Stephen Sondheim, the unparalleled genius of American musical theater in the late 20th century, turned 90 yesterday. His work is known for its complexity, its darkness and its ironies, but as is often the case, scratch an ironist and you’ll find a sentimentalist. His memories of attending the opening night of Carousel are instructive: “I remember how everyone goes off to the clambake at the end of Act One and Jigger just follows, and he was the only one walking on stage as the curtain came down. I was sobbing. [Dorothy Hammerstein] had a specific fur stole that she wore to every opening of Oscar’s for good luck, and I cried so heavily I stained it.” Even heavily stylized or abstract shows like Pacific Overtures and Assassins are shot through with raw human emotion.
The first Sondheim show I really connected with was Into the Woods. (I saw a Maine State Music Theatre production of Gypsy when I was very young, but the only thing I can remember of it is that the girl covered with balloons in the first scene was played by an elementary school classmate on whom I had a little bit of a crush. How things change.) Into the Woods, with its delightful interweaving of famous fairy tales, is great fun for children who love stories, and it was definitely my gateway drug for musicals long before I knew enough to be thinking about who was behind the music and lyrics.
I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite song by Sondheim– maybe a favorite from each show, though even that would be difficult– but for this moment in history, there’s only one possible choice. The song/video cuts out abruptly at the end because of how the story is structured. Here, from an invaluable American Playhouse recording of the original Broadway production, are Kim Crosby, Danielle Ferland, Chip Zien, and Ben Wright, performing “No One is Alone.”