ON THE RECORD: Sondheim in London (with a new Sunday) and "Jule Styne in Hollywood"

News   ON THE RECORD: Sondheim in London (with a new Sunday) and "Jule Styne in Hollywood" This week's column discusses the Menier Chocolate Factory recording of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George and the briskly tuneful "Jule Styne in Hollywood."
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SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE [PS Classics PS-640]
Director Sam Buntrock's acclaimed production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George, which opened last November at the 170-seat Menier Chocolate Factory, has just triumphantly moved to Wyndham's Theatre in the West End. Just about any successful Sondheim production nowadays is sure to bring us a new cast recording, so PS Classics — the adventurous independent label from Bronxville — has obliged. Daniel Evans, who originated George in this production, has been joined by Jenna Russell, who took over the role of Dot for the transfer.

Every Sondheim fan must of necessity have a least favorite among the master's 15 musicals, or 18 if you wish to include the shows for which he wrote lyrics only. Fifteen or eighteen, Sunday in the Park with George is the winner on my personal list; I have always found it to be admirable but, in the words of Dot herself, "bizarre, fixed, cold." This is based on viewings of the original production at Playwrights Horizons, the Broadway production at the Booth (both with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters) and the Kennedy Center Sondheim Festival production (with Raul Esparza and Melissa Errico). Hopefully, a viewing of this new production will permanently raise Sunday in the Park with George in my estimation; several hearings of this recording have not quite done the trick. Even so, I find this new CD more enjoyable (and less abrasive) than the Grammy Award-winning original cast album. (The original Sunday CD, oddly enough, appears to be temporarily out-of-print just now.) I especially enjoy the performances of Mr. Evans and Ms. Russell.

The album is well-recorded, has a handsome booklet with lyrics and contains material not heard on the earlier album. This two-CD Sunday in the Park runs about 90 minutes, compared to the 70-minute original. The major addition is the soldier song, "The One on the Left." Not once but twice, as heard in the show and in the more extended, original version that was used at Playwrights.

The score has been reorchestrated by Jason Carr for five pieces, which have been supplemented with three for this recording; perhaps this explains why the new album sounds less abrasive (and more enjoyable) than the other. I already foresee the Evans-Russell Sunday becoming my Sunday of choice, and I am glad to pass on an unqualified recommendation for this CD. I shall look forward to seeing Buntrock's production, in the hope that it finally takes me from admiration to enjoyment.

JULE STYNE IN HOLLYWOOD [PS Classics PS-9638]
Between 1930 and 1960, there was something of an uneven exchange between theatre and film composers. Broadway royalty skipped back and forth at will, but few Hollywood composers had success storming Broadway. This had to do, to some extent, with the ability to write dramatic songs within the confines of a story, as opposed to the hoped-for song hits that were routinely placed in motion pictures.

The exception to the rule was the exceptional Jule Styne, who was born on the final day of 1905 and thus would have just turned 100. Styne started as a bandleader in Chicago, moving west during the Depression to become a vocal coach (and suffering through sessions with folk like Shirley Temple). He managed to get a writing job at a "B" studio, turning out tunes for sagebrush sagas (including stuff for Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger).

But the man had a marvelous way with a tune. Studio lyricist Frank Loesser met Styne in 1941, quickly turning out the wartime songhit, "I Don't Want to Walk without You." The Styne-Loesser partnership was quickly terminated, as Frank went to work for his Uncle Sam. (Loesser ultimately joined Styne on Broadway's legendary composer list.) Jule's new collaborator was a clever lyricist with a warm streak named Sammy Cahn; the new team found themselves instantly perched on the Hit Parade with the million-seller "I've Heard that Song Before" (1942). Styne and Cahn were taken up by newly minted superstar Frank Sinatra, resulting in a string of song hits including "I Fall in Love Too Easily" and "Time after Time."

As Styne passed 40, though, he seems to have determined that Broadway is where he belonged. With Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), Bells Are Ringing (1956) and especially Gypsy (1959), he proved that he was not a mere tunesmith but a creative theatrical dramatist.

What of those early Hollywood songs that made Styne's reputation (and his fortune)? The biggest hits are still in circulation, half a century later, but the other songs have kind of faded into the ether. PS Classics has seen fit to celebrate the Styne centennial with "Jule Styne in Hollywood," 21 songs (with 15 lyrics by Cahn). Listeners expecting a pleasant album of tuneful old melodies have a surprise; while we get plenty of tuneful melodies, some of these songs are quite rollicking, thank you very much. Twenty-nine seconds into the second track, you will be hooked. This is something called "10,432 Sheep." I don't know about you, but I never heard of it. After listening to Audra McDonald practically attack the thing, I can't forget it.

PS has indulged in their usual formula of keen song selection mixed with a sterling group of current-day performers and flavorful arrangements. I could make a song-by-song list, but that would get unwieldy. Let us just say that the singers include Kelli O'Hara, Norm Lewis, Sutton Foster, Leslie Uggams, Philip Chaffin, Victoria Clark, Brent Barrett and Rebecca Luker. All sing one selection; Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie cheat a bit with a six-song medley, but you'll get no complaints from me. Aaron Gandy is musical director, with guest conductors Ted Sperling (on Audra's "Sheep" song) and David Loud (with Ms. Clark). Vintage orchestrations are used wherever possible, with a number of vanished charts apparently reconstructed from recordings and soundtracks by Larry Moore, Bruce Coughlin and others. Among the old-timers, I find the presence of Jack Mason (on three tracks) especially interesting. Mason was known as the "King of the Stocks," the stocks being what they called stock arrangements. The major bands had their own staff arrangers; everybody else, though, bought published arrangements that were designed to be adaptable to whatever personnel was available.

Mason wrote innumerable stocks, but we don't necessarily get to hear them nowadays. "Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night in the Week)," especially, is quite a treat. Mason's name may not be familiar, but readers of this column know at least one of his charts: "A Little Bit of Luck" from My Fair Lady. Mason also contributed to such shows as Wonderful Town, Fanny, Damn Yankees and Goldilocks.

Fans of Jule Styne on Broadway might not expect much from "Jule Styne in Hollywood," but this lively collection will far exceed expectations.

Steven Suskin, author of the newly released "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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