“Pretty Women”: The Marian McPartland Trio Meets Sondheim

“Pretty Women” comes near the end of the first act of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. On the surface, the song appears to capture an amiable barbershop conversation—as Craig Zadan writes, “a seemingly innocent yet passionate anthem to the virtues of womanhood.” Its comfortably gliding melody soars and then falls back into contentment. In context, it becomes spine chilling. It is Sweeney Todd’s calculating way of distracting Judge …

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Saying Goodbye to Summer with Gershwin’s “Summertime”

In observance of Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer, here is a landmark recording of George Gershwin’s Summertime, featuring Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. This is an excerpt from their 1957 jazz studio album, Porgy and Bess. The album popularized Summertime and other music from Gershwin’s 1935 opera. (Two years later, a film version of Porgy and Bess was released, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge). Fitzgerald was a longtime friend of the Gershwins. Ira Gershwin once …

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Richard Rodgers and the Waltz

At the beginning of the summer, we explored ten enduring songs that Richard Rodgers wrote with the lyricist Lorenz Hart. Today, I want to return to the effortless and seemingly inevitable melodies of Rodgers, this time with a focus on the waltz. Countless waltzes can be found among Richard Rodgers’ 900-plus songs, written for some 43 Broadway musicals. Many contain a trace of the Viennese operetta music Rodgers heard as a child, which included …

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Rodgers and Hart: Ten Enduring Songs

Last week, we celebrated the 117th anniversary of the birth of Richard Rodgers with one of the composer’s piano roll recordings. We discussed the simple, effortless perfection of Rodgers’ melodies and the way his style changed from his work with lyricist Lorenz Hart in the 1920s and 30s to his partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II in the 1940s and 50s. The latter collaboration transformed the Broadway musical from a loose collection of catchy …

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Richard Rodgers on Piano Roll

Today marks the 117th anniversary of the birth of Richard Rodgers (1902-1979). In his book, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, the composer and commentator Alec Wilder wrote, Of all the writers whose songs are considered and examined in this book, those of Rodgers show the highest degree of consistent excellence, inventiveness, and sophistication … After spending weeks playing his songs, I am more than impressed and respectful: I am astonished. Melodies seem …

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Cole Porter at 128: Five Enduring Songs

Yesterday was the 128th anniversary of the birth of Cole Porter (1891-1964). Born in Peru, Indiana to a wealthy family, Porter rose to prominence in the 1920s and 30s as one of Broadway’s greatest songwriters. His sublime, distinctive melodies and dizzyingly sophisticated lyrics—the delightfully comic portmanteau, ”Tin-Pantithesis,” is just one example—continue to endure even as the cultural references in his crackling list songs, like You’re the Top, fade. In this way, Porter’s work now falls …

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Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim

The American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim turns 89 today. In Sondheim’s songs, music, lyric, character, and dramatic situation blend seamlessly and inseparably. The kind of plot-driven Broadway musical championed in the 1940s and 50s by Rodgers and Hammerstein reached its zenith of sophistication in the works of Sondheim, which include Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987). These are symphonic scores filled with motivic threads. The songs …

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