ON THE RECORD: Sondheim Reissues of Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Sondheim Reissues of Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along This week's column discusses the Masterworks Broadway reissues of the original cast albums of two landmark Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince musicals, Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along.
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SWEENEY TODD [Masterworks Broadway 82876-68639]
If forced to name my most-frequently-listened-to Sondheim recording, I suppose it would be a tossup between Company and A Little Night Music. If asked for my favorite Sondheim musical, or my favorite recording of my favorite Sondheim musical, or my favorite recording of any musical of the 1970s, or the 1980s of 90s – well, need I go on? With the merger of the old Columbia and RCA catalogues, the new Masterworks Broadway label has seen fit to give us remastered versions of the Sondheim original cast albums originally released by RCA. (Company and A Little Night Music received similar treatment in 1998, from what was then Sony Broadway.)

So here we have the original Broadway cast album of Sondheim's 1979 masterpiece, or masterwork if you will. I needn't praise Sweeney Todd at this point in time; it is to be assumed that most readers of this column are already familiar with the score. There might well be a few who know the show only from more recent recordings, such as John Doyle's Tony Award-winning revival or the Patti LuPone/Philharmonic version. To those of you I say, yes, you really ought to add the original to your collection; there is nothing, in my opinion, like it. The performances, by Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou, Edmund Lyndeck, Victor Garber, Ken Jennings, are astoundingly good. The playing of the 26 piece pit orchestra (augmented by 14 for the recording) — under the direction of Paul Gemignani, with composer Sondheim and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick in close attendance — cannot be bettered.

It is easy enough to say that this new Sweeney Todd is unquestionably recommended to anyone who does not already have the recording. The question at hand, I suppose, is whether those who already have the first CD release of this album ought to run out and buy the new one. My answer is a resounding yes (unless Sweeney for some reason sits on your shelf unplayed). Digital remastering can be a tricky game, sure. The 1990 CD is more than satisfactory, but this enhanced one is — not surprisingly — brighter and clearer. Felicitous touches in Tunick's orchestration are brought out, as are all those emotion-gripping moments which now really shake you.

I love my Sweeney, and I love this new one even more. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG [Masterworks Broadway 82876-68637]
Merrily We Roll Along, the last of the Sondheim-Prince sextet of musicals from 1970-1981, ranks high in my estimation as well. Merrily is among the most troubled Sondheim musicals, lasting a mere two weeks on Broadway. No matter; the score is remarkable, and the show — with a revised score — has had a significantly happier life in its later iterations. As with the oft-revised Candide, the first original cast recording remains my favorite rendition of the score; I expect this new CD will be a treat to those who know the show only in revised form. Jim Walton, Ann Morrison and (especially) Lonny Price lead the cast, with support from Jason Alexander. Merrily also features orchestrator Tunick in one of his swingingest outings, which is yet another reason to embrace this recording.

I'm all for remastering old cast albums; there's nothing I like more than having technology bring out heretofore hidden colors and peaks, giving new excitement to what has become — through repeated listenings — favorite but familiar. Producers Didier C. Deutsch and Darcy M. Proper, who have been responsible for so many of the fine Sony Broadway reissues, have done their customarily expert job on Sweeney Todd. I regret that I must put a few dampers on this report, though. To my ears it sounds like the bass button on Merrily has been pushed way past the point of comfort; rather than intensifying the experience, the remastering in places interferes with the vocals. I'll listen to this new release several more times before making my decision, but my inclination at this point is to store the Masterworks and keep the RCA disc on my shelf.

The new releases boast "rare extras," the mere promise of which is likely to leave fans in breathless anticipation. What we get, alas, are five tracks on the two albums combined. One is a winner: the composer performing "It's a Hit," the bravura quartet which can be considered a pivotal section of the Merrily score. This is an expanded version of the song — a minute and a half longer than the show version; the liner notes credit Sondheim alone, but there appears to be at least one other person involved (perhaps librettist George Furth or director Hal Prince). The track concludes with a line that is very funny.

The other special tracks are not so special. Three are from the 1992 benefit that was released by RCA under the title Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall. These tracks include songs that are already included on the cast albums; I don't know about you, but I have no need to listen to seven-minutes worth of "Symphonic Sondheim: Sweeney Todd" when I have Lansbury, Cariou, and Gemignani's original pit orchestra giving me their glorious rendition of the entire score. The fifth bonus is one of those hidden tracks that come along a minute or so after what is purportedly the end of the CD, provided you haven't already removed it from the player. This one is "Sweet Polly Plunkett," with which the Beadle serenades Mrs. Lovett just before the final murders in Sweeney. Having already heard the glorious rendition by Jack Eric Williams – the same Jack Eric Williams memorialized in "Jack Eric Williams (and Other 3-Named Composers)" from Wm. Finn's Elegies, as it happens — we get Julie Andrews singing it, from RCA's cast recording of the 1993 version of the revue Putting It Together. You've just been dying to hear that one, haven't you? So much for rare extras. One almost feels that Masterworks was unable to clear the bonus material they wanted, and settled on what they happened to have available on the combined corporate shelves.

Additional disappointment is in store for those of you who like to occasionally peruse the liner notes. These were highlights of the Sony Broadway reissues, which expanded on the original cast albums with insightful essays and fascinating photographs. Masterworks Broadway seems to have decided to take the opposite tack. The complete lyrics that accompanied the original releases of these albums — and virtually every major Sondheim recording — are gone. Missing. The plot synopses are gone, too. Instead, we have a rather vague new essays on the shows. ("The failure of the original Broadway production cannot actually be blamed on any individual," we are told in the liner notes to Merrily. In place of historical analysis or contextual commentary, we get anecdotes about Ruth Gordon attended the recording session.) The original notes are available online, we are told in the back of the book; if you want to consult the lyrics while listening to the recording, hopefully you'll have a computer and an internet connection at hand.

The 36-page Merrily booklet has been reduced to ten, with the illustrations severely downgraded; what were 17 sharp color photos in the RCA release are now 11 hazy black & white reprints. True, liner notes are ephemeral; many listeners don't even read them, and downloaders are accustomed to doing without them. But compared to the fine packaging of Company and A Little Night Music, these new releases look — well, cheap. Which is not the treatment Sondheim merits.

Economy or no, it seems objectionable when they start deleting credits for dance arrangers and music department personnel. More importantly, they have seen fit to omit the "Composer's Note" from the original Merrily album, a fascinating and enlightening statement in which Sondheim takes the trouble to explain his work to us. Far more interesting than memories of Ruth Gordon.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior On the Record columns can be accessed in the Features section of Playbill.com. Suskin can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)