April 6, 2007
Sondheim, Sondheim, Sondheim
Queer composerís works highlight the hits and artists
ďEvery road has its turning, thatís the way you keep learning.Ē
One of the great composers and lyricists of the 20th century, Stephen Sondheim is also living, breathing proof that no matter how heterosexuals manage to sneak into musical theater, the queens are the undisputed kings of the boards.
Sondheim has worked with others of the greats, including Hal Prince and Leonard Bernstein; won just about every award imaginable including a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, a Grammy, many Tonys and the Kennedy Center honors for lifetime achievement--which came long before he stopped working, since heís still going strong.
Now, some of Sondheimís past works can be heard again in their original glory. Sonyís Masterworks Broadway imprint has released remastered original cast recordings of four of his shows.
Thereís Merrily We Roll Along, based on the George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play. With multiple versions of some of the songs, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the creative process and how a musical can evolve over the years.
Of course, thatís far from his best-known work. Of the four releases, it would be difficult to say which garnered Sondheim the most attention, although itís certainly not Merrily.
Is it Into the Woods, his paean/parody of fairy tales? It was certainly a notable production, and provided a great showcase for the talents of Bernadette Peters, an actress whose name is practically synonymous with the composer. Her turn as the Witch was a scenery-chewing, manic-depressive extravaganza of comedic acting, cementing her as one of the most underrated talents extant.
Peters, along with Mandy Patinkin, are also famous for their starring roles in Sunday in the Park With George, James Lapine and Sondheimís confection inspired by the paintings of the French Impressionist Georges Seurat.
In Act 1, Georges, the fictionalized Seurat, paints his girl in the park, as people in the painting come to life and characters become part of the painting.
Act 2 sees George, Seuratís sculptor descendant, come to terms with his family and his life in a poignant song cycle.
Both of those are good choices, but Sondhaim and Hugh Wheelerís adaptation of Christopher Bondís Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street wins, and not just because Tim Burtonís film version starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter is due out at the end of this year.
The original cast recording is two CDs long, with both Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, plus a symphonic rendition of this Grand Guignol about a barber who seeks revenge against the hypocrites who sent him to prison, and his lover who grinds his victims into meat for her pies. It is a grisly delight that must be purchased.
In fact, the DVD of the 1982 PBS broadcast of Sweeney Todd is still readily available, so buy both the remastered soundtrack and the show. That way, you can watch it at home and listen to it in the car.
While heís not the most commercially successful (although he did work on West Side Story) or the most prolific composer or lyricist, Sondheimís oeuvre proves him a master of his craft. These releases are a welcome reminder of that, as well as a great distillation of a career that has so far spanned over half a century.