Sondheim on Sondheim
What better way to end the summer or start a new month and (theatre) season than with a Broadway cast album of a revue of songs by the master who gets a theater named after him this month: Stephen Sondheim. It's a big, exciting, two-disc, three-cheers treat. Good things come in small packages, too, with an 11-song set that is the debut disc from a vocalist named Kathryn Smith.
SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM
With a long career, many original and revival cast albums, and prior recorded revues, Stephen Sondheim truly has, to quote one of his songs included here, "A Good Thing Going." Some may say this is mostly redundant, drawing the same water from the same welleven though it's a great well. Of course, much is familiar but also much feels new because of the voices and personalities and interpretation, as the cast makes the material their own. If you can never have too much of a good thing or a good thing going, merrily rolling along, this cast album is a welcome addition. Some selections, like the group numbers "Opening Doors," "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs" and "Something Just Broke" are treated similarly to the way they were heard in their original contexts and characterizations, as self-contained musical scenes with lots going on. Others are truncated, grouped to show a progression of how one song written for a show was cut and replaced by another in the same spot, while a couple with similar themes are melded. A rare new approach is taking Company's bouncy Andrews Sisters-style pastiche "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" and making it into a little, not-so-jaunty argument, with spoken asides, between two people who get on each other's nerves. It kind of works as a change of pace, like trying the ice cream parlor's flavor of the day but not wanting to give up the original flavor you like. If the whole show and album were hewing very, very closely to past renditions and arrangements, the endeavor would indeed be less valuable.
For those well versed in Sondheim and the many discs of his compositions, let's focus on the new aspects. Of course, first of all, there's the title promising we get the man himself addressing the man himself, his oeuvre, and addressing the listener. The spoken comments, culled from new and old interviews and used in the stage version, are judiciously excerpted between songs on the album. They're illuminating and/or entertaining and present his work ethic, long view perspective, personality and humor. The segues generally work very well, without being belabored or obvious. There's some underscoring for blend, too, such as hearing an instrumental of "No One Is Alone" (not done vocally) as Sondheim talks about liking his alone time but loving the art of collaboration. This leads into the title song of Company and "Old Friends" by the company.
Though some are oft-recorded pieces, others are rare, like "Talent," written early in this century for Bounce comfortably side by side with "When I Get Famous" written in 1951. (These two numbers did not make the final version of the show, while others that did are not on the recording.) And there are songs cut from shows but not included in other tributes and revues, like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum's "Forget War" (short though it may be). It's interesting to see recognizable ideas and small or chunky clusters of words and melody we know from a song that made it to a show as compared to an earlier version of a song in the same spot, such as the wedding songs for Company. The newly written, clever "God," lets the songwriter knock himself off the pedestal and also mock his mockers, using his knack for rhymes and wit to musicalize some criticisms that have dogged him ("You think the tune is going up/ It's going down" is jarringly sung in a way that does exactly those things as the words are being presented.) He also deliberately borrows from himselfto write "Look who's God" to the tune of the title phrase of "I'm Still Here."
The company members all get good moments, though the album tracks don't exactly duplicate what is done in the show. The ever-glorious and richly nuanced Barbara Cook, whose concerts and recordings have dug deep and satisfyingly into the canon, had a headstart and is perhaps best served by the material, and the material is often best served by her. Vanessa Williams, who has done Sondheim's Into the Woods, has some lovely moments, but sometimes seems reserved-and-graceful rather than digging in. She has some fun with "Smile, Girls" (which had been cut from Gypsy after one performance). Norm Lewis is powerful yet poignant in "Being Alive" and in standing his ground in sections from Passion. Euan Morton shines frequently and shows versatility vocally and in presenting some very different characterizations, from youthful optimism to the fevered, raw-edgy writer in "Franklin Shepard, Inc." Along with Leslie Kritzer, Matthew Scott and Erin Mackey, they bring zip and endearing qualities to several numbers, and are especially terrific in "Opening Doors," but "Something's Coming" seems like a too-self-consciously-trying-to-be-different and upbeat vocal arrangement. Tom Wopat doesn't get ideal showcases, with "Finishing the Hat" not working so well out of context, though he is a valued asset as a team player in group songs and some abbreviated numbers.
The orchestra and orchestrations sound better and are fuller than what is heard on stage. That's great news, but not so surprising as the producers/label are the Sondheim CD people of choice: Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin of PS Classics, making sound sound choices and trims, nips and tucks to make this a coherent at-home listening experience. (The CD, for example, does not have the snippets of songs that introduce each performer on stage near the top of the stage show, somewhat effective and "welcome the cast parade" fun there, but would be disjointed and disconcerting on an album.) With conductor Andy Einhorn and Mark Hartman both on keyboards, and seven other players in the band here, the familiar and unfamiliar arrangements are at their best.
A nice recent discovery is a female vocalist belatedly making her CD debut: Kathryn Smith. From the instantly arresting first bars of "So Many Stars," she raises the bar and sounds solid and at ease, with real presence. A focused, breathy, intense and sultry sound envelops her chosen material; it encompasses standards and more. The title song, from the Broadway musical City of Angels, is an example of her commanding, serious persona which can be quite mesmerizing. She lingers in the rich layers of that Cy Coleman/ David Zippel haunting piece and plenty of emotion and a sadder-but-maybe-not-wiser persona are projected.
Most tracks are engaging and show thought and involvement with lyrics. However, the flagrantly jaunty-without-change "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)" takes a chance with that usually bittersweet standard that doesn't work for me. She takes too much at face value what the character is insisting she feels rather than bringing out the "except sometimes" pained admissions about the heartbreak triggered by reminders of the happier shared past, like hearing that person's name "or someone's laugh that is the same" or the coming of spring. And though her voice's moody, airy, hushed and basically interesting sounds are intriguing, it is also somewhat limiting and I'd like her to open up more on high notes.
It seems that in the last few years, more singers are taking on Joni Mitchell's old songs and urging them into being comfortable candidates for inclusion the Great American Songbook. "Urge for Going" is the one going for that status here, and it is a highlight, with Kathryn treating it with care and involvement. Another pop item, the old Carole King/ Gerry Goffin hit first targeted at the teen market, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," is quite adult fare now, and likewise gets another convincing recording to make it graduate into the serious standard category. Breezier, light songs like "Little White Lies" and "Squeeze Me" are agreeable company, too. She starts the latter with a self-harmonizing studio trick making her a girl group; the charming idea is then droppedit might have been nice to keep it up or at least return to it after the strong start.
The accompaniment is a fine five-man band; Brian Conigliaro, the arranger and the CD co-producer (with the singer also so credited) plays guitars, mandolin and harmonica. And guess whatno piano and no drums. That gives this vocal solo CD of mostly familiar songs a refreshingly different feel. Mr. Conigliaro's own "Nothing Beats the Memories" is a worthy track that the canny Kathryn brings her skill set to and shows thoughtfulness without overkill.
There's a lot of smart stuff going on here, and the pleasing vocal qualities and simpatico arrangements and playing really make for good company. I've found myself returning to it above and beyond the call of duty.