Ager, Milton

“Hard Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah” (1924)

lyrics by Jack Yellen, Bob Bigelow, Charles Bates.

"Hard Hearted Hannah" sheet music

This is Patti Austin’s recording from her 2002 Ella Fitzgerald tribute CD For Ella.

 

[the rest of Mr. Sondhiem's list after the jump] (more…)

May 17 marks three years since Donna Summer died unexpectedly, having kept her illness a secret to even those she regarded as close friends. Though her passing was widely reported at the time, the coverage was limited in scope, as so much of it boxed in one of our most virtuosic vocalists as the “Queen of Disco,” essentially burying her with a mirrored ball tied to her feet (which she would have loathed).  I was troubled that so many of the obituaries were dry, fact-based lists of her accomplishments, wholly lacking in heart, failing to convey the true measure of her spirit or cultural impact. I knew Donna and worked with her over the years. On this anniversary, I want to share my feelings about her in a way that more vividly and emotionally reflects her legacy.

My first memories of meeting Donna have the dreamlike quality of one of her 20-minute musical suites. It was 1989, a good year for Donna Summer, who had just scored her first huge hit in several years with “This Time I Know It’s For Real,” a worldwide, multi-format success. I knew the chart positions in every country because at the time I worked as an assistant to the head of public relations at Warner Music International, Donna’s label. One of the best parts of my job was to occasionally look after artists while they were in New York for promotion. With Donna, this never felt like work because she and her husband Bruce Sudano were real people: down-to-earth and kind.

One afternoon my boss was busy and asked me to accompany Donna and Bruce to the Roseland Ballroom for a radio show soundcheck. This was what was referred to as a “track date,” meaning that Donna would be singing live to a pre-recorded track to promote the album Another Place and Time. That was the first time I heard Donna Summer’s voice live, and it was a musical moment that still produces intense euphoric recall. Donna was fairly unassuming, and hadn’t been noticed much amidst the environment of chaos that filled the room. And then she began to sing.

The track for “Love’s About to Change My Heart,” the album’s second single, began with a hallmark Donna Summer-ballad intro. At first, her voice was lost amidst the ballroom’s din: “I never needed someone/Cause I always led a life of my own.” By the third line, I noticed the energy began to change, heads whipped around, immediately identifying the unmistakable sound of Donna Summer. The song continued, building, growing, Donna standing with one hand on her hip, casual, in jeans with a big hat, big smile, and that sound just emerging from her body with seeming effortlessness.

The room had become hushed, the rapt silence creating an atmosphere of reverence and respect. She gave hand signals to the sound guy to adjust her levels: a secret language. The rest of us just stood and listened, rather stunned. “How does a person even do this?” I remember thinking. The voice: clear, brilliant, throbbing, thrilling. By the time the song’s rhythm track kicked in, a group of disparate people, many technicians (who generally don’t give a shit) had become a Donna Summer audience.

At the song’s crescendo, each note moving up a half-tone on the scale, until it reaches the payoff, the money note: “Love’s about to change, change, change, my… heart.” I looked at Donna’s face, which seemed to say, “Nothing to it,” but to the listener it was everything; the moment was sublime, the essence of Donna Summer’s artistry. She sang like Fred Astaire danced.

[More memories of Donna after the jump]

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In the early-1970s, my parents split up and my mom quickly reinvented herself as an Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore-style feminist.  No longer satisfied with the limitations of 1950s-era definitions of women’s sex roles, my mother pushed back: cooking and cleaning were out and the full-time pursuit of her dream of become a psychologist were in (along with a subscription to Ms. and a National Organization of Woman t-shirt).  To memorialize her commitment mom adapted a now-iconic women’s lib poster illustrated by “Virtue Hathaway” (real name: Shirley Boccaccio) into a needlepoint.  The poster depicted an ethereal-looking woman with a broken broomstick below the words “Fuck Housework” in a bold, Old English font.  Though she simplified the design by eliminating the woman and retaining the broom and the text, mom still made her statement effectively, especially when she hung the finished piece in the seldom-used dining room, the erstwhile location of our family dinners from when we used to have a family.

Shirley Boccacio, Virtue Hathaway, "Fuck Housework" poster

This special 1970s edition of the “Best Songs to Listen to While Dusting” immediately suggested the memory of my mother’s feminist needlework period.  Although her original creation disappeared at some point, I was thrilled to learn that the original poster is still available through the mail from the artist herself.  Upon this discovery, I dispatched a check immediately and was rewarded a few weeks later with my own “Fuck Housework” poster, a vivid reminder of my childhood bewilderment.  It is only now, from the vantage point of maturity, that I can fully appreciate the irony of expressing intolerance of 1950′s-era sex roles via the most traditional of women’s past times: needlework.

Here then is Stargayzing’s Gay Man’s Guide to the 11 Best Songs to Listen to While Dusting: 1970s Feminist Edition.  Hopefully it will gently discourage you, dear readers, from ever saying, “Fuck Housework!”

 

Maria Muldaur flower1.  “I’m a Woman,” Maria Muldaur (1974)

The Lieber/Stoller standard is most closely associated with Peggy Lee, who originally recorded it in 1962.  Muldaur included the song on her wonderful second solo album Waitress in a Donut Shop.  It was the follow-up to her top-10 smash “Midnight at the Oasis” and peaked at a respectable number twelve.  Other notable recordings of the venerable proto-feminist blues song include versions by Bette Midler (on her Peggy Lee tribute record), Reba McEntire, and Vonda Shepard.  From the human/bovine duet department, the song was also performed by Raquel Welch and Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.

New York-native Muldaur was a staple of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 196os where she performed regularly with several groups, before becoming a solo artist in the early-1970s.  She is closely associated with the Grateful Dead, with whom she toured in 1974 and sang back up for later in the decade. Muldaur is still actively touring and recording forty years after her first two albums made her a star.

 

Bobbi Martin "For the Love of Him"2.  “For the Love of Him,” Bobbi Martin (1970)

44 years later, I still can’t wrap my head around this song.  “For the Love of Him” was completely old-fashioned the very day it was shipped to radio in 1970, which didn’t stop it from becoming a major hit.  Listening today, one simply cannot fail to be moved by its horn chart and soaring melody, which are sure to put an extra bit of muscle in your dusting.  The song peaked at #13 on the pop chart and went all the way to #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart.  It was Bobbi’s biggest hit and the complete antithesis of feminism: it was anti-feminist.  To wit, the chorus’ lyrics:  For the love of him/Make him your reason for living/Give all the love you can give him/All the love you can.

Today the song scans more like a dated drag queen number than anything that could have been a hit after, say, 1963.  Even more curiously, Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion revisited some of the same lyrical concepts in their treacly 1997 duet “Tell Him,” which was itself so out-of-date that it makes “For the Love of Him” seem hip by comparison.

 

[9 more dynamic dusting recordings from the 1970s after the jump.]

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