A Stephen Sondheim Evening
- Disc 1
To borrow from one of his own lyrics, Stephen Sondheim rarely does anything twice. From his first professional effort, the unproduced Saturday Night in 1954, through his most recent show at the time of this recording, Sunday in the Park with George, the composer-lyricist has created a canon of theatre songs that defies generality. Depending on what is called for in the particular show and the particular dramatic situation, they are by turns tuneful, harmonically complex, Japanese in feeling, Viennese in style, heavily rhymed, simply structured, emotional, ambivalent, whimsical, painful, bawdy, sophisticated, sardonic, upbeat, and much more. Sondheim’s songs are the most varied, consistently challenging body of work ever written for the American musical stage. Ever.
On March 3, 1983, in two 90-minute concerts before a standing-room-only crowd, eight exceptionally talented actor/singers and a superb ensemble of six musicians set out to illustrate the point. The event, entitled “A Stephen Sondheim Evening,” was sponsored by the Whitney Museum’s Composers’ Showcase Series under the direction of Charles Schwartz. Schwartz had asked Sondheim to participate in the series; Sondheim asked me to help select the songs and direct the evening.
After enlisting the aid of Paul Gemignani, who has been musical director of every Sondheim show on Broadway since Follies, we started to sketch the program. We arrived at certain guidelines, not rigid but helpful: the concert would cover the 30 years of Sondheim’s career to date; there would be a progression from earliest work to most recent; only songs for which Sondheim had written both music and lyrics would be considered; we would feature rare and lesser known Sondheim songs; and most importantly – for me at least – emphasis would be placed on those songs that reveal Sondheim’s most romantic, most open-hearted side. One other important decision was made: the event was to be a concert, with the focus on the performers and the songs themselves; minimal production values, simple staging, tailored to an ensemble of singers capable of handling a wide range of material.
Since the early ’50s it has been Sondheim’s custom to record himself singing his own songs – a few of them have never received better performances. After going through this personal archive (which is great fun to listen to and very instructive) and discovering many buried treasures, I made a first draft of the program. Sondheim, Gemignani, and I met and revised the program several times, each of us pushing for our favorites. We then set about selecting the cast: George Hearn and Cris Groenendaal, who had both been featured in Sweeney Todd; Victoria Mallory, the original Anne in A Little Night Music; Liz Callaway and Steven Jacob, fresh out of Merrily We Roll Along; and Bob Gunton and Judy Kaye, who had not been associated with a Sondheim production before, but were ideally suited to his brand of musical theatre. All seven enthusiastically agreed to take part.
Once we had our cast we could plan the 90 minutes much more specifically. The only part of the routining that came easily was the ending. “Someone in a Tree,” Sondheim’s personal favorite of all his work, would be the first climax, performed by the four men. Angela Lansbury, who began her musical career in Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, agreed to make a surprise entrance and sing “Send In the Clowns,” with the composer at the piano. “Old Friends” from Merrily was a natural group finish.
We spent a month rehearsing anywhere we could; Michael Bennett’s studios, the offices of Tommy Valando (Sondheim’s music publisher), my apartment, and our rehearsal pianist Steven Oirich’s home. Thomas Fay wore two hats: arranging the songs for our small ensemble and helping Gemignani coach the singers. In the final week Judy Kaye and Victoria Mallory flew in from Detroit and Los Angeles respectively. The cast, band, and volunteer tech staff all arrived at Sotheby’s the morning of the 3rd. Though the band had never played together before, let alone with the cast, and Sotheby’s auction hall had never before been used as a concert stage, somehow ”A Stephen Sondheim Evening” happened gracefully. Contrary to Sondheim’s usual mode, we did it twice.
– Paul Lazarus
Guitars: Steve Uscher
Bass: John Beal
Percussion: Paul Pizzuti
Fender Rhodes: Steven Oirich
Additional Percussion: Bruce Coughlin
Arrangements, keyboards, and conductor: Thomas Fay
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Musical Director: Paul Gemignani
Produced and directed by Paul Lazarus