Track-by-Track Breakdown: How Do You Make Sondheim Sound Disco for Losing My Mind?

Cast Recordings & Albums   Track-by-Track Breakdown: How Do You Make Sondheim Sound Disco for Losing My Mind?
 
Joshua Hinck and Scott Wasserman reveal the fusion of two seemingly opposite musical languages in their “Sondheim Disco Fever Dream” from Broadway Records.
<i>Losing My Mind: A Sondheim Disco Fever Dream</i> Album Cover
Losing My Mind: A Sondheim Disco Fever Dream Album Cover Broadway Records

Sondheim and disco. Doesn’t exactly sound like a peanut better and jelly type winning combination, but Joshua Hinck and Scott Wasserman will change your mind with their new studio recording Losing My Mind: A Sondheim Disco Fever Dream, expanded from their 2018 concert.

The recording, released digitally March 20 and in hard copy April 17 by Broadway Records, fuses Sondheim's work with the popular music of the 1970s and ’80s. Inspired by musical theatre-disco crossovers such as The Ethel Merman Disco Album and Gordon Grody’s “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” the 12-track album combines over 40 of the master’s songs.

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Plus Broadkway vocalists Alison Luff (Waitress, Wicked), Blaine Krauss (Pose, Great Comet), Aneesa Folds (Freestyle Love Supreme), Charity Angél Dawson (Waitress), Vishal Vaidya (Groundhog Day), Brittnie Price (Postmodern Jukebox), Juwan Crawley (Aladdin), Deonté L. Warren (Aladdin), Joshua Hinck (Hail Oblivion), Aili Venho (50 Shades! The Musical), Kyle ‘Bambi’ Louviere, and Onyie Nwachukwu (Rent Natl Tour), and Chip Zien bring the album to life while backed by a 13-piece orchestra.

Click here to purchase the album—which features liner notes by David Levy.

Below, Hinck and Wasserman pull back the curtain on the recording studio, the Sondheim Easter eggs to listen to, and more:

1. “Opening (Doors)”
Sondheim and disco aren’t the most likely combination, admittedly. “Opening (Doors)” sets up our two worlds and invites listeners to embrace the fusion ahead, encouraging them to expect mashups, medleys, and a “feverish” sensibility to follow. The “Losing My Mind” motif is introduced from the very beginning, sung by Charity Angél Dawson and Joshua Hinck, who bookend the album with the title track, “Losing My Mind.” Cacophony begins as the “Bobbies” from Company enter, leading to the narration of “Once upon a time...” from Into the Woods, performed by Chip Zien, the Baker from the original Broadway cast. Then, our first disco beat drops.

Our intention was to create a sample-like representation of the OBCRs, as if the listener were shuffling through playlists of Sondheim albums. Snippets from Into the Woods, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Company, Sweeney Todd, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and even Saturday Night are included over a persistent disco-funk groove inspired by Isaac Hayes’ Theme from Shaft.

After an homage to Bernadette Peters as the Witch in Into the Woods and a nod to the Sweeney Todd factory whistle, “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along arrives as a big and shiny disco dance track, reminiscent of The Village People’s “In the Navy.” The optimistic, bright and ambitious quality of the lyrics felt to us like a springboard to the next track as we open the door into the world of disco. When we settled on the exact arrangement we loved, the demo of this track was sent to Stephen Sondheim early on in the process when we were seeking permission for publication.

2. “There Are Giants Somewhere”
We always knew this would be the first song after our “overture,” so its intro is a continuation of the lyric from “Opening Doors.” During the mixing process, we worked with our engineer (shoutout to the brilliant Will Hensley!) to create a swell using the final chord of “Opening (Doors)” as a musical boomerang into the groove of the next track. We want to keep the listener moving from track to track with little to no transition time, keeping them along for the ride and on the dance floor as long as possible. The bass in the intro has a flanger effect on it that gives it a uniquely disco-funk sound, like Bootsy Collins from Parliament-Funkadelic. Shoutout to our bassist, Andrew Grau!

Repeating “step into a dream” locked in the point that we are escaping into the new reality of this fever dream. The accompaniment slowly builds into the intro to “Somewhere” from West Side Story, but with a funk sensibility. As the intro ends and the beat slows down, the music gets a dreamier quality reminiscent of disco dance tracks like Van Mccoy’s “The Hustle.” Glockenspiel, whispered words, muted guitar, and soaring strings (thanks to our amazing orchestra) here are reminiscent of that Phil Spectre/’70s sound. In this transition, the piano starts playing the accompaniment theme from “Giants in the Sky” previewing what’s coming next in the mash-up. This pairing of songs felt natural to us from the early planning stages of this album. The lyrics to “Somewhere” describe dreaming of a better place and life, which matches with the yearning and craving for adventure in “Giants in the Sky” and, thankfully, the melodies worked nicely together. “Somewhere” is lyrical with long tones, whereas “Giants in the Sky” has a patter quality, which leads to a nice rhythmic contrast.

Some fun tidbits: Joshua played Jack in Into the Woods when he was starting his theatre career! Scott was A-Rab in a production of West Side Story in a middle school theatre camp production. “Somewhere” is also the only example of a song on our album with Sondheim as the lyricist but not the composer (Leonard Bernstein wrote the music for West Side Story). After the climax of the “Somewhere” chorus we begin a transition to the next track with a nod to Little Red and the Wolf from Into the Woods.

3. “Hello Pretty Lady/Lovely Moments By the Sea”
The idea here was to put together songs where male characters are objectifying, pining for and/or preying on women. The overall vibe of the first half is dark, sexy, and intense. To emphasize that, we also added a slight vintage grainy and gritty quality to the sound of the mix. We still wanted it to have a sexy fun dance feel, and not go too far in the direction of “creepy," so underneath all this is a disco shuffle groove that we hope makes people want to dance. A ton of Sondheim songs are referenced here: “Hello Little Girl” from Into The Woods, “Ah, Miss” and “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd, and “Pretty Lady” from Pacific Overtures just in the first half, plus a string line before the guitar solo that references “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” The guitar solo was improvised by Hajima Yoshida on the spot. We recorded the orchestra all in one 10-hour session day: first the strings, then the rhythm section and brass. Huge thanks to our engineer, James Yost, and everyone at Reservoir Studios NYC.

Another approach to Sondheim’s characters that yearn for love, affection, and an idealized relationship brought us to Cinderella’s Prince from Into the Woods (which Scott portrayed in a summer theatre camp production once…), Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd, and Philia from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Brittnie Price sings this second half of the song in a total tonal contrast to the first, brightening to a disco-pop vibe with fun and elements of camp. Brittnie is also the soprano of our background vocal trio, performing on almost every track of the album, and recording it all in the span of only a few hours. Talk about amazing stamina and range! It was so much fun having a vocalist willing to exhibit such freedom and creativity on melodies that are so frequently treated with precision and dedication to the score.

“Any Moment” and “Moments in the Woods” from Into the Woods combine with “Loving You” from Passion, “Lovely” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and “By The Sea” from Sweeney Todd, all over an ’80s-style electronic drum beat. Scott’s favorite moment in the orchestration of this track is when the background vocalists sing their descending “splish splash” while the violins and violas accompany them with portamento slides. Jay Julio, Josh Henderson, Joshua Hunton, and Kyle Stalsberg were our awesome violin and viola section.

4. “Unworthy of Your Love”
This is a joyous and exciting on-the-dance-floor-disco-duet. Alison Luff and Blaine Krauss sing separately about a person they haven’t met yet or a love they can’t have, and when they come together there’s a disbelief at having found each other, and a pledge of undying passion to each other. The sound was inspired by classic disco duets like Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Elton John & Kiki Dee on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” and Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes on “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life". Blaine and Alison met on the day of recording and immediately hit it off, creating the chemistry you hear on the track. These vocals were recorded at Whole Team Winnin’ Studio in Brooklyn, run by Will Wells, who Scott worked with on Hamilton.

The syncopation of both “That’ll Show Him” and “There Won’t Be Trumpets” give them a playful back-and-forth quality. “There Won’t Be Trumpets” is one of Scott’s favorite Sondheim songs, even though it was cut from the original production of Anyone Can Whistle during previews. Not many people were lucky enough to see that original production anyway, since it only ran for 12 previews and nine performances.

One of our favorite moments in recording the album was letting our background vocalists (Vishal Vaidya, Onyie Nwachukwu, and Brittnie Price) riff at the end of this track. Each line is so unique, and it was fun listening to them individually during the mixing process. The effect they created when combined ended up being thrilling.

5. “Our Time”
In Merrily We Roll Along this song is a moving ballad and most treatments we had heard of this song outside of the show (choral arrangements, cabaret performances, etc.) go even further with that aesthetic. We wanted to limit ourselves to one ballad on the album (“No One Is Alone”) and give this arrangement a tight and funky groove to compliment the joy of the lyrics. Juwan Crawley and Deonté L. Warren ( both in Aladdin) said, “This is us!” when they heard the song for the first time. Their real-life friendship shines through in their performances, which we loved hearing in the studio. On the day of the recording session, Juwan and Deonte were unexpectedly called in to Aladdin early due to another cast member becoming ill, definitely putting pressure on them in the moment—but they delivered!

This was the last arrangement created for the album. We wanted to include one more standalone Sondheim song in our lineup, and one more duet to showcase. It was a fun challenge for Scott to create a disco groove not yet heard in the other 11 tracks. The arrangement didn’t originally have background vocals, and we felt it was falling short of its potential, so Scott wrote the full vocal arrangement only a day before the first rehearsal with the singers. The end result gives it the feel of a ’70s TV theme song, which was a little unexpected but not unwelcome. Having the additional singers also adds to the feeling of camaraderie the lyrics describe.

6. “No One Is Alone”
This is our only true ballad on the album. All the lights go down except for the spinning disco ball, and people take to the floor for a slow dance, so to speak. Vocally, we’re emulating the harmonies of the Bee Gees and nodding to The Temptations and The Supremes.

The three singers on this song were not in the studio at the same time as each other! But the way they listened to each others’ recordings and blended so well blew us away. Charity Angél Dawson (Waitress, Mrs. Doubtfire) is on the soprano line, bringing a brightness and strength that floats up to the rafters. We love how she expresses such powerful vulnerability in her performance on this track. Aneesa Folds (Freestyle Love Supreme) has a richness and depth to her voice that warms the track and rounds out the sound. Deonté L. Warren (Aladdin), as the tenor in the trio, grounded his performance in a true emotional connection to the lyrics. Special shoutout to our cellists Lydia Paulos and Ward Williams for their beautiful performance on this track.

When the album released digitally shortly after Broadway shut down due to the coronavirus, this track gained some extra importance and relevance. The message that none of us are without support, even when distancing from one another, is something we can hold onto as we look forward to a regular way of life, and live theatre, returning.

7. “The Miller’s Son”
This was the first arrangement created for the album. From the first meeting we had about how to combine Sondheim and disco, the idea of a “MacArthur Park”-style arrangement of “The Miller’s Son” was on our minds. The top of this track feels similar to the original song, giving the listeners a false sense of Sondheim security. On the word “dancing” we shift to an orchestral disco epic. This is a classic disco form, where the intro exists as a free-floating ballad before a groove comes in. We also wanted to highlight the orchestra as much as the soloist in this track. Part of this classic disco sound includes sweeping strings; our six-person section was often recorded multiple times and layered to create a fuller orchestral sound. The strings soar above the rhythm section, which in early disco often included piano rather than synthesizer. Paul Staroba is our pianist on the album and has an intimate relationship with Sondheim’s music as the associate conductor of the Broadway revival of Company. We’re both looking forward to seeing it when Broadway is back up and running! Our drummer, Nicole Patrick (sister of Sydney Patrick who designed our album art!) masterfully laid down an almost Latin-inspired groove for this song. Aili Venho actually recorded her vocals before the orchestra. These early vocal recordings were made possible at Sammy Merendino’s studio, Harlem Parlour Recording, with engineer Mario Viele.

8. “Artists Are Bizarre…”
This one wasn’t initially inspired by disco, really; it’s more of a celebration of the “weirder” moments in a few of Sondheim’s shows. These are some of the moments we love most in Sondheim’s work, where he pushed the boundaries of what was accepted and expected from musical theatre. We often refer to this song as the “Weird Stuff Transition” since we use it as a transition into the more abstract songs on the album. “Tick Tock,” a dance sequence from Company arranged by David Shire, is the glue of the arrangement. Its funk groove was added to the other songs we weave in and out of as the track progresses. These moments include “Sunday in the Park with George,” “The Letter” from Sweeney Todd, and “Simple” from Anyone Can Whistle. The use of background vocalists as a textural layer in the instrumentation of “Tick Tock” was particularly inspiring, bringing to mind the pit singers used in Burt Bacharach’s Promises, Promises (and the Star Trek theme!).

Aili originally recorded the “artists are bizarre” vocal from Sunday in the Park With George at that same early recording session where she sang “The Miller’s Son”; but due to a change in the tempo of the arrangement while recording the band, Joshua stepped in and re-recorded the section. The key is meant for a female voice, but the bass quality Joshua brought to the line and the gender-bending of the role made it fit even better with our “weird stuff” vibe on this track.

One of the most fun parts of recording this song was the spoken vocals at the top of the track. Joshua and Aili listened to the original cast recording of Company for inspiration, and Will Hensley applied vintage effects processing to give them a classic ’70s sound. After months of tweaks and edits to each of the mixes, the album was mastered by Joe Lambert.


9. “Color and Light”
We wanted one song on the album to have a pulsing, electronic drum beat more reminiscent of ’80s house. The pointillistic lyrics in “Color and Light” seemed a natural fit for this genre, allowing us to bring pops of “color” to the orchestration and vocal arrangement that reflected the text. This arrangement has the heaviest use of synthesizers and electronic beats on the album (aside from the vogue breakdown in “It’s Hot Up Here in this City On Fire”), though the orchestra is still playing throughout. Sunday in the Park with George took advantage of the synthesizer technology available at the time of its creation, as can be heard in the second act “Chromolume” music (orchestrated by Michael Starobin, one of Scott’s mentors).

A huge perk was having Andrew Byrne (voice teacher and vocal coach for this album) in the studio giving feedback and adjustments as we recorded. Having him there allowed Joshua to take off his producer hat after a full week of sessions and focus on his performance!

10. “It’s Hot Up Here in this City On Fire”
This was inspired by ’90s b*tch tracks. Our goal was for this to sound like a group of drag queens reading each other in a hot, sweaty club dressing room. The LGBTQ+ community and people of color are vital in the history and creation of disco and club culture. Representing those communities in this album, both in the members of the orchestra and the singers, was hugely important to us. On this song, Deonté, Juwan, Vishal, and Joshua are joined by Kyle ‘Bambi’ Louviere, an NYC drag performer. Due to scheduling limitations, some parts of this track were recorded at Scott’s apartment! Bambi and Vishal each gave Scott’s neighbors a free concert as they ad-libbed and riffed over the dance break.

The lyrics to “It’s Hot Up Here” from Sunday in the Park with George, all overlapping complaints from characters stuck in a painting, fit perfectly with the mood we wanted to create using this genre of music. The addition of “City on Fire” from Sweeney Todd and “Your Fault” from Into the Woods amped up the song’s energy and kept elements of “weirdness” that root us in the fever dream quality of this section of the album. The fun in the creation of this track was assigning the individual lines to each singer and seeing how they’d be interpreted in a brand new context. Musically, this song ventures into a contemporary sound more than any other track on the album. The dance break brings in elements of modern trance, dubstep, and rave-style electronica, which were all influenced by disco. It’s hot!

11. “Losing My Mind”
This track is all about insanity—the culmination of all that came before it on the album. The three songs referenced here all have to do with “going crazy.” “Fogg’s Asylum” from Sweeney Todd, with its swirling, atonal vocal lines and creepy organ accompaniment, is preceded by an off-kilter reference to Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.” An immediate shift into “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” snaps us out of our stupor and brings back a beat. We leave behind the electronic elements of the previous tracks and return to a grand orchestral feel, complete with instrumental breaks that highlight our incredible brass players, Jami Dauber (trumpet) and Mark Miller (trombone).

Charity Angél Dawson and Joshua Hinck return with the same “Losing My Mind” theme they introduced at the top of the album, this time in unison. The orchestral breaks in this track were so satisfying to us that we added one more after the original arrangement was conceived. Even though the final seconds of the track use lyrics from “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” we wanted to end this song with the lyric “Or am I losing my mind?”—the brilliant and heartbreaking moment from Follies, that leaves the song feeling unfinished, and leaves the question unanswered. This is the last true song on the album, with the “Megamix” acting as more of a curtain call than part of the fever dream itself. So was it all a dream? Or are we losing our minds?

12. “Megamix: Take Me to the World”
This track is a celebration of everyone that performed on the album, a celebration of disco, and a celebration of Sondheim. A megamix on an album or in a show will take selections you’ve already heard and turn them into a high-energy medley. We knew we wanted to have a megamix pretty much from the beginning of our discussions about the album. The order of the songs doesn’t match the order of the album, but rather was designed to build in excitement from one reference to the next.

And just when you think it’s only going to be a medley of material you’ve already heard, we include a full-company singalong of “Take Me To The World” from Evening Primrose, a lesser-known work of Sondheim’s written as a made-for-TV movie in the late ’60s. Much like “Opening Doors” and “Our Time,” the optimistic nature of the lyrics felt appropriate as a send-off. Just before the final lyric of “I wish…”, referencing the finale of Into the Woods, the band plays the tune of “everybody rise” from “The Ladies Who Lunch” as a last melodic Easter egg.

Having all our singers’ voices together on one track was hugely satisfying for us, especially since most of them were not able to record together at the same time. We’re incredibly grateful for the time and talents of everyone who participated in the creation of this album.

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