Sound Advice Reviews
A Sondheim score, a Sondheim Project
I've been doing a deep dive into songs by Stephen Sondheim lately, gorging on the new recording of Merrily We Roll Along, and then, wanting more, I went merrily scavenging through my "waiting list" that included a five-song EP of his creations done in a new way and remembered two full-length projects that each had one serving of Sondheim on their diverse menus.
MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
Tempus fugit! As I listen to the fine new Broadway cast recording of Merrily We Roll Along's seven scattered sung "Transitions" wherein company members let the audience know what specific years we're flashing backward to (or passing through), a related thought strikes me: the time span of the show's action, just about 20 years, is now about half the span of the time between the year this musical first played (briefly) on Broadway and its current revival. In between the first cast album from 1981 and the just-released digital recording of this new production, there have been three other officially released audio recordings: two other New York City mountings (by the York Theatre in 1994 and City Center's Encores! in 2012) and a 1992 British production featuring this new revival's director, Maria Friedman, in the major role of Mary. Those of us who've been long and happily addicted to the Stephen Sondheim score as the years went rolling along, merrily or otherwise, now have one more variation to value and validate our assertion that it's always been a gem. And that gem still shines in the 27-track souvenir of this well-cast edition. (Understandably, it felt essential to treat yourself to the 1981 treatment, which has songs not retained in later versions, and the material added for other productions which is present here, too.) Bits of dialog from George Furth's book are heard, but not much.
While the smallish orchestra (13) deprives us of some richness and detail, original orchestrator Jonathan Tunick's revisions make the most of less. Arguably, things thus feel more intimate, which is sometimes true of the singing that tends to resist brashness. Attention is paid to diction in those "Transitions" filled with probing questions and descriptions of the many "roads" to choose from in life so that we really hear the words that could otherwise swirl by at a faster clip or denser accompaniment. In the divvied-up sections, ensemble members' solo voices with their contrasting timbres are striking. It's not an anonymous homogenized group sound or one-tone Greek chorus. A little instrumental motif that might be woven through the score, repeated, adapted, or expanded into a longer section can stand out in high relief, too.
There's a lot that's moving in the performances as we follow, in backward chronological order, the saga of three friends who bond and find that those ties that bind are breaking. While this newest Merrily stands on its own as a valid, visceral rendering, I note shades of differences among the protagonists (and how each came across on other recordings) as to whether they seem more (or less) sympathetic, ambitious, confident, resentful, or justified in their perspectives. Jonathan Groff as Frank, the composer who strays from the theatre and his ideals (and his wife), manages to convey the conflicts and consequences with some brash defensiveness, but also some lingering regret that might make the older Frank more of a disillusioned tragic figure than hardened antihero. In some numbers he leans on underlining observations in breathy tones rather than legato or bigger-voiced singing to telegraph pained realizations ("Growing Up") or awe ("Our Time"). Daniel Radcliffe as Frank's lyric-writing partner is endearing and intense, without playing up the neurotic quirkiness; his rant of resentment about Frank changing from presumed BFF to the too-busy, money-driven "Franklin Shepard, Inc." builds gradually from slow burn to inferno. Lindsay Mendez, with her clarion voice, makes Mary stand out as decisive and assertive, taking things in stride. She projects strength and resilience so that her missing life "Like It Was" is not as wistful as it could be. Leading the wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee song, "Now You Know," a sunniness in her sound allows the reality check to be encouraging and practical with little hint of harshness.
The two other prominent female characters also get multi-faceted portrayals. Katie Rose Clarke is suitably vulnerable and warm as Frank's first wife Beth, bringing out the way her character is hopeful or haunted, singing the two different lyrics for "Not a Day Goes By." Krystal Joy Brown has the role of Gussie, whose personality and plot involvement changed as Merrily We Roll Along got revised. Still kind of a femme fatale, she's less of a garish and glib cartoon here and more multi-dimensional, doing her own "Growing Up" with growing awareness of the stakes and mistakes that might be at hand.
The digital booklet includes lyrics, some background information and commentaries, and many photos of the company. Merrily We Roll Along continues its run on stage at the Hudson Theatre.
SARA SHILOH RAE & BLUEBIRD JUNCTION
In a word: Bravo! Dynamic vocalist Sara Shiloh Rae and the six-member band of string players called Bluebird Junction do something wonderfully different with five Stephen Sondheim songs while respecting the basic musical DNA. This set of attention-grabbing reinventions as cozy bluegrass music feels neither gimmicky nor awkward, but like an authentic alternate universe that's a very nice place to visit. It works, without seeming to be trying too hard to hijack a Broadway-bound vehicle to land in the backwoods of Kentucky.
Although a Sondheim devotee myself, I did not enter this experiment kicking and screaming, but curious–and was soon delighted. This fresh, rootsy "Americana" styling is beguiling. In fact, I found myself wishing they'd pushed the envelope further, with more country flavor and longer instrumental interludes, even a little freewheeling hand-clapping and foot-stomping. As singer Eleri Ward most recently proved with her own stripped-down neo-folk treatments of the composer-lyricist's oeuvre, stylistic transformations can triumph and enchant.
In command of her flexible voice, Sara Shiloh Rae is a musical chameleon, a songwriter who was a self-described "theatre kid" and went on to study and perform opera; here she is returning to the fertile fields of bluegrass, her first love. The skillful members of Bluebird Junction are pure pleasure to listen to, individually and collectively. They are: Myles Sloniker (bass, arranger), Alex Hargreaves (fiddle), Mike Robinson (guitar), Jacob Jolliff (mandolin), Molly Aronson (cello), and the man on the banjo, Max Hoetzel, the husband she met long-distance when switching gears because opera bookings were canceled due to the pandemic.
"Broadway Baby" takes on a whole new perspective in this genre, not sung from the point of view of a determined but struggling actress in New York City "making rounds all afternoon." Instead, we meet a naive girl crooning her unrealistic fantasies of stage success, although she's always been far, far away from the Great White Way, and her only impressions of what working in professional theatre would be like come from glitzy, glamorized presentations in old movies (or movie magazines). "The Miller's Son" might be the most natural fit, as a fiddle takes us into its faster sections; then, we might be at a lively square dance. Less transportable is "The Ladies Who Lunch," losing some of its punch and bite when not delivered as a tipsy indictment of self-absorbed women of leisure the observer knows too well. But let's suppose the person observing them is a new arrival to their milieu, more baffled and disappointed in what she sees instead of dyed-in-the-wool judgmental. "Sooner or Later" has its usual slinky confidence of seduction, more forceful and/or fun than other renditions you may have heard. And then there's "Send in the Clowns" which has more colors than just the baked-in resignation and irony. The band's intro and short segments between vocal sections each take us to different moods, and some anger is allowed to bubble up in the singing when it comes to "Just when I stopped opening doors/ Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours."
Indeed, throughout The Sondheim Project, new layers to the familiar material are revealed with the freedom allowed, the dextrous, characterful instrumental work, and involved singing. Isn't it rich?
If you know the inescapable agony (and obsession) of carrying a torch for someone as expressed in Stephen Sondheim's song "Losing My Mind" and "With Every Breath I Take" by Cy Coleman and David Zippel, you have experienced the most anguished of the portrayals of the romance obituaries in the collection of live performances (culled from various engagements) by singer-actor Ben Jones. The two numbers are effectively interwoven in a misery-loves-company break-up mash-up with a cry of pain. But this raw weeper is only one flavor of the survey of love post-mortems in I Think We Should See Other People; other tracks are hilarious, pensive, snide or angry. And there's an impressive vocal range shown, too, from gentle high tones to sustained and soaring notes that are belted with vigor. Much of his included well-written patter is sly and fun, delivered with a wink and expert comic timing. The guy is compelling whether the mode is tongue in cheek or heart on sleeve.
Venting ("I Wanna Be Around"), lamenting ("In the Wee Small Hours"), and circumventing lusty feelings (The Book of Mormon's "Turn It Off"), Ben Jones leads a parade of passions as a commiserating commentator on universal emotions. With a remark about how countries also have relationships that end, he fits in Hamilton's strutting taunt for England's king, "You'll Be Back," which he does with panache. Beyond an ease with showtunes and Great American Songbook standards, he also nails worthy, meatier pop music items in different styles (Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," Bruno Mars' "When I Was Your Man," Brandi Carlile's "The Joke"). Ron Abel is at the piano–and at his best–hitting not just the right keys and beats, but also the right emotional frameworks of the varied attitudes, breathing and building with the singer. I think I Think We Should See Other People is a tour de force.
Ben Jones can be found singing in Manhattan nightclubs in December, with a solo performance at Birdland on the 4th and in group shows at 54 Below on December 1, 12, 16, and 23–and there's a Chicago concert on the 9th, so he can "see other people" besides New York's residents and tourists.
ANTOINE DRYE: WITH STRINGS
Stephen Sondheim fans who insatiably sleuth for new recordings of his songs will find a treasure hunt's prize on a collection called Retreat to Beauty, and this "Send in the Clowns" is an indisputable beauty. Sublimely slow and majestic, the elegant treatment by trumpeter Antoine Drye and his fellow musicians is certainly a highlight, but there's plenty more to recommend this enjoyable release, such as the haunting, gorgeous theme from the film noir Laura and the Billy Strayhorn composition, "Isfahan."
Orchestrated by Isaac Raz, the album is lush and lovely, its subtitle, Oblation, Vol. 3: Providence! refers to this being the third in a series of "oblations" (defined as "offerings" in the religious sense). The set includes a couple of numbers presented on the earlier volumes with other players. Here the soloing horn player is joined by instruments that include other brass, piano, clarinet, flute, bass, drums, and–as emphasized on the cover–a string section.
The proceedings begin with a very brief but notable theatrical touch: a bit of scripted dialog involving a child attending a live orchestra concert for the first time. (Fun fact: The doting father is played by Vondie Curtis-Hall, whose credits include the original cast of Dreamgirls.) Then, it's mostly a series of dreamy and pretty musical voyages, with muted trumpet often leading the way through the atmospheres that can be relaxing but not somnolent. Pianist Sullivan Fortner is especially effective and graceful. There's variety in the set list which includes compositions by Mr. Drye and his late friend and colleague Jonathan Lefcoski. There's one vocal on Retreat to Beauty, but it's presented on the CD in the manner of what was called a "hidden track" in the early days of that format–coming after a long period of silence. It's called "Ringing in the Bells," written and sung by Kim Kimistri Kalesti, a lilting and radiant end to an all-around satisfying listen.