Stephen Sondheim (2014)

There are few things more exciting, for people who love musical theater, than a good opening number. It sets up the unique tone, characters and story that is about to involve us for the next two and a half hours.

Stephen Sondheim wrote some of the greatest openings, beginning with “Comedy Tonight,” in his timeless musical farce, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), based on Plautus’s ancient Roman plays. In previews, the show had met with a lukewarm response, because audiences didn’t know, from curtain up, that this was a riotous, bawdy, brilliant musical comedy. Sondheim fixed that with his new opening number, that begins: “Something familiar, / Something peculiar, / Something for everyone – a comedy tonight!”

You can see Sondheim’s versatility by comparing that number to the portentous opening of his 1979 “Musical Thriller.” “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” begins: “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. / His skin was pale and his eye was odd. / He shaved the faces of gentlemen / Who never thereafter were heard of again. / He trod a path that few have trod, / Did Sweeney Todd, / The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Below you will find two very different stagings of this number, one from the original 1979 Broadway production directed by Harold Prince, and another from 2011 at Stanford University.

This evolving page is a tribute to one aspect of Sondheim’s astonishing body of work, his opening numbers. Overall, Sondheim wrote the scores, both music and lyrics, for 16 shows, plus the lyrics to three more. PLEASE NOTE that the below links are to the original Broadway cast albums, as showcased on YouTube. Typically, the OBC album is recorded the firsrt Sunday after a show’s premiere. (One of the greatest documentaries I’ve seen is D.A. Pennebaker’s Company: Original Cast Album (1970), about that fraught recording session.) Below, following the title (that links to the Wikipedia entry for the show) is that musical’s opening number.

Here are two dozen more curated resources for Sondheim and Sweeney Todd.

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Begun February 15, 2022 / Updated March 22, 2022 (the late Mr. Sondheim’s 92nd birthday)