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Sondheim the Balladeer

Sondheim the Balladeer

The vast majority of Broadway ballads springs from boy-meets-girl, boy-loves-girl romance. But you know that Stephen Sondheim; he’s always looking for ways to expand musical theater horizons. So while the new anthology, Send in the Clowns: The Ballads of Stephen Sondheim – now available for digital downloads — does offer odes to love, it shows other emotions, too.

Take “Liaisons,” sung by Hermoine Gingold, albeit in a different performance from the one we know from the cast album of A Little Night Music. Sure, there are some references to romance, but Madame Armfeldt has much more on her mind than that. “I Remember,” the song from Evening Primrose that David Kernan delivers, is really a love song to freedom and the beauty of simple earthly pleasures.

What’s fun about the album is the eclectic (and electric) nature of the performances. Some come from the original cast performances, such as “Finishing the Hat” (Sunday in the Park with George), “Unworthy of Your Love” (Assassins), and “Johanna” (Sweeney Todd).

That last one, of course, begs the question, “WHICH ‘Johanna’?” After all, Sondheim wrote no fewer than three different songs by the same title for his 1979 masterpiece. Needless to say, the one in which the Judge flagellates himself can be immediately ruled out, for it’s hardly a ballad. The “Johanna” in which Sweeney muses about his daughter is beautiful enough to be a ballad, but the sounds of dead people being sent to the cellar via a chute rather puts a damper on it. So the “Johanna” of choice is the one in which Anthony (Victor Garber) falls in love-at-first-sight.

A case can be made that “So Many People” is an original cast performance. Granted, the song was originally written for Saturday Night, a musical planned for Broadway in 1955, but one that went unproduced until a London company did it 42 years later. This cut, sung by Suzanne Henry and Craig Lucas, does not come from that 1997 Saturday Night original cast album; it predates it by a sweet 16 years. The two sang it in Marry Me a Little – the 1981 revue of little-known Sondheim songs that Lucas and Norman Rene conceived for a situation where two lonely people are living life in their living rooms. Barely.

“Pretty Women” can be considered an original cast recording, too, though not from the Sweeney Todd disc, but from Putting It Together. There, you’ll remember, it was sung quite tenderly and hauntingly by Michael Rupert and Stephen Collins. But there are studio performances on this disc, too. Cleo Laine gets three: “Anyone Can Whistle,” “No One Is Alone,” and “Send in the Clowns.” On the last-named, note the delicious tension she offers when she pauses between “you in” and “mid-air.”

Finally, there are concert performances, such as Bernadette Peters’ “Not a Day Goes by” from Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall that took place on June 10, 1992. Peters is fast making this song from Merrily We Roll Along her signature song. She did it again on March 15-16 at Avery Fisher Hall for Sondheim: The Birthday Concert.

Each cut that was taken from a live performance has been filleted of the applause that came after the final note was sung. This way, the noise of handclapping doesn’t interfere. Granted, when we’re listening to a complete live performance – be it Follies in Concert or Sondheim—A Musical Tribute, we want to hear the applause and the excitement of the night. But in a disc of ballads, which is ideal for late-night listening, hold the applause.

With such a mix-and-match lineup, you’ll have a very different listening experience. After each song ends, whatever comes next will take you by surprise. That’s not the case when you, say, listen to Ken Jennings and Angela Lansbury sing “Not While I’m Around” on the Sweeney Todd original cast album; you’ve listened so many times that as soon as it ends, during the silence before the next song, your ear immediately anticipates that harmonium riff that prompts Jack Eric Williams to sing “Sweet Polly Plunkett.”

Not while this disc is around. Here instead, no less than Julie Andrews follows with “Like It Was” from Merrily We Roll Along.

There are different styles of performances, too. “With So Little to Be Sure Of” (Anyone Can Whistle) gets a tuxedo-and-gown treatment from voices worthy of grand opera: Jerry Hadley and Carolann Page (the woman who literally gave us Alexander Gemignani; she is his mother). “Sorry-Grateful” (Company) is tenderly sung by Stephen Collins, who, one might assume, is far more grateful than sorry he got married; after all, he’s been wed to his one-and-only spouse, Faye Grant, since April 21, 1985. Let’s all go out and get them silver anniversary cards!

If we’re going to talk about silver anniversaries, this year marks one for the sterling Follies in Concert, the star-studded affair that was presented on September 6 and 7, 1985 at Avery Fisher Hall (To this day, I have never before or since let out such a primal scream of appreciation as I did when, after the first show, Sondheim came out on stage.) All three Follies cuts on this disc came from those heavenly evenings.

One of those performances is being repeated right now in New York City, thanks to Sondheim on Sondheim at Studio 54. If you can’t get there, at least you can hear Barbara Cook’s “In Buddy’s Eyes” here.

Cook also does “Losing My Mind,” and teams with George Hearn for “Too Many Mornings.” He is one of the comparatively few performers who has won both a Best Musical Actor Tony (La Cage aux Folles, 1985) and a Best Featured Musical Actor Tony (Sunset Boulevard, 1995). Cook has “only” won Best Featured Musical Actress (The Music Man, 1958), but thanks to her appearing now in Sondheim on Sondheim, she just might get Best Musical Actress by season’s end. If not, send in the mourners.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia