ON THE RECORD: Pacific Overtures and "Sondheim Sings"

News   ON THE RECORD: Pacific Overtures and "Sondheim Sings"
 
This week's column discusses two new Sondheim CDs, the revival cast album of Pacific Overtures and a collection of demo recordings aptly entitled "Sondheim Sings."

PACIFIC OVERTURES [PS Classics PS-528]
It is no simple task for a revival cast album to go up against a still-in-print original. The main reason is that the original is, indeed, the original production. Here you had the ideal performers — or, at least, the most suitable that the authors and director could find at the time. The performers were chosen based on what the creators had in mind; the keys and the routines were sculpted on the talents of the performers in question; and, in a significant number of cases, the material was actually written to suit the original performers. I don't just mean stars, signed in advance of rehearsal; when new songs are written during the production period, the songwriters have the capabilities (and/or limitations) of the actors very much in mind. The actor who spends six weeks in a rehearsal hall with the authors and the original director might well have a better understanding of the character and the material than someone hired to be the next Cassie, say, in a revival of A Chorus Line.

There are original cast albums, and there are original cast albums. Some are recorded quickly and released, while others have a large enough budget to allow the composer to sit with the producer and engineer until he is satisfied. Since the unfortunately truncated recording of Follies in 1971, Stephen Sondheim has been known to keep a careful ear on the proceedings. The original Broadway cast albums of his subsequent musicals, beginning with A Little Night Music, can be judged to be definitive.

Which brings us to the cast album of the 2004 Roundabout revival of Pacific Overtures. One cannot begin without looking at the numbers; the orchestra numbers, that is. The 1976 production at the Winter Garden featured 22 players, with an additional 14 added for the recording. The Roundabout show made do with seven: two keyboards, two percussion, two strings and one wind. Those were the strictures, under present-day economics.

Given the circumstances, I found it remarkable that orchestrator Jonathan Tunick was able to preserve so much of the effect of the original orchestral sound. Nothing could be done for those places where the music needs to swell — "Four Black Dragons," for example — but most of the time, Pacific Overtures sounded reduced but reasonable. (This was possible, in part, because Pacific Overtures isn't intended to sound like a Broadway musical in the first place; the reduction in players was far more detrimental to the Roundabout Follies.)

For the cast recording, the Roundabout band was augmented by four pieces, so it sounds somewhat fuller than it did in the theatre. The big moments, obviously, can't begin to sound like the 1976 album. And as indicated above, there is an authenticity provided by the original cast that cannot be made up here. However, the new Pacific Overtures CD has a hidden advantage: clarity. You can hear and understand the lyrics in a way that you didn't before. Or, at least, I didn't before. This isn't just a question of technological advances, but of the revival cast. In 1976 parts of Hal Prince's production seemed foreign (which was, in some ways, the intention). Japanese director choreographer Amon Miyamoto's revival, as recorded, features markedly clearer English. The result is a Pacific Overtures that gives fans new words that they might not have heard before. (There are also some new lyrics, especially in a revised "Next.") This new CD will not displace the 1976 cast album, which offers the authentic experience of Pacific Overtures as originally envisioned, but it does enhance our enjoyment of the work. Included is a bonus track featuring not only Sondheim but the voice of Hal Prince as well. "Prayers" preceded "There Is No Other Way," and is built from a theme which was used in the "Blow Winds" section of "Chrysanthemum Tea."

SONDHEIM SINGS Volume I, 1962-72 [PS Classics PS-9529]
With the advent of burn-them-yourself-at-home CD copying, old recordings of Stephen Sondheim demonstrating his songs have begun to find their way into the hands of an increasing number of collectors. Under the circumstances, why not dust them off, clean them up (sonically) and send them out to market? Sondheim has authorized just that, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Young Playwrights Festival (an organization which he has long championed). "Sondheim Sings" is described as "rare demos drawn from the private recordings of the celebrated composer/lyricist." The series is produced by Peter E. Jones, Sondheim's archivist, and released by a non-profit arm of PS Classics (who gave us the recent recordings of Pacific Overtures and The Frogs).

Sondheim Sings is a win-win, with the main beneficiaries being Sondheim fans. Here you have songs known, from repeated playings of cast albums; songs unknown, cut from their intended shows; and familiar songs in their original form, surprising us with unfamiliar lyrics and/or musical sections. Sondheim, indeed, sings, and plays as well. This is a composer who knows how to demonstrate what his work is supposed to sound like. These are energetic and dramatic renditions of songs written in a variety of styles, for wildly varied characters ranging from Pseudolus to Sally Durant to the teen-aged Fredrika Armfeldt. No, Sondheim would not be cast to play any of these roles on Broadway, but he gives full value.

This first of presumably three planned discs includes songs from Sondheim's five earliest-produced musicals, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies and A Little Night Music. Volume II, which is expected to appear next winter, will contain earlier and rarer materials: pre-Forum work, college material and private songs written for friends and others, going back to 1946.

The present volume contains 19 tracks. Especially interesting (to me, anyway) are the original version of Forum's "Invocation," which is very much different than what ended up in The Frogs; an impossibly brisk version of "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid"; two cut songs from Anyone Can Whistle; "Truly Content," the winning song Sondheim wrote for Mike Nichols' first version of Passionella; "Multitudes of Amys," a somewhat rapturous paean for our old friend "Bobby baby," which doesn't quite fit the Company slot it was intended for; and two early songs for the characters of Sally and "Benson F. Stone" of Follies.

My favorite track is a somewhat extended version of "The Glamorous Life," from Night Music. This was intended as more of a trio than the final show version, featuring Desiree, Fredrika and Madame Armfeldt (whom Sondheim, breathlessly explaining who is singing each group of lines, continually refers to as "the old lady.") This is a whirlwind performance of an exciting number, and "Sondheim Sings" allows us to sit in as the composer gives an exhilarating demonstration of what it will be when it reaches the stage, singing all the roles and providing a full accompaniment as well.

"Sondheim Sings," and fans can be thrilled that he now sings for us, in our living room. AND OFF THE RECORD
We note in sorrow the untimely death last week of Mark Trent Goldberg, executive director of the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts, and manager of the Gershwin Archive. Mark was a knowledgeable, enthusiastic and conscientious steward; he was also a decent man and a pleasure to work with as well. His labors, behind-the-scene and unheralded, enhanced our appreciation and enjoyment of all things Gershwin.

—Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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