Rolling Along with a Sondheim Song
For those multitudes who have been merrily rolling along their way through the years as Stephen-Sondheimaholics, I guess there is no such thing as too much Sondheim and there maybe can never be too many CDs of his scores and songs. Despite the pleasing plethora, there seems to be room for new nuances in interpretations, so we make room on our shelves for recordings to hear the same old in not quite the same old ways. Here are two examples, each a 2-disc set: one the score of a show that's been somewhat bumpily rolling along for three decades since its short initial Broadway run and the other yet one more live concert recording sampling the songbook with star power.
Cynics say, "If at first you don't succeed, why try again?" Can you name another Broadway show that initially had a sadly super-short run (in this case a couple of weeks) yet spawned four different cast albums over the years? The score of the tweaked and re-tweaked Merrily We Roll Alongwhich is what we basically have to consider and remember with a cast albumhas always been the show's strength. Thus, the recording of the original 1981 was and is a joy and the later albums are all worthy without being redundant, a few new or revised (and one reinstated) songs and new attitudes and differently-focused characterizations among the reasons. This newest, from the recent limited run in New York City by the concert cast in the Encores! Series, is rich and radiant and rewarding, renewing one's love affair with the show. Magnificent sound and production, by caring and theatrically wise producer Tommy Krasker of PS Classics, in that label's tenth cast album of a Sondheim score, it's no surprise, but still a prize. Once again, they've come up with something that becomes a flowing dramatic experience that pulls you in, getting the material less "in your face," and more in your heart, nicely timed and shaped. Forget about trying to find a "definitive" version of the score on disc, as each version has its attractions and standout performances, with some variations in material and types of voices.
The more I listen to this Merrily, and I've listened a lot, the more comparisons are less an issue and the more I take to this new take. What's most evident to my ears is that this is a somewhat gentler and cozier look at the characters and their story. A problem with the show, say many, has been that the leads are not so sympathetic and can come off as chillingly bitter and brittle and self-absorbed. (Since the story is told chronologically backwards, their more vulnerable, likeable and optimistic selves are only met in the second act.) Our trio of "Old Friends," Frank and Charley and their writer friend Mary (who loves Frank from afar), aren't so harsh and extreme here, not quite so much on the attack or preachily defensive. Though hardly toothless, they're colored tamer, calmer, less self-righteous. Suggesting a more warts-and-all acceptance, their flaws seem more forgivableor at least understandable.
Some included dialogue helps make that impression, and so do the re-done orchestrations: they also have more warmth, with the new emphases on strings and woodwinds. (Original orchestrator Jonathan Tunick provides some interesting liner notes that let us in on how he jumped the gun the first time around and how history and hindsight help in designing a palette that is more suitable.) There's still backbone and brass when appropriate, as in the excitingly zingy orchestra and entr'acte which have a high quotient of splashiness and kick, especially in the prominently featured "Now You Know" and "Old Friends." The score being what it is, and Sondheim being psychologically complex Sondheim, sufficient grit, tension, and longing linger so that the bright orchestral colors don't block out all the dark clouds and drama, whether burning or bittersweet. At their best, the choices made here suggest an acknowledgment that the songwriter's sharp skill in establishing precise attitudes and feelings doesn't need a lot of extra "help" or restatement. Great attention to detail and reinforcement of emotion is a hallmark of the orchestrator whose work is well handled by conductor Rob Berman and captured so well in grand sweeps and some minimalist moments of yearning and regret, like the echoes of the recurring melodic strain fully realized in "Good Thing Going."
Frank, Mary and Charley are what it's all about, whether together or apart. Surely, anyone playing Frank still has an uphill battle for putting us in his corner when he's painted as a shallow and selfish artistic sellout who leaves his wife for someone else's and neglects his son and alienates (and keeps on hold) his writing partner. But much credit for humanizing the guy goes to the singer-actor who is cast. Frank seems more troubled and less cavalier in the less brash singing and more reflective phrasing of Colin Donnell (who starred in the Anything Goes revival at the coincidentally-named Stephen Sondheim Theatre). His timing and sensitivity and heavy heart in "Growing Up" is quite satisfying, and his open-eyed acknowledgment of his mixed feelings about his friends really is quite convincing. Coming through in his performance are hints that we might see him as less the heel and more like a tragic fallen hero with an Achilles heel (or two) being his susceptibility to the intoxications of life and career he gives into. Lin-Manuel Miranda makes for a mellower Charley than we've heard, pouting more than seething, a slower burn, and less antic. The big tour de force where he lets loose his resentment and rages about how his pal has changed and become a wheeler-dealer he calls "Franklin Shepard, Inc." gets to this loose cannon's explosive boom more gradually. He finds specific new words and lines to spit out forcefully, in better control and just sarcastic on more of the number, rather than the scary breakdown and loss of control it can be. Such choices are defensible and make the performance believable, but I think the drama of the man more out of control is more potent and chilling. I miss that maniacal roller coaster. Celia Keenan-Bolger at first seems either too sweetly girlish and low-key to be the sardonic and brooding older Mary, or a forcefully convincing peace-maker in "Old Friends" or having the "tough love" practicality and perspective to persuade in the purposeful "Now You Know" with its wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee agenda. But her performance grew on me, and there's assertiveness that comes through in a more subtle way, and her vulnerability is an asset for making effective her carrying the torch for Frank: the losses of his values and his friendship ("Like It Was") and the loss of what she never hadhis returned love.
Elizabeth Stanley is a plus as Gussie. As the brazen rich woman who sets her sights on Frank for her own dual purposes, she avoids the trap of coming across as cartoonishly coarse. There's still fun in her showy behavior in the party scene and her comically insensitive dismissing of the hard work Frank and Charley put into their writing and her put-downs of her rich and powerful guests she calls "The Blob." The wisely included dialogue in the party scene and her more "real" side in a private turning point scene with Frank add drama as we see more sides to what might be called the Yoko Ono wedge of the once-harmonious music partnership/friendship. And we get her razzle-dazzle and big belt ending in the brief segment of the musical they end up doing. Betsy Wolfe's Beth is appealing, too, and very well sung indeed, from the heartfelt versions of "Not a Day Goes By" to the "revue material" she briefly auditions with and in which she sings as a breathy Jacqueline Kennedy. Adam Grupper has some comic swagger as the tough-talking producer Joe who just wants "a tune you can hum."
The ensemble sounds splendid, with some attractive solo lines here and there, making one wish to hear more of those heard briefly, such as the always strong Michael Winther as Jerome the entertainment lawyer and eight-year-old Zachary Unger as Frank, Jr., who is heard briefly, but to disarming, heartbreaking effect in one of the variations of the title song (which seems to be given more overall variety in flavor here in its repeats). Fun fact trivia: Zachary voiced the young owl on TV's animated kiddie mega-hit, "Dora the Explorer," and the adult owl was given voice by a 1981 Merrily cast member who created Joe, Jason Alexander.
A bookletgiving background on the show, a synopsis, numerous color photos of this production, and all the lyrics and dialogue heard on the two discsis the icing on a very tempting and well-baked cake. Dig in.
Merrily We Roll Along is just one of several Stephen Sondheim scores represented in a 2007 fundraising concert from five years ago just released this spring on the Kritzerland label, which has also released past concerts surveying Burt Bacharach/Hal David and Andrew Lloyd Webber melodies with various collaborators. These come from the annual presentations in California by S.T.A.G.E. (the AIDS charity) and it's actually one of three times they've gone to the rich Sondheim well; one of those, from 1996, was released the next year and has a few of the same songs and a few of the same performers. This two-disc set doesn't break much new ground, with the arrangements and interpretations mostly following in the original molds, but there is plenty to enjoy here, with some charismatic performances.
An acknowledged Sondheim fan, Marc Cherry, the man behind the TV hit "Desperate Housewives," was a surprise guest and is surprisingly dynamic and creditable as he dives into Merrily's "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," going whole hog fearlessly into the full-on manically, maniacally explosive anger and breakdown. He brings along one of the TV show's cast members, Nicole Sheridan, to do the spoken prompting questions from the scene. There's only one other representative from this score on the double-disc set, and it's done satisfyingly in a more individualized, more energized style: "Good Thing Going." Always a bittersweet song, it's all the more potent here because the singer, Michelle Nicastro, passed away prematurely (from cancer) not long after this event. Another performer we've since lost, Betty Garrett, who was very involved with this organization, is heard having and providing a swell time on the Follies favorite, "Broadway Baby."
Revisiting her role as more-than-reluctant neurotic bride Amy in the 1995 Roundabout Theatre Company Company revival, Veanne Cox makes the number for Amy, her adoring groom, and the wedding singer a one-person number, playing all three roles. On disc, it's cute, but not quite the hoot it might hope to be. The night's music stirred memories of A Little Night Music with its original male star of almost a quarter of a century earlier, Len Cariou, giving a committed, involved reprise of "You Must Meet My Wife." He's partnered smartly in that by Sally Ann Howes who played Desiree in a NYC Opera production that was televised, and she follows with a dignified but reserved "Send in the Clowns." And Mr. Cariou reappears for the title song from Anyone Can Whistle and shows heartbreaking vulnerability. Alice Ripley is a fascinating choice for a number from that score, the menacing mayoress who struts and simmers, show-biz stylized style, in "Me and My Town." It works rather well and she bites into the piece as if it were a juicy apple to relish. On the more tender side, the always welcome Nancy Dussault floats through hopes and illusion in "In Buddy's Eyes."
Thinking outside the box, comedian Rip Taylor (remembered for his over-the-top silliness, props and confetti-throwing) sings "Bounce," a rare "sighting" of what was once a title song before the musical changed titles (again) and became Road Show. His performance is not wacky or disrespectful, but genial, though you can't say it's especially vibrant. Another old-timer with a somewhat puzzling approach or intent is Pat Stanley, on hand for "Lovely," with a loose, jazzy accompaniment far from the context of either take on it in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. I'd guess that much is lost without seeing that performance. But it's been growing on me.
The irrepressible and fearless Carole Cook comes on to cheers and gives her mock-acid all to "The Ladies Who Lunch." Comedy honors go to real-life brothers Patrick and Sean Cassidy as the brother princes from Into the Woods and they are quite charming and strong doing both versions of "Agony"one on each disc. Their interaction and one-upsmanship is highly entertaining and it's great to hear them sing together (they also appear, joined by brother David Cassidy, on S.T.A.G.E.'s other Sondheim concert).
In the category of glorious voices that really excite is full-throated Lisa Vroman, her grand but accessible approach being all the more notable in that she's singing what was written for a youngster to sing: the daughter's version of "The Glamorous Life" from A Little Night Music. Two of the other most impressive vocal performances come from ladies with theatre credits, but primarily known as singers in clubs: KT Sullivan's soprano sounds splendid and commanding on a laser beam-focused "There Won't Be Trumpets"; and Ann Hampton Callaway is moving and passionate as she puts a powerfully personal stamp on "No One Is Alone," with some notes that really thrill.
And there's quite a bit more, though not all the concert is here, due to space and some technical snafus. But, the sound and accompaniment are mostly pretty good, considering the risks of live one-shots and all those tricky Sondheim words. This is pretty good overall, though it might not be the concert of his work I'd choose if I could only go to that desert island with one. But Sondheim collectors, casual or droolingly devoted, should check it out.