Stephen Sondheim (YGtCTO #297)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart

This is the 297th You’ve Got to Check This Out. The first one went out into the ether on May 12, 2016. In slightly less than two years from that date, I will publish number three hundred and finish with the concept. (Much as Stephen Jay Gould found that same amount sufficient for his regular column.) I’ve touched on a variety of artists and inspirational art, even tried to push the boundaries a little about what is art. Any readers that have dropped in occasionally have no doubt noticed some repetition in theme or subject or reference.

I confess to no longer entirely remembering what has been left out or what has been included. Theoretically, people come for the declared subject matter and stick around for the witticisms and the trivia. (Sondheim was once profiled in Games magazine because he loves puzzles. I read the article back in the day.)

Any review of Sondheim’s career should make clear his importance to theater, so I’m not going over those highlights. If you haven’t seen all of it, then go for it. Don’t forget Kevin Smith’s often overlooked Jersey Girl for its brief reference to one of Sondheim’s more gory works. In recent years when Sondheim’s 80th birthday was celebrated, a lot was written about his early years with contribution from the man himself. Sondheim’s youthful home life was horrible, though the years were salvaged by the arrival of a mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, who gave him a career.

Stephen Sondheim

Let’s just go ahead and jump the shark here.

In the book Freakonomics, the authors mention that one of the best forecasters of future literacy for a child was living in a house with books. They argued that it did not matter if the parents read to the children. The mere presence of books was paramount. A lot of points made by the authors have been widely disputed by reputable sources, so I don’t know how much weight to grant this concept, but I appreciate the thought.

My dad indulged a love for the stage throughout his life. My earliest memory of seeing him perform was in a community production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the local JCC. I can attest to the fact that sitting in the audience while an entire crowd laughs at your father can change your view of the man. The fact that he was wearing a toga and sneakers at the time took quite a few years to process.

Pulling the last two paragraphs together, is anyone surprised that I worked in the theater for a number of years? Certainly my parents were when I announced that I was pursuing an M.F.A. in theater arts. They eventually acquiesced as details about the deal became clear, but still, who’d have expected that?

In a strange way, I owe Sondheim for those years directing and designing and writing and producing and working at every odd job that the stage accrues. As much as that however, his songs stuck in my head from the very beginning. His lyrics worked into my brain and made a home for themselves as my next exposure to dad on stage was West Side Story. The end result was that through all those heavy metal and punk and pop and funk years, I always had a bit of the great American songbook in my back pocket.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 3 more to go.

New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out release regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry post irregularly. Receive notifications on Facebook by friending or following Craig.

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