This week, we look at "Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim" and the reissue of That's the Ticket!.
MANDY PATINKIN SINGS SONDHEIM [Nonesuch 79690]
In discussing Mandy Patinkin in Concert, Patinkin's 2001 show featuring selections from in part on his album Kidults, I wrote: "I can understand a talented artist wishing to add something unique to his performance; the desire to make it personal rather than just performing the material like everyone else. Patinkin appears to take this as his personal challenge, and that's his prerogative. What he doesn't seem to realize, at least from where I'm sitting, is that his ability to deliver a song — music and lyric, the words as well as the subtext — is in itself unique. Grafting on gimmicks and funny voices and other eccentricities doesn't enhance the material; it simply detracts from the purity of what Patinkin does best. Which is to express the intent of the authors."
In Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim, Patinkin's new CD, he has toned things down considerably with highly pleasing results. (Patinkin is presently performing the program on Broadway. Celebrating Sondheim plays the Henry Miller Theatre on Sunday and Monday evenings, through January 6.) This is not to say that Patinkin doesn't impose his personal stamp on the material; he goes through much of the evening in a trancelike mode, with the songs arranged in interrelated segments. (He opens with an 18-minute string of eight songs.) And there are, indeed, a very few places where he goes over-the-top; Burrs of The Wild Party even makes a brief appearance, as an unlikely "Broadway Baby."
But mostly this is Mandy at his best, and this is an impressive tour-de-force. I would not begin to suggest that nobody can sing Sondheim as well as Mandy; but I don't know who could do such a remarkable job on 31 Sondheim songs in 82 minutes. Again and again, Patinkin interprets the songs in a way that clarify the meaning and enhance the emotion. He describes the program in the liner notes: "Rather than an overview of Sondheim's 50-year career, it is a figurative journey of how Sondheim's lyrics and music speak to me."
There are any number of highlights, and I'm not going to bother to list them. But I feel the need to point out "All Things Bright and Beautiful" from Follies, perhaps the finest "lost" Sondheim song. "Trust me, anything you say, kid" Mandy sings, in such a way that the elusive Benjamin Stone is suddenly, momentarily revealed. (Is Patinkin the actor who could solve the problem of this problematic character, the hole in the middle of every production of Follies I've ever seen?) Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim is loaded with surprises for Sondheim enthusiasts; you could sense fans at the Miller rushing to identify each song from its opening notes. "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" had quite a few of them stumped; this rouser, from the 1967 TV musical "Evening Primrose," shows Sondheim on the verge of Company. The biggest surprise is when Mandy caps all this top-drawer Sondheim with "Take the Moment," from the Rodgers-Sondheim collaboration Do I Hear a Waltz? (and the only non Sondheim music of the program). This was a booming ballad for an opera singer slumming on Broadway, presumably intended by Rodgers as a pendant to "Some Enchanted Evening." "Take the Moment" has always sounded a bit bombastic, to me anyway; but not when Patinkin sings it. He removes the boom, if you will, revealing a song of tender beauty.
Patinkin is accompanied, on disc and stage, by Paul Ford at the piano. (The arrangements are credited to Ford and Patinkin.) Ford plays Sondheim like Patinkin sings him, catching every nuance and accentuating the positive (and negative). There is no orchestra, just one lone keyboard. Ford seems to capture every instrumental fill and counter-melody we are accustomed to from repeated replays of Sondheim cast albums. Singer and songwriter are in exceptional hands.
While I'm at it, let me pass on a diplomatic statement from the liner notes: "There are some minor discrepancies between the printed lyrics and what Mandy sings. In most cases, the lyrics are printed as originally written — Stephen Sondheim."
THAT'S THE TICKET! [Original Cast OC-6038]
Twenty-six-year-old Harold Rome arrived in New York in 1934 with a degree in architecture from Yale and no prospects. Having put himself through college by playing piano in dance bands, he turned to music to supplement his day job surveying roads for the WPA.
Rome spent the summers of 1935-37 at the summer resort Green Mansions, writing weekly revues. This got him the assignment to write an amateur show for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in the fall of 1938. Pins and Needles quickly turned professional; the show ran for an unprecedented 1,108 performances, charging past Irene and Show Boat to become Broadway's longest-running musical ever (at the time).
The composer continually updated the topical Pins and Needles, quickly establishing himself as Broadway's top topical songwriter. His career was interrupted in 1942 when he went into the Army. (His assignments included Skirts, a 1944 revue produced in London by Special Services, with music and lyrics by PFC Harold Rome and PFC Frank Loesser.) Rome returned from the war with another hit Broadway revue, the exuberant Call Me Mister.
He thereafter turned his attention mostly to the book musical. Rome had two hits with director-producer Josh Logan in the early fifties, Wish You Were Here (1952) and Fanny(1954). Destry Rides Again (1959) failed, despite a run of more than a year, as did Rome's finest musical I Can Get it For You Wholesale. The show opened in 1962, when Rome was 53; due in part to America's changing musical tastes, Wholesale was Rome's final musical to reach Broadway. (His final major work, Gone with the Wind, closed during its tryout in 1973. He also contributed songs to the 1965 play The Zulu and the Zayda.)
Rome lived on until 1993, "resting on my laurels" as he told me, but not especially happy about it. (He was also distinctly annoyed that Barbra Streisand — who had catapulted to stardom in Wholesale and who had recorded a 1962 studio album of Pins and Needles — ignored his work thereafter.)
Rome attempted two early book musicals, The Little Dog Laughed (1940) and That's the Ticket! (1948); both shuttered in tryout and were long forgotten. But Mel Miller, of Musicals Tonight!, stumbled upon the fantastical libretto of the latter and went about the daunting task of finding the score and obtaining the rights. Fifty-three years after dying in Philadelphia, That's the Ticket! made it to Manhattan — albeit on 14th Street. The show is, admittedly, an idea gone wrong. An election year satire, it aspired to Of Thee I Sing and I'd Rather Be Right; but these two shows had George S. Kaufman at the helm. That's the Ticket! had some guy who had never directed anything on his own before, a fellow named Jerome Robbins. Robbins was understandably not a literary man, and That's the Ticket! — with a libretto by Hollywood's Epstein brothers (of Casablanca fame) — is something of a mess.
But an interesting mess, at least to this Rome fan. Two of the songs, "You Never Know What Hit You (When It's Love)" and "Take Off the Coat" were reused in Rome's 1950 revue Bless You All. "The Money Song," a calypso novelty, is amusing (although it seems to go on forever, despite the efforts of George S. Irving). And then there's "Gin Rummy Rhapsody," which is rather remarkably strange. "I Shouldn't Love You" was recycled for Fanny, where Rome developed it into the striking "I Have to Tell You." Sharp listeners will identify several ideas that made it into Wholesale, including a patch of "Fa-La-La" that goes "Momma, Momma, Momma."
I am generally of two minds about these low-cost, piano-only reductions of long lost Broadway musicals; they can sound mighty threadbare. That's the Ticket! is modest, certainly, but it makes the grade. Rome would no doubt be amazed by this unexpected turn of events, but I expect he'd be highly pleased by the attention.
—Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.