In 1976 Sondheim wrote a song for his friend Herbert Ross’s film, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a Sherlock Holmes tale. “I Never Do Anything Twice” was performed by a madam to entertain her customers in an upscale brothel where Holmes (played by Nicol Williamson) pursued a villain. The singularly named Régine played the role, and the song — full of wonderful double-entendres — could well be interpreted as a piece of Sondheim philosophy:
Once, yes, once is a lark.
Twice, though, loses the spark.
Once, yes, once is delicious,
But twice would be vicious
Or just repetitious.
That’s a perfect summary of Sondheim’s repertoire of shows that I wrote entries about for the Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia. Not one show among his 18 productions resembles another — think about Company then Follies then A Little Night Music, followed by Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd — each one dramatically distinct with a score that’s uniquely appropriate to the story being told. Surely the madam reflected Sondheim’s steady inclination to avoid being “repetitious.”
That leads me to point out A Perfect Little Death, a recent recording by singer Eleri Ward with 13 well-known Sondheim songs. She accompanies herself on solo guitar in the style of indie folk star Sufjan Stevens. In a recent online interview by Rob Weinert-Kendt, editor of American Theatre magazine, “Fingerstyle Folk Sondheim: A Sound We Didn’t Know We Needed” you can read more about Ward’s unusual interpretations of numbers including “Joanna” from Sweeney Todd and “In Buddy’s Eyes” from Follies. In fact, Rob’s interview offers a pair of links to videos of Ward performing those numbers. He points out that she created something remarkably new from Sondheim’s “thorny harmonies” that is nevertheless true to the original songs. These are not renditions that “lose the spark” — in fact, they’re downright delicious.
Since I mentioned Herb Ross, I urge you to pull out your copy of the Encyclopedia and read about his many intersections with Sondheim. Ross began his professional career as a dancer: He choreographed Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965) and staged the legendary Follies in Concert production with the New York Philharmonic (1985). He also directed The Last of Sheila (1973), the film mystery that Sondheim co-wrote with Anthony Perkins (which has its own entry in the Encyclopedia). Ross is particularly remembered for his movies such as The Turning Point (1977), starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, as well as stage and screen productions of Neil Simon comedies and the hit film Steel Magnolias (1989).
Don’t have your own copy of the Encyclopedia yet? Be sure to use the 30% discount code RLFANDF30 when you order directly from Rowman & Littlefield.