Sondheim on Sondheim [PS Classics PS-1093]
We — meaning those of us who habitually listen to show tunes written during the final third of the 20th century — have been fortunate to have Stephen Sondheim writing songs that have in many cases illuminated our lives. Over the last years, the composer has also been talking to us about the craft of musical theatre, most notably in a series of public interviews with Frank Rich. For what seems to be a decade or so, Sondheim has been working on a book including and discussing his lyrics. The first of two volumes, "Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes," is scheduled for release on Oct. 26. To say this is eagerly awaited is an understatement; between Sondheim's wide range of experience and his work ethic, one can expect this book to be pretty good (!).
In the meantime, James Lapine — Sondheim's librettist/director for Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and Passion — saw fit to devise a revue centered around his collaborator's work. There have been Sondheim revues before, of course. One, Side by Side by Sondheim, was refreshingly good; the others, including Putting It Together — which was presented in at least three versions, including New York productions starring (separately) Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett — managed to more or less trivialize the master's work. Lapine's effort, Sondheim on Sondheim, opened at Roundabout's Studio 54 on April 22 and ran for 76 performances (or 113 if you wish to include previews). Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat starred, accompanied by five additional musical theatre actors. Sondheim on Sondheim has now been released by PS Classics in a two-CD set.
Sondheim on Sondheim presented some 42 Sondheim songs for our delectation; the performances were almost uniformly good, with a fair number spilling over into the exceptional category. And orchestrator Michael Starobin did a good job of accomodating the wide range of disparate styles with a mere eight players. But song performances were only part of the evening; the show was filled with multimedia, most of it consisting of the composer's talking head. Sondheim served as a narrator of sorts, coming at us (via video) from all angles of the cannily fragmented set. This wasn't just stock footage of the composer, or random anecdotes; this was indeed Sondheim (commenting) on Sondheim (the artist). And given Sondheim's incisive knowledge, this talking head was endlessly fascinating. One does not expect to go in to see a live musical revue and walk away having appreciated the taped material more than the live, but nevertheless feel highly entertained. That was my experience at Sondheim on Sondheim.
And so it goes with the original cast recording — except here the live performances are, by definition, recorded. Yes, there is some extra-wonderful singing, especially when Ms. Cook or Norm Lewis are before the microphone. But here, once more, the laced-through Mr. Sondheim is the highlight. Want to hear the songs of Sondheim with Sondheim himself as your guide? Here you have it, on two discs. The album does not include all the numbers heard in the theatre; two that I found to be the very weakest, and that I don't especially care to hear again, are happily omitted. (If you insist they must be named, they are Ms. Williams' "Ah, But Underneath" and Mr. Wopat's "Epiphany." Let it be added, though, that although I've heard "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" about 638 times I never did comprehend that "harder than a matador coercin' a bull" line until Mr. Wopat sang it.) Happily, they have been sure to include the performances that I liked the very best: Ms. Cook's "Take Me to the World," "Loving You" and, especially, "Send in the Clowns"; Mr. Lewis' "Being Alive" and "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened to Me" (sung as a duet with Matthew Scott); the ensemble's "Opening Doors"; and the newly-written "God." And I am glad to have the chance to hear the contributions of Leslie Kritzer and Erin Mackey again. But the star of Sondheim on Sondheim, in my opinion, is Sondheim himself. Speaking — calm, relaxed, and in uniformly good humor — directly to you.
MAKE A WISH [Masterworks Broadway/Arkivmusic]
Next in the series of vintage CDs brought out of the Columbia/RCA Victor archives by Masterworks Broadway is Hugh Martin's Make a Wish. This 1951 musical was ill-formed and indifferently-received, dragging down with it a considerable sum of money. (Designer Raoul Pene du Bois contrived an act curtain that operated like a grand Venetian blind, which was apparently highly effective but must have been inordinately expensive to construct.) The score, at any rate, was and remains delightfully spry; while the Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein were inserting art and drama to their The King and I down at the St. James, Mr. Martin seems to have been interested solely in filling the vast stage of the Winter Garden with lively fun. The aforementioned Stephen Sondheim once told me that Make a Wish is the only cast album he ever bought two copies of. Take that as a recommendation, why don't you?
This was a case of a score in search of a show. Martin started working with a librettists Lawrence & Lee on a musical about an orphan living in Paris; when this didn't pan out, he was left alone with a clutch of songs suitable for an orphan living in Paris. What to do? Martin stumbled across Preston Sturges' 1935 movie "The Good Fairy," a charming concoction starring Margaret Sullavan about — yes — an orphan living in Paris. (This was in turn based on a play by Ferenc Molnar, the successful Broadway version of which starred Helen Hayes; Sturges more or less blithely ignored the Molnar in his sparkling screenplay.) So Martin enlisted Sturges — a veritable genius of a film director, albeit with no Broadway musical experience — to write this Broadway musical.
Martin next entrusted his musical to three novice producers: Jule Styne, Harry Rigby and Alexander H. Cohen. Styne, after a hit-filled career in Hollywood, was enjoying the enormous success of his music for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (on which Martin had served as a key member of the music department). Jule decided he should become a powerhouse producer along the lines of Richard Rodgers; as a producer, Styne proved to be a much better composer. Rigby became known as a purveyor of stylish but not necessarily workable musicals; his biggest success came with the 1971 revival of No, No Nanette, an enormous moneymaker from which he was summarily fired with barely a sou (to use the terminology of Make a Wish). As for Cohen, he has gone down in the annals as one of Broadway's most ambitious showmen, meeting a good deal of success; the eight big-budget musicals he produced, though, were all flops and in most cases disasters (including the likes of Dear World, Prettybelle, the Jerry Lewis Hellzapoppin', and I Remember Mama).
The three novice producers and the novice librettist proceeded to make a mess of Make a Wish. The assets — Nanette Fabray at the center of the story, winning supporting performances from Stephen Douglass, Helen Gallagher and Harold Lang, and innovative choreography by the up-and-coming Gower Champion — couldn't counteract the fact that at base, there was no show there; just a bunch of blithely delightful songs in search of a show. Critical response was favorable but qualified. John McClain in the Journal-American: "Make a Wish is just about the most insipid and pedestrian story ever told, but it is done with such verve and enthusiasm, the music is so sprightly, the ballets so exciting, the setting so gay, that pretty soon you don't care what it's about." Would that make you rush out and buy a ticket when the other new musicals in town were Call Me Madam, Guys and Dolls, and The King and I?
And so it went, and so it quickly went away. Leaving this cast album, which ain't art but makes for choice fun. As with many quick flops, the recording quickly went out of print. It reappeared briefly on LP in 1976 (which is when I presume Mr. Sondheim bought his second copy, as I did), and an unauthorized CD version was released in the U.K. in 2004 by Sepia. Differences in international copyright laws make this possible, and the Sepia disc served to put Make a Wish back in circulation. But the new release from Masterworks/Arkivmusic has been remastered from original materials, rather than simply lifted from an LP; thus the sound is considerably crisper. What's more, the new disc also includes Judy Holliday singing one of the show's tunes, "What I Was Warned About." As for the composer, who was born in 1914, he is alive and well and living in Encinitas. California, that is. What do you expect to be doing when you turn 96? Mr. Martin has just written his autobiography, "Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door" [Trolley Press], and quite a story it is. Martin started as a singer and assistant arranger to the great Kay Thompson; revolutionized the art of Broadway vocal arrangements with a string of shows starting in 1938, working for composers Rodgers, Arlen, Berlin and Styne; wrote several musicals of his own, starting with the 1940 hit Best Foot Forward (produced by Abbott & Rodgers); moved to M-G-M for "Meet Me in St. Louis," handing Judy Garland "The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"; labored in the Arthur Freed unit at M-G-M; served as Garland's accompanist for her legendary 1951 comeback at the Palace; and on and on. Adventures which are all related in Martin's friendly, unassuming style. We are accustomed to reading biographies of these people, in which the authors try to recreate historic episodes and long-ago conversations; here we have it all first hand, from someone who was sitting there at the piano bench. Martin's working title was "Hugh Who?" which I suppose he was talked out of by the publishing people. That's a question that people who read this tome will no longer think of asking.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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