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. The original list was prepared for Mark Eden Horowitz, Senior Music Specialist at the Library of Congress in conjunction with a concert commemorating the composer’s milestone birthday.
I received an email from Mr. Horowitz who gave me this additional insight into the creation of the list. He said, “Over a period of a few weeks, he (Sondheim) would fax or call me with songs to add to the list.” About fifteen songs from the list were actually performed as part of the concert, which featured Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, Nathan Lane, Debra Monk, and Davis Gaines. When Frank Rich learned about it he asked that I send him the complete list to use as a sidebar. During the concert Sondheim spoke briefly as to some of his reasons for the choices. That segment is published in my book Sondheim on Music.” Subsequently, Barbara Cook used the list to create a concert, CD and video called Mostly Sondheim. Many thanks to Mark for sharing the backstory of this fascinating list.
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. Many thanks to Stargayzing readers who have taken the time to correct my errors, which to my chagrin, were far more numerous than I would have expected.
Volume one was published in Stargayzing a few weeks back; here is volume two. I was gratified when Frank Rich himself described this series on twitter as “Outstanding archival work for Sondheim fans in need of a fix.” Please be sure to let me know which version of these songs is your favorite (in many cases, there were so many great recordings).
SONGS I WISH I’D WRITTEN
(AT LEAST IN PART), Volume Two
By Stephen Sondheim
Adam Guettel comes from musical theater royalty: he is the son of Mary Rodgers and the grandson of legendary Richard Rodgers.
“The Riddle Song,” from Floyd Collins (1994)
This is the version from the 1997 cast album of Floyd Collins.
“Birth of the Blues,” from George White’s Scandals 1926, lyrics by B.G. DeSylva and Lew Brown
There are so many versions of this incredible song, but I think Sammy Davis, Jr.’s live version is my absolute favorite.
Jurmann, Walter and Kaper, Bronislau
“San Francisco,” from San Francisco (film, 1936), lyrics by Gus Kahn
This is Judy Garland’s live performance from a 1964 episode of her CBS TV Show, that comes as close as possible to conveying the essence of her legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert.
“Home,” from 70, Girls, 70 (1971), lyrics by Fred Ebb
Like many of the songs on Sondheim’s list, “Home” is culled from a failed musical, in this case, Kander and Ebb’s forgotten 70, Girls, 70, which ran for 35 performances and 9 previews in 1971. Here is the original cast, including Tony nominee Mildred Natwick and Lillian Roth.
“The Song Is You,” from Music in the Air (1932), lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
This is Nancy Wilson’s superb recording from the 1960s.
Kleban is best known as the lyricist of A Chorus Line. This is the original cast version from the 2001 musical about Edward Kleban called A Class Act: A Musical About Musicals. Judging from the nimble, clever wordplay, it’s very easy to see Sondheim’s positive feelings about “Better.” In fact, it sounds rather like a Sondheim song, don’t you think?
As you heard, Barbra Streisand is referenced in the song. In fact, Streisand recorded this song on no less than three different occasions, twice in 1973 and once with Rupert Holmes and Jeffrey Lesser in 1975, presumably for the Lazy Afternoon album. All three versions were unreleased. According to Matt Howe’sauthoritative barbra-archive.com, the fact that Streisand didn’t release the song features into the plot of A Class Act. Here is a very rough sounding version of what I suspect is the Streisand’s first pass at the song, produced by Richard Perry in early 1973 (Stargayzers, please correct me if I have that wrong—I’m just going off instinct).
“Make a Miracle,” from Where’s Charley? (1948)
This is the 1958 London cast version of Loesser’s wonderful “Make a Miracle” featuring Norman Wisdom. According to my research, the original Broadway production starring Ray Bolger was not recorded, apparently due to a labor dispute. Pity, that.
“Ev’ry Time,” from Best Foot Forward (1941), with Ralph Blane
Here is Karin Wolfe’s version from the Original Cast Album of the 1963 revival, the same production that made a Broadway star of a 19-year-old Liza Minnelli.
“Gotta Dance,” from (1948)
Hugh Martin’s own recording from the album Hugh Sings Martin:
“I Wanna Be Good ‘n’ Bad,” from Make a Wish (1951)
This is the version from the Original Broadway Cast recording featuring a young Nanette Fabray.
“The Trolley Song,” from Meet Me in St. Louis (film, 1944), with Ralph Blane
This is Judy Garland’s iconic performance from Vincente Minnelli’s MGM classic Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). If you have never seen this sequence (a definite improbability to most of my regular Stargayzing readers), note the use of color, one of Minnelli’s trademarks.
“On the Farm,” from New Girl in Town (1957)
This is Gwen Verdon’s recording from the 1957 Original Cast Album. New Girl in Town was a musical version of Eugene O’Neil’s Anna Christie, with choreography by Bob Fosse.
“Cancion de Cuna Para Dormir a un Negrito” (“Cradle Song for a Little Black Boy”), from Cinco Canciones Negras (1958), lyrics by Ildefonso Pereda Valdes
This is Angelika Kirschslager’s 1999 recording from her album When Night Falls.
Here is the translation of this beautiful lyric, which I had never heard before:
Ninghe, ninghe, ninghe, so tiny,
the little black child that doesn’t want to sleep.
Head of coconut, grain of coffee,
with pretty freckles, with eyes wide open
like two windows that overlook the sea.
Close your tiny eyes, frightened little black boy;
the white boogey-man can eat you up.
You’re no longer are slave! And if you sleep a lot
the master of the house promises to buy you
a suit with buttons, so you can be a “groom.”
Ninghe, ninghe, ninghe, sleep little black child,
head of coconut, grain of coffee.
Lied and Art Song Page
Muir, Lewis F.
“Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” (1912), lyrics by L. Wolfe Gilbert
Here is Al Jolson’s very early recording.
JohnJune 17, 2015 at 1:30 pm
I love you for doing this.
David MunkJune 17, 2015 at 6:42 pm
I responded that I need all the love I can get (and appreciate you following the blog). Look out for volume 3 next week. David
James TroutmanJuly 4, 2015 at 7:51 pm
Thanks for going to the trouble of putting this together.
Mark Eden Horowitz published the list in his book “Sondheim on Music” (available on Amazon) as well as some comments that Sondheim made at the Library of Congress concert honoring him on his 70th birthday on May 22, 2000, when some of these songs were performed.
Sondheim doesn’t comment on each of the songs on his list, but the reasons he gives for those that he does mention are fascinating. For example, he finds Adam Guettel’s “Riddle Song” “emotionally moving”. And of Irving Berlin’s “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” he says:
“I chose a couple that are very familiar. One, “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun”, because most people, I think, don’t appreciate how brilliant Irving Berlin was as a comic writer. People think of him as four-square and very simple, but he was right up there with Cole Porter, or any of the rest of them. There are, I think, sixteen jokes in “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun”, all on the same subject, and every single one is a surprise, and every single one has a fresh rhyme that you don’t see coming. It’s remarkable.”
David MunkJuly 5, 2015 at 3:27 pm
First of all, it was no trouble at all. I learned so much as I researched. Thank you for adding to the richness of the piece with your anecdotes. I did not know that SS had ever commented on this list. I am so pleased that your comment can further enrich the experience of the piece for readers (and listeners). I hope you’ll stay in touch as Stargayzing continues to grow. David
Jon FreemanJuly 20, 2015 at 3:07 am
Great stuff on Sondheim. I knew some of them from Barbara Cook’s Sondheim album (where she mentions the list of songs he wishes he wrote.
Regarding Make a Miracle, there was (and I’m old enough to have owned) a 45rpm Extended Play record with Bolger and McLerie. It had Once in Love with Amy on One side and Make a Miracle on the Other. I believe it was originally released as a 78rpm Shellac.
David MunkJuly 22, 2015 at 2:09 am
Thanks for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts. I’m really glad you found the blog and hope you’ll bookmark it or sign up the monthly newsletter on the home page.