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March 22, 2014 8:58 AM Morning music: Happy 84th birthday, Stephen Sondheim!

By Kathleen Geier

The grand old man of the Broadway musical, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, was born 84 years ago today. His catalog ranks as one of the towering achievements in the history of American musical theater. This morning, I’m going to post two videos that give a small taste of the man’s genius — and range.

First, here’s “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” the curtain-raiser from his great musical about “the demon barber of Fleet Street.” Musically exciting and lyrically dazzling, it’s classic Sondheim, which is why it was a huge disappointment when it was left out of the (otherwise terrific) movie version Tim Burton made of Sweeney several years back.

Nevertheless, Burton’s brilliant steampunk re-imagining of Sondheim was the best movie musical in decades, one that’s far superior to the mediocre Chicago, which was inexplicably showered with acclaim and awards. If I had to pick one musical to represent Sondheim at his peak, Sweeney Todd would be it. I mean, a Broadway show that’s part tragedy and part grisly black comedy, with a serial killer hero and a supporting cast composed of Dickensian grotesques, that’s a vicious satire of capitalism and a scathing indictment of the criminal justice system? It’s not Cats, that’s for damned sure. And that’s why I love it.

This version of the song is from a recording of the original Broadway production. The opening credits take a minute or so and then the performance begins.

And now for something completely different … before striking out on his own as a composer, the young Sondheim served an apprenticeship of sorts as a lyricist. He didn’t do too shabbily at it, either — he wrote the lyrics for two of the most enduring musicals in the American canon, West Side Story and Gypsy. Gypsy is packed with great tunes from start to finish (Jule Styne wrote the music), but “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” has always been a particular favorite of mine, and the lyrics are no small part of the reason why. Hey, the man managed to rhyme “sacro” with “back row” — audiences must have known this kid was going places, even then.

Happy birthday, Mr. Sondheim!

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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