I have heard the future, and it is here.
You’re about to quote Katz from WOMAN OF THE YEAR and say, “So what else is new?”
Yes, I’ll admit that Stephen Sondheim and his unparalleled genius in creating those four scores have given us much pleasure in the past and the present. What’s more, we fully expect our appreciation will continue well into the future.
However, to quote Sondheim’s lyric for Charlotte in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, “No, you don’t understand.” Although I have listened to these albums long enough to memorize every word and note, just as many of you have, I’ve never heard them as potently as I did last week, thanks to Sony’s 360 Reality Audio and Dolby Atmos.
“Atmos” is short for “atmosphere.” Here it’s not meant in the meteorological sense, but instead the word defines tone and mood. Both make their impressive presence known through this new technological marvel.
Sony’s reissue producer Didier Deutsch as well as Peter E. Jones, archivist for The Sondheim Foundation, joined mixing engineer Ronald Prent and remastering engineer Darcy Proper. All got their heads together (especially their ears) and applied this new technology to four Sondheim cast recordings.
Now all four have extra-sparkling sound. Scott Farthing, Executive Vice President Masterworks U.S., says, “When compact discs came into being, many said that they heard notes and words they’d missed on long-playing records, cassettes or,” he adds with a semi-derisive smile, “8-tracks. This system, though, will allow you to hear even more than you did with CDs.”
That means we can also better appreciate the impressive contributions of orchestrators Jonathan Tunick, who did the first three of these musicals, and Michael Starobin, who did the work on ASSASSINS. Now, his orchestral work during “Gun Song” – especially after Sara Jane Moore (Debra Monk) says, “Where is it?!” – seems all the more vibrant.
Adds Farthing, “This may be the ideal format for cast albums, where so many songs have so many people singing. Now you can hear each one more distinctly and actually feel where everyone was on stage. This really helps INTO THE WOODS, for when it was originally recorded, the cast members were all in the same room and not separated into booths, which is usually the case. This system makes you feel the separation they didn’t have.”
That’s true in “Ever After,” where the new and improved sound allows you to somehow see where everyone was situated. What a delight to identify where Bernadette Peters was standing when she came in for a quick line. All this comes in the midst of an ensemble that now sounds as grand as any that’s done Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
“Although the best cast albums made you feel as if you were sitting front row center,” says Farthing, “this system makes you feel as if you’ve left that seat and have leaped onto the stage.”
In ASSASSINS, when both the successful and failed killers give out with their self-satisfied “Hmmmmmmmmmmmm,” you’ll be so immersed that you’ll be humming along with this tune you can hum.
In COMPANY, after the album’s first notes – ones that could now almost pass for a sonic boom – each of those “Bobbys” sounds more immediate. You’ll luvvvvvvvvvvvvvv the way “We luvvvvvvvvvvvvvv you!” sounds, too.
The character of Bobby has often been criticized as a cipher, but he certainly doesn’t sound like one here. Dean Jones is so front-and-center dynamic that if he’d originally heard himself through this technology, he might not have quit the show after only a month.
Unearthing this recording also resulted in a lagniappe that the most complete-centric completists will enjoy: an extra ten seconds during the introduction to “Tick Tock.” How ironic that at a time when so many productions now drop that dance sequence (despite its arresting David Shire music), Masterworks Broadway has added to it.
Farthing also insists that “Now you can hear the drama in Sondheim’s songs even better” – which brings us to SWEENEY TODD.
While you’re listening to the start of the second act, you may assume that Deutsch and the others worked from SWEENEY’s long-playing records because a sound appears to be a scratch, to which vinyl has always been susceptible.
No; it’s the vivid sound of the arrival of Sweeney’s state-of-the-art barber chair.
Audiophiles have diligently sat in front of their speakers to hear different sounds emerge from left, center and right ever since stereo came on the horizon. But, as Mrs. Lovett sings, “Wait.” In addition to these horizontal sounds, this technology somehow allows you hear vertical sounds, too.
As remarkable and impossible as it may seem, you actually hear Sweeney’s chair make the trip from the crane above to the floor below. Later, when Sweeney tests his trap door, you’ll hear the books travel from the floor and into the cellar. You may jump when Sweeney starts the bodies tumbling down; the thunderous sounds seem to make the murders even more insidious.
“Yes,” says Farthing, “It’s not just about the music; it’s about the theatricality, too. So, in “Gun Song,” the cocking of the gun click before the lyric “Everybody pays attention” will make you pay even more attention than you had previously.”
Considering that Masterworks Broadway has all but three of Sondheim’s original cast albums (and plenty more recordings of his scores), decisions had to be made in which four albums would move to the head of the line.
Farthing explains that COMPANY had to be one, for it jump-started the appreciation of Sondheim as a composer-lyricist that has never waned. Farthing selected INTO THE WOODS because it’s turned out to be Sondheim’s most popular musical. His reason for the other two was that both have recently received much-publicized productions: ASSASSINS at Classic Stage Company, and SWEENEY on Broadway.
“And,” says Farthing, “SWEENEY had to be in there because how do you not include the magnum opus?”
It was the last legacy project on which Sondheim himself consulted. That he was still alive when plans were afoot shows that this was more than two years in the making.
Says Tom Laskey, Sony’s Senior Director of United States Catalog Operations, “Any speaker configuration, whether at home or in the car, will benefit. However, although folks can listen with standard headphones and get a good approximation of the immersive mix, the best way to listen is through a home system that can truly give you the full experience.”
That said, these new editions only exist in the realm of digital streaming. They’re available through supported digital and streaming service providers: Amazon Music Unlimited, Apple Music and TIDAL HiFi. So, all you have to do is move your little finger to get Sony’s 360 Reality Audio & Dolby Atmos’ four Sondheim recordings.
If you ever said, “I wish,” when you wanted better sound from a recording and a system, here’s where your wish will be granted. And, unlike the characters in Act Two of INTO THE WOODS, you won’t have second thoughts about your wishes. You’ll instead love these recordings ever after.
Listen to Sondheim on Spatial Audio here: https://sondheim.lnk.to/immersiveaudio
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.