The Sondheim Review: No guarantee of happiness

The destructive potential of the American Dream

Originally published in The Sondheim Review.

Mark Linehan (center) played John Wilkes Booth in New Repertory Theatre's October 2014 production of Assassins in Watertown, MA. Photo by photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

Mark Linehan (center) played John Wilkes Booth in New Repertory Theatre’s October 2014 production of Assassins in Watertown, MA. Photo by photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

Stephen Sondheim has distanced himself from the practice of reusing discarded songs from old shows when writing new pieces. He has only ever acknowledged dipping into his trunk twice, both for Wise Guys: “Addison’s Trip,” present from the first reading in 1998, and “It’s In Your Hands Now” from the 1999 workshop. What distinguishes these from one another is that while “Addison’s Trip” reused material from an unknown song from a dead project (“Lunch” from Singing Out Loud), “It’s In Your Hands Now” came from Assassins.

It makes sense that if two shows were to share music, it would be the two written with John Weidman about the destructive potential of the American Dream. Even to the untrained ear, “It’s In Your Hands Now” sounds like Americana, with a melody based on the tones of a bugle call and a lyric about the “land of opportunity.” According to Look, I Made a Hat, “It’s In Your Hands Now” is based on “Flag Song,” an abandoned opening number for Assassins that focused on regular Americans before introducing the titular killers. But if you’re reading The Sondheim Review, chances are the first time you heard “It’s In Your Hands Now,” your subconscious started singing along with a different set of lyrics: “I just heard / On the news / Where the mailman won the lottery.” Continue reading

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The Sondheim Review: A lotta Sondheim songs

Cabaret offerings prove the strength of the material

 

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KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar perform Another Hundred People at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Photo by Russ Weatherford.

Originally published in The Sondheim Review.

 

On any given night in New York City there is likely to be at least one cabaret offering some kind of Sondheim program. That leaves intrepid fans to wonder if artists can still show something new at such a performance. Recently, KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar and Broadway leading lady Alice Ripley took up the challenge.

Harnar and Sullivan’s Another Hundred People at the Laurie Beechman Theatre is billed as “Act Two” of their Sondheim program Our Time, from 2014, but it’s fully satisfying on its own, and in many ways superior to its predecessor. Based on the idea that Sondheim’s lyrics can do the heavy lifting, the performers eschew banter for a song-stuffed program of 18 numbers — 40 songs in all, from Sondheim projects.

Their program is most exciting when numbers take on fresh ideas through new contexts and dialogue with other songs, ably shaped by musical director Jon Weber and director Sondra Lee. Harner’s smarmy take on “I Know Things Now” from Into the Woods in medley with “More” from Dick Tracy turned the song about a young woman reaching maturity into a celebration of a gay man’s discovery of sexual abundance. The duo’s medley of songs about partnership (including the opening number from Wise Guys, the title song from Bounce, plus “It Takes Two” and “Side by Side by Side”) became a mini-musical in itself.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Book Reviews – On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide by Ethan Mordden

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.

On SondheimIn Passion, Fosca sings, “If you have no expectations, you can never have a disappointment.” These are wise words to bring with you to Ethan Mordden’s latest book, On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide. Judging by its title, you might expect the book to provide a complete listing of Sondheim’s output with the author’s assessments of same, but it is oddly inadequate as both opinion and guide. The book immediately shirks its guide obligations by referring readers on the very first page to SondheimGuide.com (without a mention of Michael H. Hutchins, the man responsible for putting it together). It falls short in the opinion arena as well, offering far fewer than the title implies and hardly any that might register as controversial. And yet, taken on its own terms it offers pleasures for both the Sondheim expert and newbie alike.

Mordden knows his subject well, but he occasionally lets that get the better of him. Acknowledging in his preface that he generally did not consult other books on his subject in the writing of this one, he lets the occasional misstatement slip through. Mordden’s prose style is characterized by an awkward combination of SAT words (“manumission,” “equiponderant”) and slang (relating an artistic disagreement as a “hard-on contest,” or describing the opening scene of My Fair Lady as “an Instagram of the show’s analysis of class”). A quick poll of acquaintances who have read other Mordden uncovers that this is a common quirk of his writing about musicals, and the percentage of those who hate it is fairly close to those who adore it.  Continue reading

Flavorpill: Review: American Songbook, Reich and Sondheim

 

Originally published on Flavorpill.

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Lincoln Center stretched the definition of American Songbook with Reich and Sondheim: In Conversation and Performance, but the audience at Saturday night’s concert at the Appel Room was glad they did. There’s no question that Stephen Sondheim and Steve Reich are titans of American composition, the former in the realm of musical theater, the latter in contemporary classical. Each man has a Pulitzer, a Gold Medal in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, multiple Grammy Awards, the Praemium Imperiale… you get the idea. It turns out they are also friends and admirers of each other’s work, not to mention innovators and iconoclasts in their respective fields. Continue reading

CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: West Side Story – San Francisco Symphony

Originally published on CastAlbums.org.

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Leonard Bernstein only wrote four Broadway musicals in his career, and all four already have widely available symphonic recordings to complement their various stage cast recordings and film and television soundtracks. What need could there possibly be for new recordings of any of these scores in 2014? The new symphonic recording of West Side Story from the San Francisco Symphony, under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, makes such questions irrelevant by sheer force of artistry. (We’ll revisit this question in the fall when the 2014 revival cast recording of On The Town debuts.)

The liner notes for this album stake its uniqueness on it being the only live, symphonic, nearly-complete recording of the Broadway version of the score, but the hair splitting requited for that distinction to mean anything likely doesn’t matter to most listeners. What does matter is this: it’s the entire show, including all dance music (but thankfully excluding most scene change music, bows, and exit music), played by world-class musicians utilizing the excellent original Broadway orchestrations. Unlike the dreadfully operatic symphonic recording conducted by Bernstein himself back in the 80s (starring Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras), this recording features appropriate tempi, an orchestra that knows how to swing when necessary, and most importantly, a cast of singing actors from the world of Broadway who understand the idiom for which the music was intended. Continue reading

The Sondheim Review: Mixing Things Up

Artists from various musical disciplines re-imagined songs from Sunday

Originally published in The Sondheim Review.

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Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! occupies a special branch on the Sondheim family tree. Stephen Sondheim holds a God-like (albeit offstage) position in the creative development of the central character, Jon, buoying the struggling songwriter’s sinking confidence with a well-timed phone call. The show is also notable for its loving tribute to Sunday in the Park with George’s title song, re-imagined as a meditation on brunch through the eyes of a harried waiter. The themes of mentorship and derivation in Larson’s musical inspired young composer Ben Wexler to create the Sondheim REMIX challenge in conjunction with a revival of tick, tick… BOOM! at New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center series (June 25-28, 2014).

Writers, producers, and performers were invited to take a piece from Sunday “and remix it. Make it yours. Sample it. Adapt it. Run with it.” The range of submissions represented world music, spoken word poetry, electronica, folk, and rap, each demonstrating Sunday’s power to transcend cultures and generations. Continue reading

The Sondheim Review: It’s Their Time – Author Weaves ‘Merrily’ Into A Young Adult Novel

Originally published in The Sondheim Review, Spring 2014

The Reece Malcolm ListStephen Sondheim’s influence occasionally pops up in the most surprising of places. Having already made an impression on punk music (e.g. the album Punk Side Story), Ben Affleck (who performs “God, That’s Good” in the film Jersey Girl), and My Little Pony (which features numbers that resemble Sondheim’s work), a Sondheim-infused young adult novel is hardly surprising, but in the form of The Reece Malcolm List by Amy Spaulding, it’s unquestionably delightful.

Readers of The Sondheim Review are likely to recognize the book’s heroine and narrator: a teen more familiar with the ins and outs of high school show choir than athletics, with an iPod full of original cast albums and more Playbills than friends. Devan Mitchell has always been a bit of an outsider, with only one close friend and a strained relationship with her dad and step-mother. Having stumbled onto her mother’s identity when reading the dedication of author Reece Malcolm‘s first New York Times bestseller – clearly aimed at her – Devan begins the titular list to uncover whatever she can about her famous (and famously “un-Googleable”) mother. When Devan’s father dies in a car accident and she’s shipped off to Burbank, CA to live with the mother she’s never met, the quest to know more about the mysterious Reece Malcolm intensifies. Continue reading