Gypsy opened in May of 1959, again with collaborators Laurents and Robbins, but now the composer was the extraordinarily fertile tunesmith Jule Styne - and all were at the service of the show's powerhouse lead, Ethel Merman. Gypsy's Score may be the most deceptive in the history of Broadway. To listen to the songs is to be knocked out by a series of alternatively brassy, funny, bawdy, or sweet ballads and showstoppers. But, in the context of the show, many if not most of the songs are about something entirely other than what they seem. Listen to "All I Need Is The Girl," and it's a swinging,slightly smarmy, dance number. In reality, it may be the most heartbreaking song of unrequited love ever written. In fact, the song doesn't really belong to the boy who sings it at all, but to the girl who's listening to it and wishing she were the girl he needs. Likewise, "Everything's Coming Up Roses" sounds like the most uplifting, optimistic first act curtain you ever heard. But stop and realize it's being belted at a shy, untalented girl by the stage mother who wants to fulfill her own ambitions through her daughter, and the song becomes horrifying and chilling - and great. Gypsy began Sondhim's reputation as an ironist... And for his ability to find a capstone rhyme that surprises and delights (as in this quatrain of which both Cole Porter and Bernstein were fans):
Wherever I go, I know he goes.
Wherever I go, I know she goes.
No fits, no fights, no feuds and no egos -
Amigos , together!
But what of Sondhim the composer? In May of 1962, after four years of work and some ten drafts, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum was the first Broadway show for which he wrote both lyrics and music - and at 964 performances, it delivered the longest run he has had to date. Co-librettists Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart took source material from several comedies by the Roman playwright Plautus and mixed in healthy portions of vaudeville, burlesque and Your Show Of Shows to create a musical farce that could double as a primer on the history of comedy.
For Sondheim, who had been forged in the Rodgers and Hammerstein mold where most songs sprang from character and heightened emotion, Forum required a score in the Cole Porter tradition of the '30s, in which songs were three-minute escapes from the action and a chance to play with a clever idea. That style of writing proved harder than Sondheim anticipated, and made Forum one of his most difficult scores to write. Several songs had to be cut and/or rewritten, including, famously at least three versions of an opening number. With encouragement (and brilliant staging) from play doctor Jerome Robbins, "Comedy Tonight" became the perfect introduction to what was to follow and proved Sondhim capable of writing an immediately appealing and memorable tune.
Because the ideas behind most of the songs in Forum are so outrageous and funny, its is less obvious how musically adventurous many of them are. "Free" is a case in point. It rushes through several changes of meter and key, liberally sprinkled with off-beat accents, difficult intervals , and stinging harmonies. Even the vaudeville-style soft-shoe, "Everybody Ought To Have A Maid" boasts sinuous chromaticism and harmonic clashes. But there are other keys to Sondheim's style that are also becoming apparent: the use of vamps and recurring accompaniment figures, traditional bass lines rooted in the tonic and dominant that keep the listener grounded and allow the music above to be more adventurous, and melodies that perfectly match the inflection of their lyrics. While Sondheim's contributions to the show were mostly ignored or dismissed at the time of the original production, subsequent revivals have made his music and lyrics the show's most heralded aspect.