INTO THE WOODS [Masterworks Broadway 82876-68636]
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE [Masterworks Broadway 82876-68638]
Masterworks Broadway, the newly formulated record label, has released remastered reissues of the four Sondheim Broadway musicals initially recorded on RCA. The first two — Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along, both directed and produced by Hal Prince — were discussed in our prior column. We shall now address Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, the first two of the three musicals of Sondheim and director-librettist James Lapine.
As was the case with Sweeney, the remastered Into the Woods sounds considerably better than the earlier CD; Sunday in the Park with George shows even more of an improvement. Both are pleasures to listen to, with enhanced vocal and instrumental clarity. Not that the original releases were inaudible, either of them; but the new CDs bring us layers of richness that come as happy surprises.
Both shows had problematic receptions in their original incarnations. Sunday in the Park played one of Broadway's smallest houses, the Booth, but nevertheless couldn't quite fill the place. The show opened in 1984, playing a respectable but far-from-profitable 604 performances. Into the Woods, which opened in 1987 at the Martin Beck (now Hirschfeld), worked itself to a slightly longer run of 764 performances, and has enjoyed a far stronger afterlife. Yes, both shows have their darker sides; the authors seemed to go out of their way to contrast relatively customer-friendly first acts with more difficult seconds. (How does that non-Sondheim lyric go? "What at night seems oh so scenic/May be cynic, in the light.") I personally rank Into the Woods higher than Sunday in the Park; if you compile your own personal list of favorite Sondheim scores, one title inescapably must rest on the bottom. Granted, the bottom of the Sondheim list places well ahead of many musicals by many other composers. (Ponder the quality of La Cage Aux Folles which caused a stir by taking that season's Best Score Tony over Sunday.) Even so, I must confess that when last clocked, I had listened to Sondheim and Lapine's Passion perhaps six times as often as Sunday.
Sunday in the Park brings us two bonus tracks. Bernadette Peters leads a full chorus in "Sunday," from the 1992 benefit that was released by RCA under the title Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall. Also on tap is Sondheim's contemporary lyric for "Putting It Together," revised for use in the 1993 revue of that title; the Julie Andrews version that played a sell-out engagement at Manhattan Theatre Club, not the more recent Carol Burnett vehicle that played the Barrymore. The three Into the Woods bonuses are especially interesting. These are piano-and-singer tracks apparently prepared for a proposed child-friendly video version of the show. The songs are "Back to the Palace," revised from "On the Steps of the Palace," and sung by Kim Crosby, the original Cinderella; "Boom Crunch," for the witch, sung by Maureen Moore; and an alternate version of Jack's "Giants in the Sky," sung by the pre-Hedwig John Cameron Mitchell. Fans who regularly listen to their Sondheim cast albums will find their enjoyment enhanced by the newly remastered Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods.
SUMMER OF '42 [Jay CDJAY2 1396]
In the winter of '02, a friend called trying to get me to see the Off-Broadway musical Summer of '42. "We can't get anybody to come, and you really should see it, please," she said. "But that was an especially difficult time to get people to venture to the theatre, let alone below 14th Street. The show closed after six weeks, underappreciated and overlooked.
But not forgotten. The obvious merits of the piece — integrity, sincerity, and an atmospheric score — have kept it alive. Jim Morgan and the York Theatre Company, which gave the show its first developmental reading back when librettist Hunter Foster was still in Footloose, mounted a one-night concert of Summer of '42 in May 2005. This has resulted in a full-scale, two-disc recording with the York cast.
Ryan Driscoll and Rachel York play the boy and the soldier's wife who meet on the beach. (Most readers of this column are no doubt familiar with the 1971 film upon which the musical is based; this is a somewhat double-edged familiarity, as knowledge of what will happen robs the piece of spontaneity.) The cast of the recording is strong all around, with Bill Buell, Danielle Ferland, Brett Tabisel and Celia Keenan-Bolger among others. Lynne Shankel leads a band of six, performing her own orchestrations. John Yap, who has a long-standing relationship with the York, has produced and released the album.
As for the score? Composer-lyricist David Kirshenbaum has done some lovely things, with especially strong work in songs like "Someone to Dance with Me" (which closes the first act) and "I Think I Like Her." There is a lot of interesting material, but way too much; two dozen songs or so. This is the sort of affair in which if someone picks up a toothbrush, we will have a song about toothbrushes. There are no toothbrushes here, but the hero does spend an extended amount of time in a drugstore trying to purchase an intimate item, blustering before the crusty-pharmacist-with-a-heart-of-gold, and — well, you can just about figure it out yourself, can't you?
The material for the boy and his two friends is crass and juvenile, as it is meant to be and needs to be; but what were presumably brief exchanges in the screenplay are here developed to song length. Perhaps these numbers play well in the theatre; listening to the CD, though, one can get a little impatient. The show is packed with early '40s references, both musical and non; these, too, tend to slow things down. I'm just about ready to recommend a nostalgia tax every time writers borrow the Andrews Sisters and Walter Winchell.
Reservations aside, I gladly welcome this new cast album. Summer of '42 had the misfortune of being produced in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kirshenbaum and Foster's musical deserves better, and this recording is likely to result in future life. (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. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)