SOUND OFF: S.O.S.
Today we are taking a listen to the Original Broadway Cast Recording of SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM starring Barbara Cook, Tom Wopat, Vanessa Williams, Leslie Kritzer, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey, Matthew Scott and Norm Lewis, and also taking a critical look back at Sondheim's incredible, incomparable career. While the show onstage at Studio 54 as directed by James Lapine failed to catch fire or leave a big impression on critics or audiences, PS Classics went to the trouble to record a cast album preserving most of the show as it was seen so they deserve praise if only for that. There are some obscurities here - some college ditties, cut COMPANY finales, an abandoned GYPSY number - plus brand new, candid interviews with Sondheim himself as well as a shiny new Sondheim patter song written expressly for this revue titled "God". Never a more applicable song title could have come from Sondheim's pen when discussing - and poking fun at - his own career as the Brains Behind Broadway. Let's see how Sondheim in general, as well as this show, stacks up on (the) record!
God Thing Going
SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM: Original Broadway Cast Recording
A Sondheim revue is a dicey proposition. Why, you may ask, since Sondheim is the unquestionable God of serious musical theatre? Well, first of all, until SWEENEY TODD, the only well-known movie versions of any Sondheim shows were the ones he wrote lyrics for - WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY - and the ones based on his shows as a composer/lyricist were largely terrible to torturous (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC) so the public at large really only had his songs for DICK TRACY to go by if they couldn't make it to Broadway or weren't aware of the stage productions on VHS/DVD. Nowadays, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have introduced Sondheim's genius to a whole new generation with SWEENEY TODD which was an R-rated hit and nominated for many Academy Awards a few years ago. Also counting Sondheim's eightieth birthday and the endless parade of celebrations that have honored him and his career, including the Lonny Price-directed Sondheim salute coming to PBS in October starring a who's who of Broadway and hosted by David Hyde Pierce. SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is the celebration to top all celebration and it was announced on that very stage that Sondheim was informed of the Henry Miller being renamed The Stephen Sondheim Theater this year. Never a more apropos capper to a whopper of a year of Steve's songs and stories.
From A to Z, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is overflowing with content and it could have been a mess. After all, Sondheim songs don't work that well out of context. Strike One. Yes, this is a problematic show - far, far more onstage than on disc - but that's to be expected with the hit-or-miss nature of this material. Mileage may vary depending on what era of Sondheim you tend to prefer. The early, dense jazz sound that is pervasive in much of his first score composed for the Broadway stage, SATURDAY NIGHT, as well as ANYONE CAN WHISTLE which is truly his first fully functional score in the Sondheim mold we have come to know and love - and up to the excellence of his entries ever since. A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, like THE FROGS a few years later, has a less substantial presence in his oeuvre than the other scores do if only for the lighter, more comedic concepts that drive each show, though the 2004 Lincoln Center THE FROGS that was greatly expanded with five new songs and a new book by Nathan Lane under Susan Stroman's direction was far more cohesive, coherent and compelling than the earlier version. EVENING PRIMROSE will always remain a bit of an odd bird, but it possesses many alluring philosophical - and even occasionally whimsical, if acerbically so - charms and one of Sondheim's most achingly beautiful and haunting compositions ever, "I Remember". Then comes the 70s streak of unparalleled genius, the reason Sondheim is rightfully deified by Broadway babies - as in the brand new song in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, "God" - with 1970's COMPANY, then FOLLIES - which coined the very term "Broadway Baby" - and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC - which coined "Send In The Clowns" into the canon of pop-crossover, Sondheim's only such hit as a composer - as well as PACIFIC OVERTURES, the aforementioned SWEENEY TODD and then the misunderstood masterpiece of melody, feeling, inventiveness and conviction that is MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. All of these shows are the accomplished masterpieces they are in no small part due to the contributions of director Hal Prince who directed each of these shows except in the case of FOLLIES which he co-directed with Michael Bennett (who also provided Musical Staging for COMPANY). More than any of the other Sondheim score in that twelve year period from COMPANY to MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG - the Sondheim-Price Era - it is that final score that perhaps best represents Sondheim's gifts as a composer and lyricist during that period. Each score is so different from the last, yet there is a distinct syllogism between COMPANY and MERRILY in their pure Broadway pop sensibilities. They also go a long way in documenting the growth of the songwriter in new, innovative and exciting directions. I do not think the Sondheim who wrote "Being Alive" is the same Sondheim who wrote "Not A Day Goes By". He grew up, he experienced life, he tasted the wine and it shows in the words and music. But, who - just who - could foretell what would come in the next compositional era of Sondheim.
It is a rare thing that an artist - especially a composer/lyricist working in a popular medium like musical theatre - has three distinctly definable eras, but Sondheim does. First came the Early Sondheim phase, then the Sondheim/Prince Era, and lastly, perhaps the most fascinating and illusive of all, the Late Sondheim Era. Onwards from the adult pop and Broadway and into the minimalist operetta of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. How to describe the score beyond that? Complicated. Combustible. Affecting. INTO THE WOODS is perhaps the most audience-friendly show of Sondheim's since A FUNNY THING... and it should come as no surprise it is his most performed show by amateur theatre groups. SWEENEY TODD - that Grand, and gory, Guinol opera - is catching up, though. ASSASSINS will always be edgy and the score is Sondheim's most unusual. Well, maybe the Kabuki-style PACIFIC OVERTURES will always own that crown, but ASSASSINS has its share of stylistic flourishes that will always make it stand out. PASSION is the most unlikable Sondheim score if only for its moody, ruminative tone and implicit depressing trappings that weigh the sumptuous moments in the score down in the end. It can cast a spell in the theatre better than it can on disc. The opposite is true of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC which works as well on disc as any show, as does COMPANY, which is always entertaining. FOLLIES will always split fans and critics alike, yet this critic happens to think it is the greatest Broadway score of all time, just as good as WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY. To have composed anyone's opinion of the three best Broadway scores of all time is something to be proud of, but many, many more hold this opinion - if not all three, at least one or two out of this list of his shows has to slip in. More recently, we have had the "musical review" PUTTING IT TOGETHER and a new Sondheim show definitively called ROAD SHOW, but also possessing a previous recording called BOUNCE. There's also his movie scores - he won an Oscar for Madonna's "Sooner Or Later" from DICK TRACY - for REDS, STAVISKY and DICK TRACY and a few songs are featured in THE BIRDCAGE. There is a seven part series on every major Sondheim cast album with reviews, scores, descriptions and purchase links at the bottom of this page. So, how does SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM cover all this ground in 2 discs time while managing to paint a satisfying portrait of the man? Well, it doesn't, really.
It's a bit like not eating all day and then going to a buffet and being told you can only use your saucer for a plate. And you can only fill it up once. That's the feeling I'm left with after SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM as a Sondheim fan. Yes, I learned something new - or two. Yes, some of the performances were enjoyable, even memorable. Yes, Sondheim is a genius. But, why is this preferable to a cast album with these songs? It isn't. It just isn't. So, we are left with the songs that have never been recorded before, and there are some really fun songs and some that I wish were given full airing. I guess that's the paramount problem: Sondheim fans would rather have complete recordings of all the unrecorded, unknown, unusual songs and people not familiar with Sondheim or those new to him thanks to going to this show will want a facsimile of said show. So, what to do? This recording is neither complete in that it represents the show onstage at Studio 54 - "Ah, But Undernearth" as well as some other material has been trimmed from the unusually expansive (these days) 2 disc set - nor as an archive of previously unheard Sondheim songs given their first showing in this show. Yes, we get snippets - and those that are there, especially "The Wedding Is Off", are enticing and nice - and those snippets are woven well into the fabric of the show Lapine has crafted from these disparate, disparate elements. It all has a bit of a patchwork sensibility, and there is an overriding feeling that something hasn't taken flight. It's like we've caught everyone on an off day: from Sondheim, as reflected in the curious song choices and clattering arrangements of them; to Lapine, who seems to be directing Sondheim to talk as fast as possible while he reads us his Wikipedia entry; to the cast who all seem to wish they were singing bigger, brighter (and in some cases, better) songs than what they have been given; to the production of the album which at times fails to juggle the cacophonies created herein. Occasionally, it does soar - Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams are wonderful on their "Not A Day Goes By"/"Good Thing Going" medley and Euan Morton scores with "Talent", as does Norm Lewis with everything he does (which is far, far, far too little). Barbara Cook has been given some songs I would not have given her, and others (some left off the disc) she has recorded better before ("Loving You"). There is a coldness at the core of the proceedings, from the delivery to the recording itself. You know your show is icy if Sondheim seems like a genial old grandpa and everyone else like something out of a Brecht play. Mostly, this is a "So what?" show, but the hearts of all involved - Lapine to Sondheim to cast - were in the right place. It just should have been so much better. So should have the disc. It's better than nothing, but, in Sondheim's own words from INTO THE WOODS, "Nice is different than good."
From This Author Pat Cerasaro