Stephen Sondheim: With So Little To Be Sure Of

Written by Lee Stern

Musician and Educator

In category: Song of the Day

Published May 25, 2017

Instead of going to my senior prom, I took my high school girlfriend by train from New Rochelle, only ‘forty-five minutes from Broadway’ to dinner at Sardi’s and for a performance of A Little Night Music. (I ‘came out’ within two years, it took Gail a little longer). A year later, I saw the first incarnation of  Side by Side by Sondheim in London; by then I was a confirmed Sondheimite.

That show in 1976, pre-Internet, pre-You Tube, introduced me to several really obscure (at the time) Sondheim songs, ‘I Never Do Anything Twice’, ‘Can That Boy Foxtrot’ and ‘The Boy From.’ Its rousing ‘Everybody Says Don’t’ led me to the score of the show Anyone Can Whistle, with it’s strange extended musical numbers and its thrilling Act Two duet ‘With So Little To Be Sure Of’.

Soon after joining the NYC Gay Men’s Chorus in 1984, I was invited to do a song for a small chamber concert, and I performed this with a handsome baritone named Jon. I had never sung a romantic duet with a man before. You can imagine the surge I experienced singing the last section, “It was marvelous to know you, and it’s never really through…”

It was 1985, and Jon, the picture of physical, vocal, and spiritual health died within the year, as did about a quarter of the rest of the men I sang with at that time. So this lyric has a particular poignance…‘Crazy business this, this life we live in/ Can’t complain about the time we’re given/ With so little to be sure of in this world we had a moment’… Sondheim used to be criticized for being a chilly writer; I’m hoping that judgment has long since vanished. If nothing else, this song gives the lie to that.

(It is occurring to me that all of the songs this week have had a wistful cast to them. I can’t blame the AIDS crisis or the Trump presidency …I have had a propensity for melancholy since early childhood. The first song I remember my mother singing to me was “Hi Lili Hi Lo” with her altered lyric: ‘a song of love is a sad song, Hi Lee Lee Hi Lee Lee Hi Lo’)

And speaking of early childhood, I do want to assure you that I also have a great deal of joy in my life, singing daily to babies, infants, toddlers and their caregivers. However, I decided that “Trot Old Joe” and “Splishing and Splashing” were not appropriate choices for a NYFOS Song of the Day. For joy and lullabies, you are welcome to bring your two year old to my Music Together classes in Brooklyn Heights!

(There is a clip of Raul Esparza and Sutton Foster singing the duet from the Encores version of Anyone Can Whistle. It begins muted, but the sound quality gets better and the chemistry is there, as it is on the original cast album with Harry Guardino and Lee Remick).

author: Lee Stern

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Lee Stern has been a song leader and wordsmith across many decades and with all ages. He currently directs Music Together’s Brooklyn Heights program, song and movement group workshops for babies, infants and toddlers, and the adults in their lives.


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    Really fascinating song choices. Let’s sing them all together soon.

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    What we’re all witnessing here is a thoroughly compelling and enlightening autobiography in progress—Lee Stern’s. He possesses a perspective and a sensitivity (and sense of humor) to which anyone can relate. What pure joy it is to read his essays about songs that are really essays about life.


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