Montage from last year’s Broadway production of Sondheim on Sondheim
The following review also appears in the current issue of The Sondheim Society’s magazine. A London production of the show is anticipated for 2011.
Does Stephen Sondheim really play pinball on his Mac when the muse doesn’t show up? The sound effects during one of the recorded asides that punctuate “God”, a witty, self-deprecatory number written specially for Sondheim on Sondheim certainly suggest it. I hope it’s true because if he relies on the odd bit of displacement activity – and a vodka shot or two – to get his writing gear working, it would make the rest of us see all the hours we spend procrastinating, dawdling and daydreaming in a much more positive light.
Such revelations pepper the revue, which arrived on Broadway to coincide with Sondheim’s 80th birthday celebrations last April and has been preserved in a two-disk original cast recording that artfully balances entertainment with documentary. And in many ways, they are among the bravest and most revelatory comments he has ever publicly made about himself as a human being and a working artist.
There is an intimacy about his observations that is far more profound than anything Jude Kelly managed to extract, for example, during their interview at the Royal Festival Hall in October. This alone makes for a listening experience that, while completely different from seeing the production at first hand, is compelling –and often touching – in its own right.
On stage, Sondheim’s narration was conveyed through specially filmed interview footage presented on numerous flat-panel screens so that he became a fully integrated character, acknowledged by the performers who could interact with him at several key moments. In a purely aural medium, his commentary inevitably becomes more detached. But thanks to producer Tommy Krasker, a veteran of 14 Sondheim cast recordings, there are still moments of connection that make you blink at the loudspeakers in wonder, not least the final number – “Anyone Can Whistle” – in which you’re suddenly aware that a new singing voice has joined the eight-strong cast for the last stanza; it’s Steve himself, tentatively suggesting that if we whistle, we could do so for him.
If this is showbiz sentimentality, it’s of the highest order and repeated listening doesn’t diminish the impact, coming as it does after Sondheim has analysed his love of theatrical collaboration as compensation for the lack of family life that blighted his youth. As he explains during the course of his commentary, his songs are character and situation based. They are not autobiographical. And yet for those who know and love his work, it’s impossible at certain moments while listening to Sondheim on Sondheim to escape the sense of an artist reaching out to his audience in search of understanding and affection.
“Anyone Can Whistle” is the culmination of a revue that is presented as memoir rather than chronological autobiography. Themes and artistic challenges rather than specific events are the triggers for many of Sondheim’s observations. All that has been important in his life – personal as well as creative – is alluded to.
Important influences and collaborators – Oscar Hammerstein II, Hal Prince, Mary Rodgers – are celebrated. Sondheim’s difficult relationship with his mother is pithily summarised, its long-term ramifications acknowledged. The revelation that he first fell in love at 60 comes almost casually, sandwiched between the charming “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” (Bounce) and numbers from Passion, by any standards one of his most emotionally intense pieces.
The songs, carefully culled, interspersed and, occasionally, amalgamated in telling medleys (never more poignantly than the combination of two of his most dazzling torch songs “Losing My Mind” and “Not a Day Goes By”), become a commentary on Sondheim’s narration. And as has become traditional with a Sondheim anthology, the show’s creator and director James Lapine seizes the chance to raid the archives for songs that were eventually replaced in original productions or revivals. This time, Company proves a fascinating source, the tale of its three endings serving as an excuse to revive two complex numbers: “The Wedding is Off” and “Happily Ever After” (which evolved into “Being Alive”) are worth hearing again, even if they also confirm that sometimes a producer’s reservations about a particular song are spot on.
With great economy, Sondheim describes the process of artistic creation, demystifying his own contribution as part of a collaborative effort, explaining that his work is not self-referential, but that writes for the specific circumstances of a character at that particular moment in the story. “God” is a delicious deconstruction of his own myth, poking gentle fun at his detractors and supporters alike.
It’s ironic that the biggest star of this cast recording is the recorded voice of the show’s central character when the hard work is done by the performers who bring the songs to life with some lightly scripted joshing and interplay that helps to maintain the loose sense of a developing story.
Chief among them is Barbara Cook, whose voice remains one of the wonders of Broadway. It might be thickening now in the middle register but the soaring beauty of one of musical theatre’s great sopranos remains a potent force, serving some of Sondheim’s signature numbers – “Not a Day Goes By”, “Send in the Clowns”, “Take Me to the World” and two of Fosca’s ominous, brooding soliloquies “I Read” and “Loving You” – with supremely intelligent interpretations.
Vanessa Williams is under used on the album, although she contributes a rich, creamy “Losing My Mind”. Among the male voices, Tom Wopat delivers a stunning “Finishing the Hat”, Norm Lewis wrings every sliver of meaning from “Being Alive” and Euan Morton brings the developing writer’s dilemma to life in “Franklin Shepard, Inc”.
Sondheim on Sondheim is an expertly produced double album that complements rather than replicates the original stage production. Michael Starobin’s orchestrations are restrained and elegant, supporting some shimmering ensemble work, so that the overall effect is of a holistic collage rather than a staccato series of standalone numbers. This sets it apart from most previous revue-style anthologies and in many ways harks back to the purity and simplicity of that original pioneer piece, Side by Side by Sondheim, albeit with a 21st century angle on the material.
There are some omissions, from the recording at least. Pacific Overtures, one of Sondheim’s most challenging and rewarding pieces, is never mentioned. More puzzling, neither is Sweeney Todd. Given that it is one of his most popular and frequently revived musicals, this seems odd and as the final chords die away, there is inevitably a nagging sense of something missing. But even without the demon barber, Sondheim on Sondheim is a fitting 80th birthday addition to the library of recordings of his work – and one of the best of its kind.