On Stephen Sondheim’s 87th Birthday, 3 Transcendent Takes On His Music

Today is musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim’s 87th birthday, and while some are celebrating by binge-listening to the composer and lyricist’s classic tunes — who, after all, can resist the lure of, say, Bernadette Peters crooning “No One is Alone?” — NPR celebrated by bringing pianist Anthony de Mare into the studio to discuss a slightly different take on Sondheim.

De Mare, in 2015, released the 3-disc recording “Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano.” The finished product, the culmination of eight years of work, brought together the work of 36 composers from around the world commissioned by De Mare to write new versions of Sondheim’s hits for piano. The styles of their compositions range from classic Broadway to classical and jazz, and their subjects span Sondheim’s oeuvre from “Merrily We Roll Along” to “Sweeney Todd.”

The project got us thinking: One of the great testaments to Sondheim’s influence is the extent to which his work has been reinterpreted. Therefore, for his birthday, we present you with three of our favorite revisitations of Sondheim’s work. Listen — and, if you dare, sing along — below.

1) The Supremes: “Somewhere”

Sondheim wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story,” accompanying music by Leonard Bernstein, while still in his twenties. The song has been taken on by artists from Phil Collins to Tom Waits, but the version that stays in our heads is that of The Supremes, who first recorded it in 1965, and memorably performed it on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Starting with that appearance, the group changed the words of the spoken monologue that always featured in their version of the song to pay tribute to King’s dream, adding a new layer of emotion to the already powerful song.

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2) Liza Minnelli and the Pet Shop Boys: “Losing My Mind”

“Losing My Mind,” from “Follies,” is a song of obsessive love. In a version produced by the United Kingdom electronic pop group the Pet Shop Boys for musical theater powerhouse Liza Minnelli, that obsession gets communicated through a frenetic, repetitive synthesized riff. Minnelli released her take on the song in 1989, and the Pet Shop Boys released a remix of it in 1991. Both are worth a listen, but there’s no one-upping Minelli, so it’s her version we’ve included below.

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3) The Muppets: “America”

The Muppet Show’s house band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, presented the world with a number of gems: “Chopin’s Polonaise in A-Flat” (it’s not what you think), “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and “Minute in G Major,” for starters. One of their best takes, though, was on “America,” from “West Side Story.” Their cover of the song starts out fairly traditional — until a mariachi contingent breaks away and a ukelele-strumming hula dancer appears. It’s hilarious, and poignant: America, the well-beloved characters seem to indicate, is noisy, multicultural, incapable of conducting itself with particular dignity, and let’s face it, a bit absurd. The good-humored Sondheim, we bet, got a kick out of the whole thing.

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Author

Talya Zax

Talya Zax

Talya Zax is the Forward’s deputy culture editor. Contact her at zax@forward.com or on Twitter, @TalyaZax.

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On Stephen Sondheim’s 87th Birthday, 3 Transcendent Takes On His Music

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