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The Stephen Sondheim Album

If you read this column, you are probably aware that Bruce Kimmel, formerly a producer of theatre-related recordings for the Varese Sarabande label, now has his own label, Fynsworth Alley. Fynsworth Alley's eagerly awaited first release, The Stephen Sondheim Album, is now available. At Varese, Kimmel produced two Sondheim collections that focused mostly on lesser-known material. Most of the selections on the new release are well-known songs that have been recorded many times. There are several relative rarities, though, plus the bonus track of "I Must Be Dreaming," a first recording from All That Glitters, one of the musicals that Sondheim wrote when he was a young man being mentored by Oscar Hammerstein. This bonus track is only included on the CD when ordered through the company web site (www.fynsworthalley.com), and will not be found on the CD when sold in stores in February 2001.

The Stephen Sondheim AlbumThe Stephen Sondheim Album contains some excellent performances. However, there are also selections in which the approach that is taken is either bland or at odds with the tone of the song, or both. Several tracks suffer from inappropriate orchestrations that jettison elements of Sondheim's original accompaniment and substitute musical ideas that don't work nearly as well. David Siegel did most of the orchestrations, and though much of his work is good, when he goes wrong, he goes very wrong.

One of the best tracks is Lea DeLaria's low-key, jazzy, sultry "Broadway Baby." DeLaria occasionally strays from pitch, and she might have profitably chosen to build certain phrases rather than letting them trail off. But she sings with real musicality, and the style works for the song. Brad Ellis's orchestration is terrific.

Another good performance is Jane Krakowski's "Anyone Can Whistle." Krakowski does a beautiful job of creating a character through words and music though she is sabotaged by Siegel's too-busy orchestration. Nonetheless, Krakowski makes this a successful track.

Liz Callaway's performance of "Everybody Says Don't" also suffers from an inappropriate orchestration. For example, when Callaway sings the line "Maybe you're going to fall," the accompaniment sounds as if it's illustrating someone falling down, as it might in an animated Disney musical. This does fit with Callaway's lighthearted interpretation, in which she seems to be giving us some pleasant, friendly advice. For example, she sings the line "Lady, you are doing just fine" as if she's reassuring the listener. This is at odds with the forceful, urgent, almost combative tone of the music. In the script for Anyone Can Whistle the following description appears for how the song should be sung: "He sings low, with tight anger at first, then with mounting passion." It may be possible for the song is to be given a successful performance that is completely different what is suggested in the script, but the cute, upbeat performance we're given here is not the way to go.

Brent Barrett, on the other hand, does not convey the sense that he is giving us friendly advice in "Make the Most of Your Music," a song in which it would be appropriate. Instead, he overplays the subtext of self-hatred and anger. He phrases very specifically on a moment-by-moment basis, but there is no sense of throughline. This performance also is not helped by the orchestration. It ends up sounding as if several songs that are only vaguely connected to one another have been awkwardly strung together.

On the other hand, there is Dame Edna Everage's "Losing My Mind," a gloriously idiosyncratic yet surprisingly respectful performance. Undoubtedly, not everyone will appreciate what Dame Edna does here. She does not perform the song as an actress playing Sally in Follies might, pining obsessively over the man she lost to another woman. Instead, Dame Edna sings of a personal loss, that of her late husband, Norm. Dame Edna is daringly unafraid to make ugly sounds as she plums the depth of her grief. Perhaps the most truly characteristic aspect of this performance is the sense that the singer is not in the process of losing her mind, but lost it some time in the past, possibly at the death of her husband, or perhaps even earlier. Such is the profundity of Dame Edna's art that she leaves you pondering such questions.

Kimmel helps us recover from Dame Edna's intensity by programming the charming duet "A Moment With You," from Saturday Night, to follow. Theresa Finamore and Andrew Lippa sound like they're having a great time singing it. This may be the most enjoyable available recording of this song. It is followed by another fine performance of a song from Saturday Night, Tami Tappan's "So Many People." This is the first recording I've heard of this song that has an impact comparable to Susan Browning and Jack Cassidy's performance on the 1973 Sondheim: A Musical Tribute. Though this performance is not quite in that class, Tappan captures a good deal of the vulnerability that is often lacking in performances of this song.

There is a lovely pairing of "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" and the "angry" version of "Not a Day Goes By," sung by Christiane Noll. The first is sung slowly and tenderly, with a hint near the end that maybe tomorrow is not going to be so great, as "Not a Day Goes By" then illustrates. Noll's very audible intakes of breath on this track take some getting used to and, in "Not a Day Goes By," she does tend to push the emotions a bit. But the pairing, the orchestration and Noll's performance basically work well.

Norm Lewis has been given an effective juxtaposition of "With So Little to Be Sure Of" and "Who Could Be Blue?" The beauty of Lewis's voice carries this track, though a bit more of the melancholy Craig Lucas brings to "Who Could Be Blue?" on the Marry Me a Little cast recording would have been welcome.

The mysterious Guy Haines, rumored to actually be Bruce Kimmel, sings "Sorry-Grateful." Haines did a superb version of Sondheim's "What Can You Lose?" on the Varese Sarabande Sondheim at the Movies. He doesn't connect with this song to a comparable degree. This is a decent performance, but there is more to the song than is conveyed here.

Much of the rest of the CD doesn't work very well. Alice Ripley sings "Another Hundred People" with an almost adolescent-sounding excitement that is not very appropriate for the song. This might have worked, though, if she had gradually allowed more of the song's desperation to enter her performance, but she only does so rather suddenly near the end. By that point, it sounds like an afterthought, and you're not sure if that was even the intention.

A lot of care clearly went into Michelle Pawk's performance of "It Wasn't Meant to Happen," a song that probably works best in understated performances. Pawk sounds as if she's trying too hard to indicate the feelings underneath the words. The performance becomes choppy, proceeding in fits and starts.

Brian D'Arcy James never conveys the sense of innocence necessary to "Giants in the Sky." It is a song about discovery. From the start James's performance misses the tone. The opening line - "There are giants in the sky" - simply doesn't sound like something he's just learned and can't wait to tell us. He sometimes sounds sarcastic or angry. James can certainly belt out the big notes effectively, but what Jack has learned is completely unclear to me in this performance.

Ruthie Henshall's "Children Will Listen" is surprisingly bland and generalized, though the voice sounds gorgeous. Dorothy Loudon's "I'm Still Here" is sadly disappointing. Loudon is, of course, one of the musical theatre's great performers. Her distinctive comic style is like no one else's, but it just doesn't work for this song. Loudon has sometimes shown herself capable of reining in this style in the past, but she does that only part of the time here. She also peaks too early, making the end anticlimactic. Loudon is probably capable of giving a remarkable performance of this song, but she didn't this time.

The bonus track, the very pretty "I Must Be Dreaming" sounds like an affectionate Kern-Hammerstein pastiche, and it's good enough that they might well have been pleased to claim this song as their own. Emily Skinner sings it sweetly. Nearly two minutes of silence follow, but then comes a surprise "hidden track." If you wish its contents to remain a surprise, skip the next paragraph.

In this track, Kimmel tells sound engineer Vinny Cirilli about a nightmare in which he heard "Getting Married Today" from Company performed by the McGuire Sisters. Then we hear his nightmare expertly realized. This is a hoot, providing a great, offbeat ending to the disc.

Most of these songs have been recorded more effectively elsewhere. But there are enough good performances that many readers of this column will find it a worthwhile, though perhaps not an essential, purchase. And I certainly would not want to be without DeLaria's and Dame Edna's contributions.


-- Alan Gomberg


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