ON THE RECORD: Another new Sweeney Todd and "Hugh Sings Martin"

News   ON THE RECORD: Another new Sweeney Todd and "Hugh Sings Martin"
This week’s column discusses the stunning new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and the Hugh Martin anthology collection, "Hugh Sings Martin."

The cast recording of the Sweeney Todd revival was nominated for a Grammy
The cast recording of the Sweeney Todd revival was nominated for a Grammy


SWEENEY TODD [Nonesuch 79946]
Here comes a new Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd, it was announced, with ten musicians. No; ten actors, that is, each playing a musical instrument or three. But don’t worry, we were unconvincingly assured, it will sound just as good.

Sure it will.

Broadway economics are treacherous things, with that we are forced to agree. The days of full-sized orchestra pits have passed; in the case of almost every revival, it has become necessary to trim the troops. Sometimes they manage to more or less maintain the original musical scheme, as in (thankfully) the recent Gypsy. All too often the reduction is so severe as to force an entirely new orchestration, especially when shows that were originally produced in larger musical houses are remounted in theatres with 500 seats less. I was just looking at the original scores for Carousel, and counted 15 players. Not in the whole pit or in the string section, mind you, but 15 violins. (When you have a massive hit like Oklahoma!, you have enough clout to demand 39 pieces for your next show.) Fifteen violins (out of 22 strings) for Carousel, and an entire orchestra of ten for Sweeney. Hmmm.

This type of actors-playing-the-instruments concept worked quite well in the 1998 revival of Cabaret, although in that case the 18 pieces included a core of professional musicians who didn’t have to sing and dance. And Cabaret is a very different type of show, musically speaking. Sweeney Todd, in its full version, is one of Broadway’s most musical musicals, with one of Broadway’s most remarkable sets of orchestration ever. Do we really want to hear a stripped down version? Sondheim’s Follies was musically depleted when it played the Belasco in 2001, with 14. Must the Sweeney orchestra be even more diminished? We would not go on so, of course, if there weren’t a happy ending. The musical choices are dictated by concept, not economics, we were told; and, as the late ’enry ’iggins might have said, “By George, I think they’ve got it!” John Doyle’s production of Sweeney Todd, at the O’Neill, makes altogether smashing theatre. More to the point, it is also an altogether smashing rendition of Sweeney Todd. The show was originally presented, in 1979, in a grand style. At the O’Neill, it is a doll’s house of a production, with every nuance and every chill magnified by the lack of physical scale. Sarah Travis is credited for “Musical Supervision and Orchestrations.” They might as well call her the Wizard of Todd, and I can only imagine what happens if they have two understudies in. (Given the presence of David Loud as “Resident Music Supervisor,” I would guess that replacements will in no way diminish the musical excellence and excitement of the evening.)

That Sweeney can work without its original, full orchestration has already been proven elsewhere; in Declan Donnellan’s 1994 production at the Royal National Theatre, for starters. Conversely, the first Broadway revival of the piece, the so-called “Teeny Todd” in 1989 at Circle in the Square, sounded like – well, pretty teeny, unless you love synthesizers.

Let it be said that Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations for Sweeney Todd are easily among Broadway’s finest ever. As much as I like the 2006 revival in the theatre, the new handsomely produced CD is not about to displace the RCA original on my MP-3. While the music at the O’Neill perfectly matches the rest of the stunning production, there is at least one moment – the spot where Todd goes mad to the accompaniment of runaway percussion, in “Epiphany” – that I can’t help but miss. And no wonder, as this might well be the most gripping moment of Broadway orchestration ever. But don’t let that bother you.

So here we have Doyle and Travis’ Sweeney Todd, with Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris, Mark Jacoby, Donna Lynne Champlin, Manoel Felciano, Alexander Gemignani and the rest playing the score -- to say nothing of singing and acting the blazes out of it, too. Ten musicians, thirty musicians, no matter. If the show works, I am happy; and this Sweeney is thrilling theatre.

Hugh Martin, the distinctive composer-arranger-singer who brought the sound of big-band vocals to the musical theatre, is about to be deposed as Broadway’s finest forgotten composer.

‘Twas not so long ago that you couldn’t find any of his original cast albums in print. In the last few years, we have been able to find just about all of them. And each of the scores includes strikingly refreshing gems. Martin is a composer in the Gershwin-Schwartz-Arlen vein; while non-Broadway activities took up most of his career, his fluid melodies – combined with deliciously unearthly harmonies – resulted in some songs that remain at the top of the songbook. The most familiar, perhaps, are three he wrote for Judy Garland in the M-G-M musical "Meet Me in St. Louis," namely “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But there are more of that caliber.

Martin came to Broadway in 1937 as a Kay Thompson singer in Harold Arlen’s Hooray for What!. Thompson didn’t last — she left the show during the tryout -- but Martin quickly found a home. Demonstrating admirable chutzpah for a boy from Birmingham, AL, he more or less challenged Richard Rodgers to give him a hearing. Rodgers handed Martin a song from his upcoming show, saying — in effect — prove it. Martin did just that, with a galvanizing trio arrangement of “Sing for Your Supper” in The Boys from Syracuse (1938). This resulted in similar assignments on Rodgers’ Too Many Girls (1939), Berlin’s Louisiana Purchase (1940) and Duke’s Cabin in the Sky (1940).

Casting about for new songwriting talent, Rodgers and George Abbott hired Martin and his partner Ralph Blane to write Best Foot Forward (1941). The film version of that show transplanted Martin to Hollywood, where he found a home in the movies. He made several return visits with such shows as Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’ (1948) and Make a Wish (1951). Let it be added that one of Broadway’s most important composers – no, make that Broadway’s most important composer – recently told me “Make a Wish is the only LP I ever bought two copies of.”

At any rate, Martin -- who is alive and well and living outside San Diego, at 91 — has returned to the CD stacks with yet another new CD. "Hugh sings Martin" is the seventh installment of the Songwriter Series, which features songwriters singing their songs. (Past titles include "Cole Sings Porter," "Frank Sings Loesser" and "Yip Sings Harburg"; the series is sponsored by the Music Division of the Library of Congress.)

"Hugh Sings Martin" includes 18 songs, all but one of which come from old recordings, demos and radio broadcasts. The earliest selections were written by others — no complaints here when the others are by Rodgers & Hart or Carmichael & Mercer -- but all feature Martin as a vocalist, and demonstrate why he can be deemed Broadway’s best vocal arranger ever. And so our Hugh Martin CD shelf expands once more, which should leave the master’s growing number of fans delighted.

—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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