THEY TOOK US TO THE WORLD OF SONDHEIM By Peter Filichia
Well-deserved congratulations are still pouring in to Raúl Esparza, Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Paul Wontorek. Triumvirates rarely succeed, but this one did (despite some early technical difficulties) with TAKE ME TO THE WORLD: A SONDHEIM 90TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION.
It was a benefit for ASTEP – the acronym for Artists Striving to End Poverty. Lord knows that this event certainly bolstered the cause, for over $400,000 has been raised – so far. The event that’s been streamed nearly two million times isn’t done attracting viewers, for it’s still available at www.broadway.com and YouTube.
So although Beanie Feldstein and Ben Platt sang that “It Takes Two,” that charmer from INTO THE WOODS, this show proved it took three.
No, of course it took many more than that. Thirty-two performances involved over 150 actors and musicians all of whom made Sunday, April 26th a date we’ll long remember.
That made “I Remember,” from EVENING PRIMROSE and sung by Laura Benanti, the show’s unofficial theme song. Many who watched remembered our first experiences with these Sondheim songs. For those of you who weren’t around when they were freshly minted, didn’t this show offer you one thrill after another, many that you’ll now remember?
True, we all would have preferred the original Overture to MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG so we could have heard “Rich and Happy,” which was long ago cut for revisals. So this newer version sent me back to the original cast album which I love as much as an – insider reference intended – old friend.
TAKE ME TO THE WORLD inspired me to take out Sondheim cast albums; they have ruled my apartment for the last two weeks. You too? If not, I recommend a fresh listen. And if you don’t have these albums, well, how do you explain that to people?
The event replicated a few original cast performances. Mandy Patinkin and Chip Zien showed they’ve held up well in the thirty-plus years since they respectively introduced “Lesson #8” (SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE) and “No More” (INTO THE WOODS). Even more impressive was Linda Lavin’s redo of the song she debuted more than fifty-four years ago: “The Boy from …” (from THE MAD SHOW). Lavin then and now had to use spectacular breath control to deliver the names of two cities that have umpteen syllables in them.
That this is a Sondheim song wasn’t revealed in 1966 or during the time that THE MAD SHOW became off-Broadway’s longest-running revue. Sondheim used the pseudonym Esteban Rio Nido. According to Wikipedia, that “translates from the German, via Spanish, to ‘Stephen River Nest.’” (You figure it out; I can’t.)
A pre-show press release stated that Katrina Lenk would do “Johanna” from SWEENEY TODD, but didn’t answer the salient question: “WHICH ‘Johanna’?” After all, Sondheim used the same title for three different songs in his most ambitious musical. (And what other Broadway songwriter would have had the courage to do that and not worry about it?)
When Sutton Foster and Emily Griffin did “There Won’t Be Trumpets” from ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, I remembered that this 1964 musical about a miracle created its own miracle by getting a recording. Who would have expected that the esteemed and business-savvy Goddard Lieberson would record a show that ran all of nine performances?
“There Won’t Be Trumpets” would prove to be another miracle, too. Those who first knew the show from its long-playing record had no idea that Lee Remick had recorded the song, for it had been cut before opening night. Remick’s recording only became available nearly a quarter-century later on the first CD. But here’s the thing: with time always a factor in cast album recording sessions, who would have expected that Lieberson would spend an hour or so to record a song that had been cut – only to not put it on the album?
Sure, every now and then, a cast album adds a song that had been recorded before (“Coconut Sweet”; JAMAICA) or after (“You Are the One and Only Person in the World”; THE GRASS HARP), and you can glean from the first moments that it wasn’t from the same recording session. Here we got something that didn’t jar the recording with a different sound; it was the original performance with the original orchestration and so it fit beautifully with everything else.
They say miracles come in threes, so here’s another: ANYONE CAN WHISTLE got a second recording through a 1995 AIDS benefit concert for Gay Men’s Health Crisis. For those who prefer Beautiful Voices to Character Voices, this is the superior recording: Bernadette Peters, Madeline Kahn and Scott Bakula do the honors once respectively assigned to Remick, Angela Lansbury and Harry Guardino. Lansbury was on hand that night as the hostess; her hellishly clever opening remark is worth the price of the album.
Ann Harada, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh, and Thom Sesma’s take on PACIFIC OVERTURES’ “Someone in a Tree” reminded me that Sondheim once called it was his favorite song of all hundreds he’d written. Years later he told me that when he was asked the question, it’s what first came to mind. Mothers and fathers of multiple children have often told me “You don’t have the same favorite; it switches from one to another from time to time.” So too it must be with songwriters.
What Donna Murphy chose to sing reminded me of the first time I entered the apartment of my newfound friend David Wolf. On one wall was a framed piece of lined-yellow paper that caught my eye — and the other eye, too, both of which widened as I recognized the penciled handwriting. David was already smiling and saying “Yeah. It’s the real thing.”
The story begins in early days of 1973, when A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC was in rehearsals. David, the show’s assistant stage manager, was asked to go to Sondheim’s house to fetch a piece of music. After he arrived, Sondheim said “Hey, listen to this and tell me what you think” and played him his newest song. David was impressed, and when Sondheim was ready to throw his worksheet into the wastebasket, David asked for it.
And that’s how one of the original draft of “Send in the Clowns” wound up on David’s wall. Little did he know – or did Sondheim, for that matter – that more than 900 singers would record the song, starting with Tony-winner Glynis Johns on the original cast album.
Isn’t it amazing how well Buddy’s Blues” – originally done with Gene Nelson backed up with two showgirls – works as a solo piece, too? Alexander Gemignani did a marvelous job and brought to mind when Mandy Patinkin was the first to do it in 1985 in FOLLIES IN CONCERT.
Maria Friedman’s moderately paced “Broadway Baby” brought to mind another FOLLIES IN CONCERT performance: Elaine Stritch’s. Until that event, we’d only heard the song with up-tempo brio; Stritch instead chose to express a world-weary dog-tiredness from pursuing her dream. And yet, it turned out to be very amusing.
If Stritch were alive today, what would she think of Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald and Meryl Streep’s take on “The Ladies Who Lunch”? Those of us who were first-hand witnesses to Stritch’s cynical nature can hear her saying in her droning voice, “Sure! It took three of them to do what I did alone.”
More performers still treated us to The Greatest Song Ever Written Out of Town: “I’m Still Here.” In these troubling times, hearing that title repeated and with variations – “But I’m Here” “And I’m Here” et al. – was most welcome. And while that panoply of current-day stars was sensational, may I lead you to what I consider the definitive recording? That’s Nancy Walker’s on SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE.
It was an event that took place on March 11, 1973. For those who’d only known the song from the criminally truncated 1971 original cast album and hadn’t seen the show, Walker’s take was a revelation for two reasons: 1) We learned there were even more brilliant Sondheim lyrics than we’d thought. 2) Although Walker had made her reputation a musical character actress, she sang with the gusto of a major recording artist.
I’m glad this “I’m Still Here” is still here on the still-available SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE – and equally glad that TAKE ME TO THE WORLD: A SONDHEIM 90TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION is still something you can see and hear.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.