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SOUND OFF: Sondheim Palooza Part 5

SONDHEIM PALOOZA PART 5
ASSASSINS, PASSION, THE FROGS & ROAD SHOW
You Can Change The World

Today, we present the final section of the Sondheim Palooza for this week with a discussion of Sondheim's work in the last two decades. The shows themselves stand as solid proof that this is a composer/lyricist still at the absolute height of his abilities and at the top of his game, as we can very clearly hear in the scores for ASSASSINS, PASSION, THE FROGS and ROAD SHOW...

God

A new song written for the Broadway revue SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, written by the show's subject himself, is titled "God". That name, or term, is the perfect distillation of the plight of a deified artist like Sondheim when he attempts to create something new and present it to an audience. In short: his new scores are held to the impossibly high standards of his previous work, much of it regarded as the finest songwriting ever to grace the stage. In the last two decades, Sondheim has still managed to push boundaries and shock audiences with his audacious choices in subject matter, musical style and political content. More so than perhaps any other show he has written - with the sole exception of PACIFIC OVERTURES, which Sondheim cites as the first part of the thematic trilogy written with John Weidman continued with ASSASSINS and ending with ROAD SHOW - ASSASSINS is a game-changer. PASSION is perhaps Sondheim's most romantic, rapturous score and is particularly illustrative of the versatility Sondheim possesses in going from perhaps his most satirical, down-beat - even mean-spirited - musical to his most lushly romantic in four short years. THE FROGS is the show he had begun in the mid-70s that was originally performed in the Yale Swimming Pool, but was brought full-circle on the urging of new book-writer and eventual star of the show Nathan Lane and came to Broadway thereafter. ROAD SHOW has an even more colorful history than even SATURDAY NIGHT or THE FROGS, having been begun in the mid-50s around the time of SATURDAY NIGHT but not reaching the stage until nearly fifty years later, and only in a production that got Sondheim's stamp of approval ten years after that (and under a new title). Taking a look at these shows collectively, we see that even in the twilight of his years Sondheim is working with three distinctly different collaborators and creating shows whose scores are just as unique, exciting and revolutionary as the ones he wrote in the 50s. 60s, 70s and 80s. God, indeed.

Just One Gun

ASSASSINS

Before Quentin Tarantino made it uber-cool to rewrite history in an ironic, satirical manner with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman did just that, but instead of a rumination on World War II, they tackled an even more controversial, touchy topic: American presidential assassins, whether or not they successfully hit their target. If one thing is for sure it is that ASSASSINS hits all the right notes for Sondheim and he states in SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM that it is the most perfect musical he has yet created; a show that onstage is the closest to what was once only an idea in the artist's mind. True, this score has some of Sondheim's most infectious and catchy tunes to date, and also some blisteringly powerful dramatic moments, and even an ersatz love song or two - albeit love songs sung between two suicidal would-be serial killers, in once case, and to a gun in the latter case. ASSASSINS is a play with music more than a musical in the traditional sense and the score is short and sweet but packs a big wallop of an intellectual punch. Both recordings of the score go a long way to preserve as much of John Weidman's dialogue as possible, as well as put across the tone, mood and style of the piece. This show is an ensemble pieces more than even COMPANY or INTO THE WOODS and each character gets their chance to shine onstage, if not always in song, so we are lucky to have as much spoken dialogue as we do here. So, put away your American flags for the time-being and put ‘em up!

ASSASSINS - Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording

SCORE: 9/10

This is an alive, almost breathing, recording like few out there and one of the first cast recordings to take advantage of the digital separation and sound effects made available by the then-new compact disc. The cast is the stuff of legend, and while the production did not last very long due to the political climate at the time because of the Gulf War, those that saw it at Playrights' Horizons still rave about the jaunty, effervescent production directed by Jerry Zaks. Victor Garber is an effective, if affected, Booth. Terrance Mann sounds absolutely glorious in "The Gun Song" and the harmonies by the entire ensemble are spot-on and spine-tingling. Debra Monk is absolutely a joy as Sara Jane Moore and really makes the most of her material. The rest of the cast also acquit themselves well with the material making this original recording - like most if not all of the others we have discussed- a definite must-own for your collection. Not guilty!

ASSASSINS - 2004 Revival Cast Recording

SCORE: 10/10

With an embarrassment of riches to behold, the 2004 Broadway revival of ASSASSINS, brilliantly directed by Joe Mantello, won a slew of Tony Awards - and rightfully so. This album is every bit the equal to the earth-shattering production onstage with an electric, exciting rendering of the evocative score. With a cast as starry and formidable as this, the show was bound to be good but somehow all the pieces and parts of this recording converge to bring the whole show to the level of true transcendence - though that may seem impossible to conceive of for some given the title and subject matter of the show. Marc Kudisch's voice is pure sonic gold. Denis O'Hare is a manic - if moribund - cut-up as Guiteau. Michael Cerveris, who won a Tony for his role, is brooding, effective and exquisitely emotionally biting at the climax of his song. Neil Patrick Harris is an absolute joy and quite a revelation as Lee Harvey Oswald and the Balladeer. Mario Cantone is absolutely hilarious as Byck in his two extended monologues. The rest of the cast is nearly as good as the performers I have pointed out and my thanks goes to PS Classics for creating one of the most theatrical-sounding and dramatically compelling cast albums of all time. Shoot to win!

Shit, I Think I Shot It

Don't let the title dissuade you: ASSASSINS is immensely entertaining and the score is effortlessly ingratiating. "Unworthy of Your Love" is one of Sondheim's most beautiful duets, on the level with "Too Many Mornings from FOLLIES and "Move On" in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. "Everybody's Got The Right" is not only one of Sondheim's most rollicking show tunes, but one of the most brilliant songwriting concepts made dramatic theatre he has ever devised. The new song written for the London production that is included on the revival recording, "Something Just Broke", is just what the title purports it to be - heartbreaking. This is a show that will always stir up controversy and chaos, but such is the case with all great American musical, even one Sondheim was partially responsible for creating: WEST SIDE STORY. Sondheim takes no prisoners with this score and he hits a bulls-eye with this august score.

I Love

PASSION

One of Sondheim's more difficult to appreciate shows, PASSION tells an Italianate beauty & the beast story with generally unlikable characters who, somehow, over the course of the show's single act, make us care about their passions and plights. Based on a film titled PASSIONE D'AMOUR, the score could not possibly be any more different from what Sondheim had written before. Using a melodramatic storytelling style, the James Lapine/Sondheim musical has divided fans ever since its premiere fifteen years ago. This is not easily hummable or even instantly enjoyable music, it is dour, difficult, depressing and dissonant. Yet, there are some moments of ethereal-light-made-musical in some sections, the most romantic and rapturous material of perhaps any Sondheim show, on the order of "With So Little To Be Sure Of" from ANYONE CAN WHISTLE and "Send in the Clowns from A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. With Lapine as director and book-writer, perhaps we should be glad that the show did not have a second act as I'm not sure if I'd like to see the great-grandson of Clara and Giorgio's illegitimate son (had they had one) confront Dr. Tambouri about a woman named Fosca in the present time. Jokes aside, PASSION is dead-serious with nary a guffaw to be had and requires almost academic attention to detail in order to unlock the true beauty, power, scope and magnitude of its rich, complex score.

PASSION - Original Broadway Cast Recording

SCORE: 8.5/10

Donna Murphy gives a once-in-a-lifetime performance as Fosca, one of the most delicate and detailed portrayals of a complicated character ever onstage. She does the near-impossible and makes us truly, deeply, passionately love her ourselves by the time of the Train Station scene and "Loving You". Jere Shea is appropriate if innocuous as pretty-boy Giorgio. Marin Mazzie, in her Broadway debut, is golden-throated and glorious navigated the lyrical, almost operetta-like material composed for Clara. The rest of the cast is all good, although they leave little impression on the recording considering the fact that the show is really about the love triangle at the show's core. The album sounds quite good, very clean and concentrated. For most Sondheim fans, this is the PASSION to own and it is easy to see why.

PASSION - Original London Cast Recording

SCORE: 8.5/10

Love her or hate her, Maria Friedman throws herself into the role of Fosca with a fierceness and ferocity unlike most actresses, particularly those in musical theatre. Is it a caricature it is so over-the-top? That is for you to decide, but no one can say she robs the character of any gravitas or pathos in her full-throttle, full-voiced take on the character. Michael Ball is an exquisitely well-sung and sweetly acted Giorgio, and his performance of the cut song "I Love Fosca" makes this recording a definite must-own as that is, perhaps, one of the score's finest assets and a real head-scratcher as to why it was cut from the show. Helen Hobson is good, though she does not possesses the otherworldly vocal instrument of Mazzie or McDonald. This recording was actually made at a concert presentation, though the applause was omitted, which gives the whole recording a bit of a stale, canned feeling. It is still highly recommended and I found these performances painted the story in more broad stokes which was actually quite beneficial in getting to know just what exactly Sondheim was attempting to do with the piece.

I Thought I Knew What Love Was

PASSION is described by Sondheim as "a rhapsody" and it is not the traditional chorus number/I-want-song/duet-style show that he worked on in his youth so if you choose to get to know these characters and go on this journey you must stick with it from beginning to end, uninterrupted. The reason I point this out is because the original Broadway production has been preserved on film and is available for purchase on DVD and is, without a doubt, the best way to experience the show if you are unfamiliar with it. It is a highly recommended DVD, not only to see the nuanced performances of the exceptional actors in close-up but also to hear the score in glorious surround-sound. I almost must mention that the DVD contains a newly recorded commentary track by Sondheim, Lapine, Murphy, Shea and Mazzie that is something akin to true love itself for fans of the show since it is so in-depth, candid and entertaining. LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER also recently broadcast a version of the show starring Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald and Michael Cerveris and, truth be told, that is my favorite and, in my opinion, the best sung recording of the show, though it is not available for purchase on CD/DVD. Youtube it, you will thank me, though you will not go wrong with picking up either or both of these splendid preservations of the sumptuous score.

Evoe

THE FROGS

Based on a play by Aristophanes and originally written as an experimental piece with Burt Shevelove, THE FROGS is perhaps the most unusual musical Sondheim has written to date (and that includes EVENING PRIMROSE, which we will discuss more next week in our discussion of Sondheim on Film/TV/DVD). With the first version of the show written in 1974 and the vastly rewritten and expanded version not appearing on Broadway until nearly twenty-five years later, THE FROGS proves that Sondheim writes his scores so carefully and his characters are musicalized so idiosyncratically that he could go back nearly three decades later and write songs every bit as good - if not better - than the originals, and make the score stronger and the show better as a result. The new songs for THE FROGS actually post-date the majority of the material written for either BOUNCE or ROAD SHOW (that last show in our Sondheim Palooza, coming up next), so the Broadway recording of the score acts as, for all intents and purposes, a taste of what the twenty-first-century Sondheim sound is. And it sounds quite good, indeed! But, back to Dionysus...

THE FROGS / EVENING PRIMROSE - Cast Recording

SCORE: 7/10

Nathan Lane and Brian Stokes Mitchell are a raucous, ribald and winning pair in this beautifully produced and packaged album courtesy of Nonesuch. Lane sings the Dionysus material with palpable relish and wrings the comedic material of every last joke and jab and the show on disc is the better for it. This recording is notable primarily because it was the first professional consideration of the work - although the original cast of the show did include Christopher Durang and Sigourney Weaver they were not yet professionals and, of course, no legal recording of that production exists. This cast recording was made following the 2000 NPR concert SONGS I WISHED I'D WRITTEN which also featured the debut of the then-new song from BOUNCE (later retitled ROAD SHOW), "A Little House for Mama" which was subsequently cut from the show. While this recording is recommended more for Neil Patrick Harris and Theresa McCarthy's attractive performances of the material from the 1967 Sondheim/ James Goldman television musical EVENING PRIMROSE (a review of that next week), it is likely due to the artistic success of this recording with Lane that the show was brought to the stage a few seasons later.

THE FROGS - 2005 Broadway Cast Recording

SCORE: 9/10

THE FROGS is the last new, or almost new, Sondheim musical to play Broadway. Susan Stroman directed and choreographed the Cirque du Soleil-esque production at Lincoln Center and although the show was fraught with preview problems - most notably the replacement of a lost-at-sea Chris Kattan with a more subdued and appropriate Roger Bart - it deserves a good, long, hard look and listen. While the original musical material composed for the show was at times atonal and dissonant, the new material is much more immediately appealing and more fun. "I Love To Travel" is Sondheim's most bouncy and bawdy number since "Comedy Tonight" in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and it is that show, more than any other in Sondheim's canon, that THE FROGS shares the most similarities with, at least on record. "Ariadne" is coolly hot-blooded (a verbal contradiction in terms, perhaps, but listen to the song and tell me you disagree) and "Hades" is a hell of a lot of fun (pun intended). Roger Bart continues to display his vast ability to mine comedic material for a lot more pathos and emotion than even the material may at first suggest, yet this is Lane's show. Daniel Davies also gives a great performance as George Bernard Shaw and the complete Shakespeare/Shaw dialogue scene is generously included on this fun and infectious cast album.

Fear No More

While THE FROGS contains many charms, it is perhaps not fair to hold it to the high standard set by Sondheim's more serious works. If we are to compare it to A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM or SATURDAY NIGHT, it is easy to see early-Sondheim in this score, but also a lot of late-career poetry and elegance, such as in "Ariadne". This is my personal favorite of all of Sondheim's out-and-out comedy scores (I don't include COMPANY in that, well, company) and I think the dance and choral music in this piece is among the very best of the best. The Shakespeare sonnet made song with "Fear No More" is among the most unusual and Bernstein-esque music Sondheim has ever created and that composer - and his CANDIDE, whose 1974 Hal Prince-directed revival Sondheim wrote additional lyrics for at the same time as working on this show - seems to have been a big influence on this score. That is a huge compliment, of course, and a clue as to the ambitions and goals Sondheim set for himself with this score. Yes, the show onstage did fall short of its lofty political call-to-action assuagement of the audience, but one cannot fault Sondheim for that as the ham-fisted Bush metaphors were Lane's doing and not Sondheim's. THE FROGS is an essential entry in the twenty-first-century Sondheim fan's collection if only because it has a number of new tunes and some wonderfully fun and likable performances, but also because it stands as proof that Sondheim is just as capable of writing an old-fashioned hummable show tune as Jerry Herman, though it is rare to hear as many as we are so lucky to have here. Jump on it!

Brotherly Love

BOUNCE & ROAD SHOW

The newest Sondheim musical to hit the stage has perhaps the longest gestation period of any musical in Broadway history and I, along with Sondheim himself, wish he hadn't spent quite so much time trying to fix the unfixable. Like MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, this is a score that works well on disc but does not hold up as well in performance onstage largely because of the old-meets-new structure and style of the show and a number of elements that just don't add up to form a cohesive whole. The Mizner brothers are a fascinating subject for a musical, but the fact that their story lacks a 2nd act - like most American success stories - spells disaster for a two-act musical. While the show is far from a disaster, it is also quite far from great, I am sad to report. Speaking of success des'estimes, ROAD SHOW also shares a connection with MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG in that it was the show - at that point titled BOUNCE, and a much different show than what became ROAD SHOW - that brought Hal Prince back into a creative partnership with Sondheim. Pity that didn't last, but if you look closely at BOUNCE - more particularly at what works and what doesn't - you may see why.

BOUNCE - Original Cast Recording

SCORE: 7.5/10

Richard Kind and Howard McGillen are an altogether different Addison and Wilson Mizner than what you may at first expect if you are familiar with the performers' past work. Kind is, well, kind-hearted and emotionally affecting in ways I was not so sure he was capable of putting across. McGillen is requisitely ravishingly sung but lacks the dramatic heft the role seems to require. Michelle Pawk is brusque and bitchy as Nellie, a role since excised from the show (and it is easy to see why), but sings one of this recording's best songs, "What's Your Rush" quite effectively. Gavin Creel is absolutely phenomenal as Hollis and his "Talent" is the highlight of this recording, a wonderful new Sondheim song with a witheringly witty and unexpected final line. For me, this is the better of the BOUNCE/ROAD SHOW recordings because it feels organic and of-one-piece - as well as highly theatrical. For those unfamiliar with the show, I'd recommend checking out this recording first and if you like what you hear you can take a spin of the final recording on our list.

ROAD SHOW - 2009 Off-Broadway Cast Recording

SCORE: 7/10

Alexander Gemignani and Michael Cerveris are in excellent voice and perform their material with aplomb. Sondheim veteran William Parry is a lot of fun playing their father. Claybourne Elder is a warm, inviting presence who makes a tricky character work quite well. The Nonesuch recording is beautifully produced and packaged. The best feature of this recording is the premiere of the newest Sondheim song on record - that is, until SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is recorded - the character song "Brotherly Love". So, why am I not falling over myself to praise this, the newest Sondheim musical? Something is missing, the show lacks a heart. What Lane and Kind gave us in showbiz know-how and old-school ribaldry finds no equal component here and the show just does not seem to be that much fun. After all, wasn't the point of the show to be a fun frippery with a bit of a message and nothing more? ROAD SHOW is all messages and metaphors with little to no fun.

The Game

A confession: I do not think the rewrites and reconsideration of this material, whether BOUNCE or ROAD SHOW, improves upon the original version presented back in 1999, then titled WI$E GUYS. While BOUNCE tried to add sex and pizzazz to the show, ROAD SHOW tried to make it a show about two brothers' relationship and its dissolution as a metaphor for America. Neither take on the text worked. Sondheim's intention with the show - let's call it the Mizner Brother's Musical - was to create a fun, frivolous road-show entertainment on the order of a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movie. WI$E GUYS was closest to that original intention and I'm not quite sure why these takes on the material, whether BOUNCE or ROAD SHOW, got as far along in production as they did. Any Sondheim is worthwhile to explore, investigate and enjoy, but I would be lying if I said it stands on the same level as the string of masterpieces running from ANYONE CAN WHISTLE to ASSASSINS.

The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened To Me

It ain't easy being God of musical theatre, but with ASSASSINS, PASSION, THE FROGS, and ROAD SHOW we can very easily see and hear that Sondheim was still churning out challenging, thought-provoking entertainment long after many of his contemporaries could or would (Challenge: name one great score written by any Broadway master after the age of 60). Sure, ROAD SHOW is not the great masterpiece on the level of FOLLIES or SWEENEY TODD or SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, but perhaps in time we will be able to see the authors' intentions more clearly and the message behind the material will become more lucid since it is a bit bland as it stands now. As it is, it is a very good score with a lot to like in it and a worthy continuation of a incomparable career with "Brotherly Love" proving Sondheim certainly has still got it. ASSASSINS may very well be the last musical masterpiece we will see from Sondheim, and it is certainly the most vivid, vital treatise on America that Sondheim has ever explored in any of his shows. ASSASSINS should be studied in high schools, and I don't doubt that someday it will be. PASSION is Sondheim's ode to love, to romance, to sex, and that makes it unique in his canon because of its unflinching look at the glory and Hell, the gilt and the dirt, the pleasure and pain of human relationships. PASSION says more about the human condition that perhaps any show we have discussed this week, perhaps any show ever. THE FROGS is a smartly-written diversion of a show with some interesting political insights, and Sondheim's paean to the other authors in the hallowEd Halls of history that he, too, will stand alongside someday if he is not already. Shaw, Shakespeare & Sondheim: I can see it, can you? Look closer. Listen closer.

We hope you enjoyed this five-part Sondheim Palooza, and be sure to check out the previous SOUND OFF columns reviewing GYPSY and WEST SIDE STORY from a few weeks ago, as well as an in-depth look at the 2009 Broadway Cast Recording of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, all linked below.

Next week, we will be completing the canonical criticism of Sondheim with a SONDHEIM ON FILM/TV/DVD feature highlighting the soundtracks for the films and television specials that Sondheim has participated in. See - and hear - you then!

 


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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)