STEPHEN SONDHEIM: THE STORY SO FAR [Masterworks Broadway 82796-94255]
The combination of the old Columbia and RCA catalogues into SonyBMG allowed and in some ways encouraged anthology albums showcasing their joint new holdings. This has resulted in the handsome four-CD box set, "Stephen Sondheim: The Story So Far." With Sondheim serving as co-executive producer and the accomplished team of Didier C. Deutsch and Darcy M. Proper as compilation producers, this is an intriguing collection covering the first 55 years of the composer's career.
Consider the fourth disc of the set. It begins with what seems to be a radio transcription of a duo-piano version of "I Must Be Dreaming," from the 1949 college show All That Glitters, a track that I don't suppose many of us have ever heard. One song later, we go into four numbers from a 1954 backer's audition of the early musical Saturday Night (which went unproduced until 1997). We have indeed heard these songs by now, with two complete recordings of the show on our record shelf. Here, though, we get a bright young cast singing the songs back when they were written. Jack Cassidy was a young, strong-voiced singer with one major role to his credit — as the romantic waiter who got to sing the title song in Wish You Were Here — and the promise of a major career ahead if he didn't mess it up, which he did. But listen to him sing "Class." The excitement is palpable, as they say: This is a bright new show tune by a bright new songwriter with a bright new Broadway star, nothing but talent ahead. Arte Johnson, who only made it to Broadway (and briefly) some 43 years later but found fame on TV's "Laugh-In," scores laugh after laugh with "Love's a Bond." One can't tell what he was doing, but he certainly has the crowd in stitches (and not from the lyric).
Then comes the "At the Movies" sequence, and it is quite something. Alice Ghostley, who made a splash singing Sheldon Harnick's "Boston Beguine" in New Faces of 1952, hysterically delivers all Sondheim's lines about Vilma Banky's hanky panky and Conrad Nagel. (Unlike Cassidy and Johnson, Ghostley is not singled out in the song listings but that is unmistakably her.) Listening not to the song but to the audience at the backer's audition, though, you might pick up a hint as to why Saturday Night did not get produced in the era of The King and I and The Pajama Game; the laughter is vociferous but cliquish, oddly recalling the reaction to the '50s work of Franklin Shepard in Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. ("Write more, work hard, leave your name with the girl.") Along comes the composer singing "Truly Content," his nifty "glamorous mooovie star" song for the pre-Apple Tree version of Jules Feiffer's "Passionella." (If she was a movie star, Ella would be truly content like Fay Wray or George Brent.) Incidental music for two Arthur Laurents plays is included, as well as five tracks from Alain Resnais' 1974 film "Stavisky," which contains some of Sondheim's most ravishing music in his Little Night Music-Debussy-Ravel mood. If you don't have the full soundtrack of "Stavisky," seek it out.
That's only half of what comes on the fascinating fourth CD of the set. Which brings us to the other side of the coin. If "The Story So Far" exists to highlight the SonyBMG catalogue of Sondheim music, they understandably need to include said holdings in the box. But consider Chita Rivera's "America," Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence's "Tonight," Ethel Merman's "Everything's Coming Up Roses," Elaine Stritch's "The Ladies to Lunch," Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou's "A Little Priest," Mandy Patinkin's "Finishing the Hat," and Bernadette Peters' "Children Will Listen." All are present, along with another 16 selections from Sondheim's popular original cast albums. Do Sondheim fans need a four-CD box containing song hits from West Side Story? As far as I'm concerned, anyone with a strong interest in musical theatre should know the original cast recordings of West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd by heart. If you do indeed know the original cast recordings of West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd by heart, and might even have been listening to one or the other just recently, do you need to have excerpts included on "The Story So Far"? If the intention, on the other hand, is to present a celebratory overview for people barely familiar with Sondheim, maybe they should spend more time on the hits and less on Saturday Night, "The Enclave" and "Dick Tracy."
The true collector, though, will hardly mind remote-controlling past the old faves so that they can hear the gems on disc four as well as seven composer-demos of cut songs including "Happily Ever After" from Company, "Can That Boy Foxtrot?" from Follies, and two each from Night Music and Into the Woods. All of which, on balance, combine to give us way more than enough to justify the overly-familiar tracks on this four-CD set.
Adding to the value is the accompanying 80-page, two-CD-sized booklet, which is crammed full of black and white photographs. Some of which we've never seen before, like a contact sheet of Mr. Sondheim (circa 1965?), jacket rakishly thrown over his arm, in the process of lighting a cigarette. Although one has to wonder whether he rues the day he bought those plaid trousers that he wore to the Company recording session. Hal Prince has written a four-page piece to open the booklet, amusingly attempting to describe his indescribable friend. Various colleagues offer brief quotes, peppered throughout. More to the point is an extended essay by Mark Eden Horowitz, who oversees most of the important musical theatre collections at the Library of Congress and who produced the Library's 2000 concert in honor of Sondheim's 70th birthday. (Mr. Horowitz is as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the library's Rodgers, Berlin, and Bernstein troves as he is about such recently arrived archives as those of Strouse, Ashman, and Jonathan Larson.) Horowitz takes dozens of strands — songs, shows, facts and collaborators — and ties them into a masterful portrait of our most indispensable theatre artist.
JESSICA MOLASKEY: A Kiss to Build a Dream On [Arbors ARCD 19384]
Having only recently loved John Pizzarelli's sparkling CD of Richard Rodgers tunes ("With a Song in My Heart") and the current John Pizzarelli/Jessica Molaskey stint at the Café Carlyle, I was a bit skittish about immediately turning to Molaskey's new CD. No hesitation needed, as it turns out; "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" is just as good as Ms. Molaskey's first four CDs. Something must be in the water over at Chez Pizzarelli; in goes the aqua, out comes torrents of refreshing, cascading melody. The new CD originated in an impromptu jam session, with Mr. & Mrs. Pizzarelli joined by father Bucky (on guitar), brother Martin (on bass), and violinist Aaron Weinstein. As Molaskey relates in the liner notes, they sat there simply "pulling music out of thin air. There were no set lists, no rehearsals, just four musicians, with various sized pieces of wood, with strings attached and two sets of vocal cords, a family calling tunes that we loved, and existing for 60 minutes to create a joyful noise. . . At one point, John said 'Okay, key of G, ready: one, two, three.' And I replied, laughingly, "That sounds great, but can you give me a hint as to what song we might be doing in the key of G?'"
That's the love of music within this clan, and that's the kind of set that you'll hear on this recording (although the vocals are mostly by Jessica, with John chiming in on only two). The songs are mostly old standards, of the "Baby Face," "Breezin' Along with the Breeze," "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" variety. Molaskey throws in two songs by the same Mr. Sondheim whose "Story So Far" is referred to above. "Everybody Loves Louis" comes from Sunday in the Park with George, in which Ms. Molaskey made one of her occasional theatre appearances last spring at Studio 54. "Isn't He Something" is from Bounce, in which Molaskey appeared back in 1999 when it was still called Wise Guys. Both songs are presented in the Pizzarelli manner, which is to say friendly-cool jazz; "Isn't He Something" sounds especially lovely. The Pizzarellis also give us two of their homegrown songs, "Take Me to You" and "Hiding in Plain Sight." The latter is especially felicitous, a modern-day homage to Arlen, Gershwin & Harburg's "Let's Take a Walk around the Park." Let it be added that on more than a few of the tracks the irrepressible John playfully misleads us, prefacing the song Jessica is going to sing with an intro to something else altogether. ("Breezin' Along with the Breeze" is prefaced by "every little breeze seems to whisper Louise," for example.)
As always, the secret of the success of both Ms. Molaskey and Mr. Pizzarelli is not so hidden: canny song selection, impeccable musical instincts, and an unconditional love for the material. They always seem to be having a holiday on guitar strings, but we — the listeners — are the ones who benefit.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)