Sound Advice Reviews
Send in the Sondheim salutes
Although they were recorded before his passing just after Thanksgiving, these collections of the songs of Stephen Sondheim can't help but evoke thanksgiving for his talent and feel like loving, wistful memorials. I am confident that, had they been released a year before or after, their merits would make both releases stand on their own as standout entries in the long line of projects surveying the composer-lyricist's work.
Forty-two tracks! So many splendid singers! Almost every single Stephen Sondheim score sampled! And all with musical accompaniment by just one guy: pianist Joseph Goodrich! Sondheim Unplugged (The NYC Sessions), Volume 1 is the first harvest of the fruits of the labors of a cabaret concert series spanning ten years, giving us a lot to drink in and be delighted by. As he says in his liner notes, Phil Geoffrey Bond (producer of the studio recording and producer/director/creator/host of the live shows) entered into an obsession with these scores when he entered his teens and was inspired by the Sondheim 80th birthday salutes to put on the Unplugged programs with theatre and cabaret performers. They continue at Feinstein's/54 Below in Manhattan, with the next few installments set for January 23 (live and livestreamed), February 27, and March 22 (Stephen Sondheim's birthdate, of course, and the day the second of the three volumes of recordings will be issued).
As in the concerts, a special feature in Volume 1 brings back some theatre performers, decidedly in character, reprising roles they've done on stage over the years. Included thusly are a few who deserve special mention for full-fledged, nuanced characterizations. Teri Ralston has been Sally in three productions of Follies and is heartbreakingly fragile in the way she presents the idealized image of Sally supposedly seen "In Buddy's Eyes." Liz McCartney, who has played Mrs. Lovett in a mounting of Sweeney Todd, is on target with that lady's chipper chattiness and English accent intact for "By the Sea." And there's Annie Golden of the original 1990 Assassins cast, as vibrant as ever, with that score's "Unworthy of Your Love"; her worthy song partner this time is Michael Winther, and both set off sparks.
Happily, among the most entertaining selections are a few numbers rarely recorded. Eric Michael Gillett, who was a swing for three roles in the Lincoln Center mounting of The Frogs, is artful and engaging with that expanded score's "Ariadne." Hunter Ryan Herdlicka aptly displays singing and acting talent with "Talent," from the much-changed project that went through titles including Bounce and ended up as the show named Road Show. You're not likely to find the cute Follies duet "Rain on the Roof" anywhere except on cast recordings of the score (it didn't even make it to the truncated first cast album), but it drops in here, with cheery charm courtesy of Stearns Matthews and Natalie Arneson.
With the exceptions of six arrangements fashioned by other musical directors, generally the agenda for Joseph Goodrich's assertive piano work reflects rather fierce loyalty to the outlines and prominent, dominant instrumental figures many will know so well from the original cast versions. Sometimes, hearing the percussive drive and insistence of the piano alone, without the range of colors and layered details that only other instruments can provide, what once subtly anchored the settings is all too blatant a design. In some numbers, however, the piano is less by-the-numbers and more sensitive, breathing more with singers, rather than seeming to push or pull them (and the song) along. In any case, some Sondheim stuff is inarguably complicated and "busy," and the piano playing rises to the occasion best on a few of the pieces with the most complexity and changes.
Even if restricted to the confines of the tried-and-true blueprints, some performers infuse their renditions with their own irrepressible energy and pizzazz, such as Karen Mason who sizzles with "Live Alone and Like It" and Gabrielle Stravelli with vim and clarity in both voice and intent on "There Won't Be Trumpets." Sally Mayes is classy and in command with the inevitable "Send in the Clowns." Brian Charles Rooney oozes confidence stylishly sashaying through "Sooner or Later." In "Gee, Officer Krupke" and "Someone in a Tree," vocal chameleon Jacob Hoffman impresses mightily as he takes on all the different voices/characters himself. And fasten your seatbelts for Marta Sanders and her roller-coaster drive through the survivor's anthem, "I'm Still Here," that has everything required and more: guts, grit, self-awareness, self-deprecation, humor, rue, and rage.
Among the non-Goodrich arrangements are Scott Coulter's tricky trio treatment of "Being Alive" for himself, Christina Bianco, and Carole J. Bufford. Also note the two plucky pieces assigned to the vocal group Marquee Five, who make "Something's Coming" and "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" snazzy with the charts devised by the quintet's Adam West Hemming. Member Julie Reyburn solos with an arrangement by Mark Janas, settling into her own very much owned comfort zone for a fully inhabited "Not While I'm Around" that is, for me, the most involving and affecting of all the Volume One ballads.
Will this column ever include a cease-and-desist plea saying that folks have issued too many Sondheim recordings? Not while I'm around! A cast album of a Stephen Sondheim score was this devotee's first assigned review when I took over this column almost 17 years ago, and the 12-hour Wall to Wall concert of his work was my first review for the website of a live showI'm glad that "I'm still here" and ready for more.
Beyond the more standard covers, A Perfect Little Death evidences the promise of an afterlife for for Stephen Sondheim's songs beyond their musical theatre origins. They've been rethought and reshaped by a performer who is influenced and inspired by the sensibilities of singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. Stevens, the feathery-voiced singer of his own highly personal, genre-defying creations, is someone Ms. Ward openly states as being "obsessed" with, touting him as a role model for an approach to performing and for the songs she's written and presented on EPs and concerts before this release. In the all-Sondheim program here, we can perhaps observe some of what's rubbed off, such as a definite independent streak in approach and naked emotion, but the stripped-down affair by the woman with a more crystalline vocal instrument is not his female aural doppelgänger. Described as "indie-folk," the guitar and multi-tracked sweet-toned vocals of Eleri Ward bring new, intimate, ethereal stylings to the repertoire, with "Being Alive" being more contemplative than combustive and the so-often-covered "Send in the Clowns" still able to send a sigh of irony.
Hauntingly melancholy, moody, and even mystical, the material melts into legato loveliness, layered lines of her overlapping self-harmonizing vocals becoming "orchestration" and/or a cloned choir. Simpler repeated guitar accompaniment figures serve as mantra-like propulsion. A state of burdened self-reflection can morph into a seeming self-hypnosis. Beware: it might pull you into its spell.
Eleri Ward draws out the drama in the 13 selections without great variation in volume/dynamics; she creates a long, linear flow that doesn't favor phrasing that could allow for mini-pauses before or after words for emphasis. Be willing to go with her flow, sacrificing attention to some potentially pithy and pointed verbiage that gets swept along in the smooth, pretty stream. The impact of emotionoften that of quiet sorrow and muted angstregisters and resonates more with an overall broad wash through the sliding melody lines rather than key words getting priority for being pounced on or lingered over for their sting or vulnerability. But when the words register, the new setting and "confessional" styling make us, as listeners, shift from being merely appreciative listeners at a comfortable distance to being voyeurs, unintentionally overhearing someone's private processing of feelings and experiences.
Eight scores are represented in total, one or two picks from each, except Sweeney Todd, which is favored with three. Both Follies choices were written for the character of Sally ("In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind"). A few other numbers originally written for male characters are comfortably taken on, with the original pronouns retained.
Those of us who have the Sondheim words and music deeply ingrained in our minds, but are openminded, may be intrigued to experience these gems in a new costume, and I hope newcomers who might be more into "indie" folk than into show tunes might find A Perfect Little Death a perfect point of entry.