Today is Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday so naturally I am going to add one of his songs to the New American Songbook. But which one? The obvious choice is “Send In the Clowns”–a little too obvious. There are a whole lot of alternatives, many of which we’ll eventually get to, but today I want to spotlight Merrily We’ll Roll Along (1981), one of his most interesting and least successful (commercially) shows.
In his book Finishing the Hat, Sondheim writes:
In that apocryphal period know as the Golden Age of Musicals, the thirty-two-bar song was the mainstay of every show score and of most popular hits…. Merrily We Roll Along was written in 1980, but the story concerns two songwriters who came to their maturity in the 1950s, when traditional song forms still ruled the stage; it seemed appropriate, therefore, that it should be told as much as possible in a series of thirty-two bar songs…. I hoped to write the score … as if I still believed in those conventional forms as enthusiastically as I had twenty-five years earlier, before I and my generation had stretched them almost out of recognition.
I was trying to roll myself back to my exuberant early days, to recapture the combination of sophistication and idealism that I’d shared with Hal Prince, Mary Rodgers, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and the rest of us show business supplicants, all stretched back to our innocence.
To me, two songs from the show eminently fulfill Sondheim’s ambition. That is, they have the quality of the best songs of the period but do not in any way feel old-fashioned. (Broadway Baby, from Follies, is a perfect pastiche of a ’30s song, a well-made museum piece.) I refer to Not a Day Goes By and Good Thing Going. I believe I first heard the former on Carly Simon’s 1981 album Torch. I thought it actually was an old song, as I did when I first heard Good Thing Going, on Frank Sinatra’s late album She Shot Me Down, also from 1981.
I’m going to have to go with Good Thing Going. To me, Not a Day Goes By has always come across as a bit melodramatic, from the poetic diction of the title to the insistent refrain and, let’s face it, kvetchy lyrics. (“I’ll die day after day/After day after day/After day after day…”) Good Thing Going‘s melody is equally memorable, but it’s subtler. And the lyrics have a wonderful conversational quality, as in this section, which has Sondheim’s genius use of the private-eye “make”:
And if I wanted too much,
Was that such a mistake
At the time?
You never wanted enough–
All right, tough,
I don’t make
That a crime.
Here’s Sinatra television performance, which he prefaces by calling Sondheim “a good songwriter.” Hard to argue with that.