ON THE RECORD: Sondheim's "Evening Primrose" and Kelli O'Hara's "Wonder in the World"

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12 May 2008

This week, the long-awaited original soundtrack of Stephen Sondheim's 1966 TV musical "Evening Primrose," starring Anthony Perkins, and Kelli O'Hara's debut solo album "Wonder in the World."

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EVENING PRIMROSE [Kritzerland 20011-6]
Stephen Sondheim firmly established himself as a top Broadway lyricist with West Side Story (in 1957) and Gypsy (1959), followed by his initial composer-lyricist offering in 1962, the considerably longer-running but somewhat less impressive A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Sondheim's next musical, Anyone Can Whistle (1964), was famously troubled, closing in a mere nine performances. Following which came a Broadway drought for Sondheim-the-composer. Six long years passed until his next show (not including Do I Hear a Waltz?, for which he provided lyrics but not music).

One can only wonder how Mr. Sondheim — with two classics as lyricist and one long-running hit as composer — felt as he observed season after season roll by. Between Anyone Can Whistle and Company (in 1970), newcomer John Kander wrote four Broadway musicals (including three with West Side/Forum producer Harold Prince). So did Jule Styne; Charles Strouse had three, Jerry Herman and even Mitch Leigh had two. Sondheim — already at or near the top of his creativity — was forced to the sidelines, presumably due in part to the failure and general musical non-accessibility of Anyone Can Whistle. (It should be added that after this period, Sondheim dominated the Broadway musical with Company, Follies and A Little Night Music opening in a period of less than three years.)

He did not sit around quietly, merely concocting crossword puzzles. In 1965 he began work with James Goldman on The Girls Upstairs, a promising musical announced by the Gypsy team of David Merrick and Leland Hayward. Announced but not produced; the show would eventually be reconceived and transformed into Follies. While waiting around for The Girls Upstairs, Sondheim and Goldman undertook a television musical, "Evening Primrose."



This was part of "ABC Stage 67," a weekly series of original plays and musicals. (The title referred not to the 1966-1967 TV season, but to ABC's turreted studio complex on West 67th Street.) The show had a one-hour time slot, which means that without credits and commercials the running time was more like 52 minutes. Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," starring Geraldine Page, is the best remembered of the 26 episodes. Other musicals among the mostly-dramatic parade were "Olympus 7-0000," with songs by Richard Adler, starring Phyllis Newman, Donald O'Connor, Larry Blyden and — get this — Joe Namath; "The Canterville Ghost," Burt Shevelove's adaptation of the Oscar Wilde story with songs by Bock and Harnick, starring Michael Redgrave; "On the Flip Side," a Bacharach-David musical staged by Joe Layton; and "I'm Getting Married," with Anne Bancroft and Dick Shawn singing songs by Comden, Green and Styne.

Produced amongst these, and telecast on Nov. 16, 1966, was Sondheim and Goldman's "Evening Primrose," from a story by John Collier. A poet takes refuge in a department store, only to find a small community living within its walls. The poet finds a girl, naturally; they fall in love, naturally; they decide to escape the secret society, as the girl — who's been there since she was six, and only vaguely remembers what's outside — implores the boy to "Take Me to the World"; and they get transformed into mannequins. (Don't ask.)

All of this allowed space for four songs, plus a considerable amount of incidental music. (The other "Stage 67" musicals have more songs; one, "Olympus 7-0000," actually issued an original cast album, which makes difficult listening.) Seeing as how these are Sondheim songs, written more or less alongside The Girls Upstairs/Follies, "Evening Primrose" is indispensable to fans of the composer. The girl's songs, "Take Me to the World" and "I Remember," are performed with relative frequency. "When" and "If You Can Find Me I'm Here" are all lesser-known and fascinating. The latter makes a wonderful opening number, in fact, and Sondheim fans will no doubt find it exciting and strangely familiar.

Anthony Perkins and Charmian Carr do the singing. Their four songs have been performed elsewhere, notably in tandem with the 2001 pre-Lincoln Center recording of The Frogs [Nonesuch 79638]. The Nonesuch might arguably have better performances of the songs, by Neil Patrick Harris and Theresa McCarthy; but the original soundtrack album, which now makes its initial official appearance, puts them in context with the rest of the music of the piece. Orchestrations are by Norman Paris (husband to Dorothy Loudon), who also conducted; not as expert as the Tunick orchs on the Frogs album, but they work splendidly for this eerie, pre-Company Sondheim. It is unclear exactly who wrote the incidental music; David Shire, who worked with Sondheim on both Whistle and Company, is credited in some sources for the incidentals (though not on the released soundtrack album, where he is listed as assistant to the conductor). One assumes that is Shire playing the piano, especially prominent on the opening number and "Take Me to the World."

Various labels seem to have considered releasing "Evening Primrose" over the years; we can be especially glad that someone has finally done it, the someone being Bruce Kimmel of Kritzerland (who, back in the early days of the CD, started the reissue-of-out-of-print-cast-album ball rolling with his release of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum). This is a limited edition of 3,000 copies. Yes, there are only four songs on this thirty-five minute album; not all that much material, true. But that shouldn't stop Sondheim fans, even if they have the songs elsewhere on their CD shelves.

In addition to enjoying the material, those with sharp ears will have fun identifying numerous musical jots that appear elsewhere in the master's work. (The tag of "If You Can Find Me I'm Here" is an obvious one to those familiar with the opening number of Company and "I'm Still Here.") Additionally, this treasurable "Evening Primrose" preserves the performance of Tony Perkins, who is especially well suited to the material. Perkins was originally announced as the leading man of Company; this album gives us a good idea of what he might have sounded like had he gone ahead and played Bobby Baby.

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