When a cast recording is offered to review by Edge, I’m on it. My review, available on Edge.com, follows:
Another Stephen Sondheim revue? Yeah, yeah, I know: the guy’s a genius, and we should be overjoyed he’s getting so much exposure due to this being the year of his 80th birthday. But the revue format has never fully worked for me with Sondheim’s work – his songs are specific to the action of a story, and extracting them from that setting just feels cruel.
However, with Sondheim on Sondheim, which ran on Broadway earlier this year, longtime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine came up with a unique way to celebrate the composer’s work in a revue format that, well, mostly works. At least it comes off that way on the pleasantly produced two-disc cast album of the show.
Using a series of interviews, Sondheim himself essentially narrates the thing, explaining the origin of songs, his work process, his inspirations, his past. He’s such a well-spoken and endearing person, you almost wish the music wouldn’t interrupt his thoughts. But if that were the case, what would a cast that includes the legendary Barbara Cook, the sultry vamptress Venessa Williams and the inexplicable Tom Wopat do? (They are joined by Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott.)
The first few tracks of the album demonstrate how well this framing device works. Sondheim, in his charming way, explains the agonizing rewrites we had to undergo for the opening number to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and the cast then performs all three versions. The end of the second disc (the second act) is also well-realized, with Sondheim reflecting on his non-relationship with is mother and his unending respect for his teacher and surrogate father, Oscar Hammerstein. Cue “Children Will Listen.”
Frustratingly, as represented on this cast recording, the show seems to have no apparent order (maybe an intentional choice by Lapine?), and not a single song from what many consider to be Sondheim’s masterwork, Sweeney Todd, is included. (I gather there were cuts made for this cast recording, including Wopat’s “Epiphany” from Sweeney, which I’ve heard was rather lackluster in the theatre.) These make up the disappointments in an otherwise fine affair.
Looking at individual tracks, Cook offers a beautifully sung “Take Me To the World” from Evening Primrose. She then joins Williams for a stirring duet of “Losing My Mind” and “Not a Day Goes By.” Lewis kicks “Being Alive” out of the park, and Kritzer leads a spirited “Now You Know.”
Music arrangements by David Loud with orchestrations by Michael Starobin and David Dabbon give Sondheim’s tunes a fresh, bright sound. I could do without their Manhattan Transfer-esque reworking of “Something’s Coming,” (for which a young Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s score) but that’s just me.