Sound Advice Reviews
The satisfying sounds of Sondheim
With Stephen Sondheim becoming a nonagenarian on March 22, it seems fitting to look at, listen to, and linger in his world as represented by recordings released in the last couple of years. Whether one is playing catch-up or playing favorite tracks for the zillionth time, it can be a rewarding binge. I've always found this to be true, privately or in sharing thoughts with TalkinBroadway's readers, from the time I took over this column 15 years ago, when my first review here was for a cast album of Sondheim's The Frogs and my first write-up of a live event was for the 12-hour Wall to Wall Sondheim concert. And, while attending big live events with fellow enthusiasts timed to the birthday week aren't in the forecast, hunkering down with the recorded renditions of two British cast productions, a disco diversion, and three female vocalists' solo outings seems like sound advice. Happy birthday to Mr. S. and many happy returns to theatre stages.
[Soon/Now/Later: Besides the brand new disco item, these recordings have been around for many months. Some review items we don't get right away, and some we just don't get to when things pile up. Belated arrivals or backlogs often cause us to think it's more practical to "move on" to newer things on the radar; but a rare better-late-than-never exception is being made here for these worthy older items in view of the landmark Sondheim's birthday.]
The sophistication of Sondheim gets hijacked and goes disco? Wait, is it April Fool's Day already? No. And the on-hiatus New York nightclub Feinstein's/54 Below that is home of the series "Sondheim Unplugged" isn't reverting to its old identity as that disco destination, Studio 54. Losing My Mind: A Sondheim Disco Fever Dream, however, would be right for DJ-spinning there, although the physical CD won't be out until April 17. But think of pre-ordering. And it will be available for download this Friday.
Yes, the title tells (almost) all: this is an audacious, often outrageous visit to dance-floor music with the birthday boy's music and lyrics reincarnated. It can be a hoot or hot, depending on your sensibilities. It's clever in its M.O. of seesawing frequently between two songs or mashing together a few (thus titles of the combo platters such as "It's Hot Up Here in This City on Fire"). Sampling and trampling over the songs, with some snippets of lines (even dialogue quotes) so that only real fans will instantly be able to "name that tune" adds to the sense that this is all done with fondness.
Part guilty pleasure and part genuine musical triumph, there's a big entertainment factor with skillful singers who have musical theatre performances on their resumes, with some powerhouse momentsespecially when things build or someone settles into one song for a while and wails. The vocalists are Joshua Hinck (who conceived the idea), Alison Luff, Blaine Krauss, Aneesa Folds, Charity Angél Dawson, Vishal Vaidya, Brittnie Price, Juwan Crawley, Deonté L. Warren, Aili Venho, and Onyie Nwachukwu. They are accompanied by a 13-piece orchestra. Arrangements are by Scott Wasserman.
I enjoyed having this unusual re-branding wave wash over me. I'm not a big disco dude, much preferring Sondheimian musical theatre fare, so I'd not trade "Being Alive" for "Stayin' Alive" and would opt for A Little Night Music over a little bit of "Boogie Nights." If I were spending months on a desert island and only allowed one Sondheim album, I wouldn't pick this one, but it's a novelty that is terrific at what it does. And the disco-allergic can be reassured that the genre term "disco" is used broadlythis is not at all consistently heavy, oppressive, relentless thump-thump-thump-throb-throb-throb stuff. There is variety in tempo, style, the amount of sound explosion, and not everything follows a recipe of taking several swaths of music and whirring them in a blender on high speed with mini-bite-sized pieces.
For example, while Sunday in the Park with George's "Color and Light" takes its cue from the pointillism-adjacent quick beats suggesting paint-dabbing, and a chorus echoes some individual words, we get a full three-minutes of the song. And then there's "The Miller's Son," adding an irresistible sudden segue into a dance beat when the lyric mentions "dancing." Of course.
Join the party.
If we're known by the Company we keep, I'm known to keep handy several versions of that longtime favorite score in the forms of vinyl, CD, and video on my shelves side by side by side. With the latest addition/latest edition for the collection, there are "Vive la différence!" moments that make these tracks stand out. The cast recording from the 2018 British revival lets us consider the show's situation anew, with several characters cast as the opposite gender of the originals. A decade prior to the first Company, Stephen Sondheim wrote in a Gypsy lyric about the difference it makes when you've got "a gimmick," but the gender reassignments are more than just an attention-getting choice. The original show's unmarried central charactera man named Bobby in Manhattan turning 35 as society entered the 1970sis reinvented and reinvigorated and modernized.
Now, we're in the company of a never-wed female with dates and candidates for marriage, even considering a guy who's one half of a gay couple in the now-updated-to-present era as gays are legally able to be "Getting Married Today." (That song's neurotic bride Amy is now a fellow named Jamie.) Bobbie bubbles with a seemingly more open personality, and star Rosalie Craig's singing of the material feels cozier and, well, juicierless guarded and less glum. Her energy and spirit are playful. Likewise, it's both entertainingly recharged and thought provoking to hear some roles that were once female now served by male voices and the attitudes that come with the territory. As examples: It's fun to listen to the griping as a misery-loves-company kind of male-bonding in the guys' trio, "You Could Drive a Person Crazy"; and the "morning after" attempted exit strategy of "Barcelona" with the man dressing to leave the woman in bed can be thought of as reversal or suggest something universal about human connection (or the lack thereof).
The 14-member orchestra as conducted by Joel Fram (who also did additional vocal arrangements) has vitality and is heard on its own visiting familiar themes blithely but briefly with music for bows and audience exit as well as the revamped "Tick Tock."
Although the souvenir in question is the documentation of a British production, all but one of the fine cast members hailing from the U.K. leave their accents at the stage door since the action is, as originally intended, set in New York. The exception is George Blagden, who gets the solo "Another Hundred People." Once the domain of the character named Martaa somewhat ditzy damethat personal take on the impersonal nature of New York daily life is intoned by an Englishman who was in one of those sets of hundreds arriving. It feels calmer and more distantly observed now. I miss the frenzy, but am glad for the change of pace and view.
The other big point of interest for those who've long had the songs in their heads and love Sondheim's expertise with words and rhymes is the more interesting lyric changes, made because of the gender changes in casting or updates to replace references to obsolete habits or add a more contemporary expression. (In "Another Hundred People," in regard to communication, it's out with the answering service and in with texting; in "Poor Baby," we hear the line "Don't go there," and, since Bob doesn't quite work as a woman's nickname, the rhyme of "available Bob'll..." and "marital squabble" is replaced by "marital tension" assuaged by "her intervention" in "Side by Side by Side.") Those starved for Sondheim newness due to the dearth of output in recent years will lap up these and more tiny treasures by careful listening and perusing the full lyrics included the physical CD's booklet that also has 14 color photos from the production, a plot synopsis, credits, and a one-page introduction written by director Marianne Elliott.
Ms. Elliott's vision brought her and just one of this company's actorsthe indomitable and second-billed American star Patti LuPone as judgmental Joanneto Broadway, where it was scheduled to open this month, neatly timed to Sondheim's 90th birthday. Although pandemic precautions prevent that, we can at least enjoy the recording of the formidable LuPone performance that puts her own sturdy stamp on the role created by growling grande dame Elaine Stritch. The little things she does to spice up "The Little Things You Do Together" and the distinctive phrasing employed while scorning "The Ladies Who Lunch" are fun to drink in. (I'll drink to thatand one for Sondheim!)
Next year we can celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the original Broadway production of Follies, so I'm hoping that will spur more stagings of the show and concert presentations. Stephen Sondheim's sensational songs for that masterful scoreall things bright and beautiful and all things bittersweet, bravura, pastiche, and powerfulstill work their magic. It was proven once again in this most recent cast recording, from London's National Theatre, with showstopper after showstopper. This material that presents the memories, regrets, lies, longings, and loves consuming the people at the reunion of stage performers long after their glory days is here againgloriously. Follies is a feast. (What we get is the original score; there are no numbers that were written for the first British production or cut songs put back in.)
Follies fanatics may argue about favorite renditions from the other cast recordings that feel more endearing, dynamic or definitive. (How would you like your heart to be broken?: with a dash of wistfulness or a cup of cathartic rage?) There are some big and bold choices here, some more sweetly sympathetic, but not too much finds artists coloring outside the lines to be radical. It's a matter of degrees. Let's consider first the two central married couples. Philip Quast is a well-rounded Ben, bringing out different qualities in each of his main opportunities, and Janie Dee as Ben's long-suffering wife Phyllis is less brittle or bitter than others have played her. Peter Forbes makes Buddy truly tragic in his frustration and failures with "The Right Girl"; his "Buddy's Blues" is less laser-focused and somewhat upstaged by the boisterous shtick of the female sidekicks. Imelda Staunton's Sally is quite appealing in her vulnerability and insecurities as we follow her through the story. However, when we finally arrive at "Losing My Mind," it's kind of odd to make the first part so anemic and then fast-forward to frenzy and end with a melodramatically extended cackling gasp. But looking at how she generally approached this key role, I'd say I loved it. (Or am I just being kind?) The four actors who play the spouses' younger selves, a bit too glib and gushing, don't come across as naïve and dainty enough for the ideal sweetness quotient.
Plenty of personality comes through in showpieces that are great opportunities for other one-shot star turns: Di Botcher's "Broadway Baby" has moxie and command; Tracie Bennett's "I'm Still Here" is tough and earthy, but kind of all over the place; with her wide vibrato and a voice radiating a quaint mix of strength and fragility, Josephine Barstow as Heidi, the older opera singer, is dignified and touching.
One of this recording's greatest assets is the very satisfying sound mix that gives such prominence to the orchestral accompaniment (big nod to conductor Nigel Lilley) and the vivid orchestrationsJonathan Tunick's brilliant originals with some additions/adjustments by Josh Clayton, the New York's City Center Encores! assistant music director. Instrumentally, there's so much nuance and color in the details, suggesting subtext, tension and characteras well as the splashes of pizzazz for the old-timey show biz anthems.
The way Follies' characters and songs force us to face the inevitable consequences of the years and opportunities and people zipping past us is ever-impactful. Each new cast reminds us.
Her own round-number birthday is the day after Stephen Sondheim's, so congrats, too, to Melissa Errico, who's had a head-start with singing his material. She has starred in concert or fully staged productions of Into the Woods, Do I Hear a Waltz? and Sunday in the Park with George and she has sung his work in her solo shows at venues like Feinstein's/54 Below in Manhattan, with one engagement captured on recording that includes some of his work, such as "No More" from Into the Woods, which is also in the studio set called Sondheim Sublime.
The performances here are rich in actorly detail, all the while the vocal line basically stays in a respectfully conservative lanein a good way. She and pianist/arranger Tedd Firth loyally and lovingly recall original frameworks while stretching and embellishing, relishing the established gem settings and bringing their own shine with decorations. Unlike the way he has displayed his skills elsewhere, the primo pianist does not jump into indulging his inventive jazz chops and more muscular playing here; he's adapting or acquiescing to a thoughtful musical theatre-driven, defined lane. ("Losing My Mind" and "Send in the Clowns," for example, retain their now-iconic piano introduction and spare accompaniment figures.) Nevertheless, the keyboard work is commanding and committed, attentive to detail, deftly creating new and alluring images, allowing for pauses with little silences and instrumental phrases that let moods and lyrics sink in and be emphasized. Any real spotlight on the fine veteran bassist David Finck or drummer Joe Bonadio is rather absent.
Much here features what those with frequent-flyer miles over Sondheim territory will know as "main course" frequent picks for recordings and concerts, covering things written for stage, film ("Goodbye for Now" from Reds and Dick Tracy's "Sooner or Later" in a more relaxed late-night mood that eschews the easier super-slinky seductive thing) and TV ("I Remember" from Evening Primrose). A medley has "Not a Day Goes By" married to "Marry Me a Little," which brings a subtle new perspective about levels of devotion. But even with the most familiar of the familiar, things sound strikingly fresh and inviting, unrushed and genuine. Add all this TLC to the classy and simpatico pianistics and the rich, well-rounded vocals that diligently serve the song rather than upstage it, and you've got a win/win.
This very articulate writer's repertoire, drenched in awareness of human psychology, is projected with intelligence in involved and invested readings by Ms. Errico. Diction is notably excellent as the dense lyrics are meticulously unspooled to reward similarly concentrating listeners. (Heeded is the strong suggestion in the lyric to the included "Children Will Listen": "Careful the things you say/ Careful the things you do...")
For digging deep into emotion with enough reserve and taste to keep away from getting close to overdose, Melissa Errico is an excellent candidate for handling the heavy lifting and the uplifting messages.
A same old/same old footstep-following road map is not the ticket for Cyrille Aimée's Sondheim sojourn. The last word in the title of this jazz vocalist's recording is indeed apt; Move On: A Sondheim Adventure is very much an adventurous and daring re-casting of the familiar selections (almost all of which she co-arranged) that is the musical equivalent of a blood transfusion or, if not a brain transplant, an attitude adjustment. And let me say right off the bat that I find it invigorating and refreshing. If you're ready, willing, and able to trade some potential drama for an influx of determined optimism, there's much to marvel at with these breezier arrangements and her disarmingly sunny voice that seems to smile while she sings.
These interesting interpretations aren't beholden to the original contexts of the mindsets of the characters in the musicals sampled. One moment we're jumping along a parade route at a mardi gras ending with the celebrants chanting the title phrase (and state) of "Being Alive," after a minimized dose of that Company song's expected angst and pleading. Early on, she seems post-catharsis, already "been there/ done that" with the single person's decision to commit (the process we typically hear as going on in real-time agonizing, tentative steps in this and the included "Marry Me a Little"). For the seemingly serene Cyrille, the course of true love runs more smoothly than it does for those on bumpier roads with less efficient shock absorbers. Passion's experience of "Loving You" is still "not a choice," but less burdensome or daunting. We can hear as naive or resilient the attitudes that come through the young-sounding voice of this performer (born the same year this collection's title song's source, the musical Sunday in the Park with George, debuted). When this supportive personality gets to the advice to "Move On," you might sense that she's of an emotional age to be a sage, trustworthy life coach holding out a safety net she'll catch you in.
The set list is a welcome mix of stuff that's often recorded (like the likewise reassuring "Not While I'm Around" and "No One Is Alone") and the more rarely heard. Foremost among these (although, alas, the full lyric isn't heard), it's great to have Sondheim's pre-professional "When I Get Famous." It's full of zip and jazzy touches galore. Also from early times we are treated to the charming independent song "They Ask Me Why I Believe in You" that is a good fit for the unaffected, warm persona projected throughout. There is sweetness in the gentle "One More Kiss" from Follies that is sung in the native French of Mademoiselle Aimée.
The bountiful banquet is flavored differently from track to track with various combinations of instruments. Some arrangements, tempi choices, and vocal approaches in phrasing are closer to original sources and some are more audacious, so that the proceedings don't become a "What will they think of next?" series of thinking-outside-the-box tricks. Sondheim songs have power as well as staying power and, while we'll always have the invaluable original versions and their close-to-the-bone covers, with coming years of more recordings, we must move on from a tendency to redundancy to encourage personalized re-interpretations. To quote the master's own line in "Move On": Interpreters, "Let it come from you. Then it will be new."
"Old situations, new complications" indeed! And it's not just about a kooky, cool way with "Comedy Tonight." Cheryl Bentyne's striking Stephen Sondheim survey, Rearrangements of Shadows, is quite the wide mix of styles, instrumentation, arrangers. moods and approaches. There are the frequently covered items like "Move On" and the rarely approached ("Sand," written for a movie that was never produced). The repertoire represents nine different scores, with one number plucked from each. (The menu includes Company's "The Ladies Who Lunch" with and without the collegial singing and silly spoken asides contributed by two jazz peers: Tierney Sutton and Janis Siegel, Ms. Bentyne's teammate from their work as members of Manhattan Transfer.)
Purists may pout at the more daring detours from the beaten paths as songs are taken apart, examined, and put back together in unexpected ways. The vocalist, whose recording career includes other collections of the works of musical theatre giantsCole Porter and the Gershwinstakes risks in seemingly irreverent ways and can also boil a ballad down to its spare essential emotions. Her remarkably rangy, flexible voice is on full display. She and her musical mates have a field day.
Accompaniment ranges from just pianofor a dark, deep-voiced, contemplative "I Wish I Could Forget You" (from Passion) that is hauntingly elegantto two tracks with seven instruments, including a marimba and a string quartet. On a couple of others, there are just a few subtle rhythmic players setting and keeping the beat; on one of those the primary partnering comes from two male voices providing a bed of non-word sounds and backgrounds. You might think this would distract or defeat when taking on "Send in the Clowns," but its essential mood shines through, and this much-recorded number done most often in close-to-the-first-treatment way gets a lovely new life.
If the included "Everybody Says Don't" might be thought of as a dare or directive about dangers of re-inventing Sondheim, Cheryl Bentyne is replying, "Well, I say 'do!'"and the chances taken can pay off handsomely for those of us who are up for the invitation that promises "And now for something completely different." Should there be any doubt, note the liner notes that profess admiration for the writer and his songs, wanting to make them stand alone as out-of-context songs freed to discover new possibilities. But the more things change, the more they stay the same Sondheim wit and wonder at the core. There may be rearrangements of shadows, smoke-and-mirror tricks covering the surface... Ah, but underneath!