The Other Side Of Me: Alan Fitter on the genius of Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim Society/Cambridge Union

AUK continues its series looking at the musical tastes of AUK writers beyond the americana genre.

Two nights last week summed up ‘The Other Side Of Me’. On the Friday it was the turn of the americana side of me to come to the fore. I was at The Sound Lounge in Sutton to see Danny George Wilson doing a solo set rather than as part of one of his bands, Danny And The Champions Of The World or Bennett, Wilson Poole. Although when I say solo, that’s not really true as he was joined on stage by long-time collaborator and guitarist Paul ‘Lushy’ Lush who had opened the evening with his own set – a first for him although the nerves didn’t show as he displayed what a magnificent guitar player he is. This is not the first time I’ve seen Danny live as he’s married to my daughter Jasmine, and I’ve known him since he was four! He played a superb set encompassing songs from his new solo album ‘Another Place’ along with songs from his two bands as well as a few from his time with Grand Drive, the much-missed band he formed with brother Julian when they were teenagers. It also wasn’t my first time at The Sound Lounge as I know the people who run it very well and it’s just a wonderful place to hear some americana (and other kinds of music). If you don’t know about it, just go to the Americana Music Association’s YouTube page and look for their 2022 Awards video as the event was held very successfully at The Sound Lounge.

Then on Saturday night, came ‘The Other Side Of Me’, exchanging the shabby chic décor (in the nicest possible way) of The Sound Lounge in beautiful downtown Sutton for the sophisticated ambience of The Pheasantry on stylish King’s Road. And swapping the slightly rough around the edges (in the nicest possible way) stage persona, shaggy haired and double-denim wearing Danny George Wilson for the finely tuned and polished, immaculately coiffured, hand-made suit wearing, cabaret singer Jeff Harnar – the differences between the two venues and the two artists were as wide as the Grand Canyon.

The reason I was seeing Jeff Harner wasn’t because I’m a big fan of sophisticated, New York cabaret singers but because he was doing an evening of Stephen Sondheim songs and I’m an enormous fan of the man’s work. For those of you who don’t know Sondheim, he was (he died on November 26th 2021 at the age of 90) the writer of some of the greatest stage musicals of all time such as ‘Sweeney Todd’, ‘Sunday In The Park With George’, ‘Into The Woods’ and ‘Follies’ to name but a few for which he wrote the lyrics and music. He also at the tender age of 23 wrote the lyrics (to Leonard Bernstein’s music) for ‘West Side Story’ which has just be revived in Stephen Spielberg’s superb film. I (and a lot of people) consider him the greatest writer of musicals of all time and a genuine genius – not a word I use lightly. I can only think of Dylan as an equal when it comes to lyric writing and Sondheim will go down in history as the greatest ever in the field of musical theatre.

I first discovered Sondheim’s work back in October 1980 (coincidentally the same month I saw Judy Collins at the Festival Hall) when I went to see the original West End production of ‘Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street’ (to give it its full title) and was transported to a world I didn’t know existed. I’d seen a few musicals previously but this was something else – a musical about a deranged serial killer whose victims were cooked into pies for the consumption of Victorian London! I was hooked and since then I’ve seen all nineteen of his musicals – and apart from serial killers, the subject matter includes works about a painting (‘Sunday In The Park With George’), the westernisation of Japan in the 19th century (‘Pacific Overtures’), and American Presidential assassins – both successful and unsuccessful (‘Assassins’) – not the usual subjects for Broadway musicals! In the forty plus years since I saw my first Sondheim, I would guess I’ve seen over sixty productions of the various shows he wrote, all over the country as well as on Broadway so you can see I’m a big fan.

I’m also a fully paid-up member of the Stephen Sondheim Society which organises events, sorts out tickets to shows and publishes a regular printed magazine. Over the years I’ve met some interesting people who know a whole lot more about the man and his work than I do and before he died, they were in regular contact with Mr Sondheim, as he was affectionally known. Most of the members veer towards the Great American Songbook as their music of choice although I have gotten friendly with one member, a renowned barrister, and QC who loves americana as much as I do and we’ve exchanged recommendations about the music that we both get excited by.

Whilst he wrote some of the greatest songs of the past seventy years or so, Sondheim didn’t have many hits but the biggest ‘Send In The Clowns’ was a hit for Judy Collins so there is some crossover between the two genres and an americana connection albeit slightly tenuous. Collins as well as being an early adopter of music by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, has recorded quite a lot of Sondheim material and in 2017 released an album called ‘A Love Letter To Sondheim’.

Sondheim also wrote a song called ‘Putting It Together’, so to put together two of the very different musical forms that I love (I do have others) as well as the two consecutive evenings in February 2022 that I spent listening to two very different singers in two very disparate venues, as part of his show Jeff Harner sang one of Sondheim’s greatest ever songs ‘Being Alive’ (from the musical ‘Company’). Then back when Danny George Wilson had his first daughter, Elodie (my granddaughter of course), he recorded the same song (see the link below) and tied everything together for me. Do have a listen – it may not convert you to  a Stephen Sondheim fan but it will show you what a superb songwriter he was and why I love his music and lyrics so much.

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