Sondheim: The Story So Far

Stephen Sondheim and various artists (Sony BMG Masterworks Broadway 82796-94255-2)

23 November 2008 4 stars

Sondheim: The Story So FarIn many ways extraordinary, this four-disc boxset brings together a massive eighty-two tracks celebrating the career of Stephen Sondheim, one of the seminal figures in the history of American musical theatre. The recordings range from a performance of 'I Must Be Dreaming' (1948), a love song written by Sondheim in his junior year at college, to a couple of numbers from Bounce (2003) and 'Invocation and Instructions to the Audience' from the 2004 Nathan Lane revival of Frogs. All fifteen of the composer's Broadway shows are represented, as well as songs from TV specials, film soundtracks, and a large number of private recordings from Sondheim's own archive, featuring the composer in demos of cut songs or numbers from aborted projects. Many of the recordings have never been released before, and a beautifully-presented seventy-eight-page booklet is lavishly illustrated with a plethora of photographs, again from Sondheim's archive.

Together, all of this gives us an enviable chance to survey the great man's career from various points of view. Listening to all four discs consecutively without a break on the first listening, I was reminded of Sally Ann Howes' recent comment about Sondheim's music – it really gets under your skin. From half a century's worth of compositions, we can hear both the elements that remained consistent in Sondheim's style – an inclination to subvert or avoid clichéd harmonic manoeuvres, the prominence of the verbal text over the lyric moment, the maintenance of the melodic line on top of fast-flowing accompaniment figures – with his increasing sense of adventure and invention.

However, I truly wonder at whom the set is aimed. On the one hand, we have extracts from the Original Cast recordings of several Broadway warhorses: 'America', 'Tonight' and 'Gee, Officer Krupke' from West Side Story, 'Everything's Coming up Roses' from Gypsy, three tracks from Company, four from A Little Night Music and three from Sweeney Todd. To hear Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in 'A Little Priest', Ethel Merman in Gypsy or Hermione Gingold in 'Liaisons' is to witness musical theatre at its finest, of course, but avid collectors are likely to have the complete albums of these recordings already, and I'd guess that the average Sondheim fan will also own Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Passion and several of the others. On the other hand, a Sondheim novice frankly does not need to hear scratchy composer demos of cut songs intertwined with high-quality studio recordings. Indeed, I fear that the melange of high- and low-grade recordings might even put off a first-timer from exploring further or even making it to the end of the set. Nor will Sondheim enthusiasts really benefit from bringing together both the official and demo recordings for each show in quick succession when it results in such brusque shifts in sound quality; surely the demos could have been presented on separate discs.

There again, the criteria for the choice of performance is inconsistent. Due to rights problems, the original Broadway cast album of Follies is not sampled, and instead we get the concert cast from 1985. To me, therefore, it would have been more interesting to sample a wider range of recordings, rather than prioritising the original casts in nearly all cases (exceptions including Patti LuPone's 'The Worst Pies in London' and 'Everybody Ought to Have a Maid' from Putting it Together). It's also hard to understand why only one song is included from Sunday in the Park when there are three from West Side Story, and several favourites are missing ('Good Thing Going', 'Everybody Says Don't', 'Putting it Together', 'Not While I'm Around'). On a pure presentation issue, the hefty booklet is not properly housed in the CD box, because it hangs loose once the cellophane packaging has been opened.

Stephen SondheimBut in spite of all these problems – more caveats for the buyer to bear in mind than reasons to completely resist – the set is essential listening for true enthusiasts. The lure for me, and I assume for most people who will buy the set, is the unfamiliar material. It's wonderful to hear three numbers abandoned from the intended TV production of Into the Woods, with excellent performances from Maureen Moore, Kim Crosby, John Cameron Mitchell and George Lee Andrews. 'Have to Give Her Someone' shows us how Sondheim derives tension from unsettled chromatic motion, while 'Interesting Questions' does a similar thing through syncopation. Yet 'Second Midnight' is the real nugget, a concerted number that shows how well the composer is able to control antiphonal groups in order to deliver several messages in quick succession.

Sondheim as wordsmith is displayed in 'There's Something About a War' from A Funny Thing Happened. Described by the composer as 'Miles Gloriosus' original hymn to mayhem and massacre', the track comes from Sondheim's demo and shows us both the benefit and drawback of his own recordings: they're performed with insight and skill, but he has severe intonation problems that result in very flat-sounding long notes. 'Don't Laugh' was a cracking opening number for Hot Spot, for which Sondheim gave some help to composer Mary Rodgers and lyricist Martin Charnin during its out-of-town tryouts, and 'A Hero is Coming' is a particularly effective song in contrasting sections (again full of classic Sondheim chromatically-modified chords), written for Lee Remick in Anyone Can Whistle. The two previously-unheard numbers from Do I Hear a Waltz? (written with Richard Rodgers) come from the publishers' demo recording and therefore have both orchestrations and professional singers (Stan Stanley and Rose Mary Jun). 'Perhaps' is a cute song with attractive little leaps in the melody, while 'Everybody Loves Leona' is a more inventive piece with an ironic lyric and twisting melodic line.

The set includes many more cut songs and demos of this nature which will be of huge interest to Sondheim enthusiasts: 'Happily Ever After' – an early version of 'Being Alive' from Company – is a great example of how the composer-lyricist refines his product to serve the show in the best way possible, while 'Can that Boy Fox Trot!' is an entertaining comedy number for Carlotta from Follies. It's a shame that the demos from A Little Night Music have such poor sound quality, because I don't really feel they bear much repeated listening for the average collector, and the joined numbers from Pacific Overtures also sound very odd with the use of a prepared piano and Sondheim's spoken description of aspects of the songs. Nevertheless, the wealth of material on CD 4 is wonderful to have, with parts of Saturday Night, Passionella (later made into The Apple Tree by Bock and Harnick) and the previously unreleased tracks from Dick Tracy (featuring Madonna) essential listening.

One aspect of the set that may clinch it for collectors is the excellent booklet. As well as the texts for the previously unreleased songs and some lovely photographs, it contains an outstanding essay by Mark Horowitz, Senior Music Specialist at the Library of Congress, where he curates the papers and manuscripts of various seminal figures of American musical theatre. Although the booklet tells us that 'these notes reflect his personal, not professional, observations', it's clear from their numerous insights that they derive from the pen of someone who has an intimate knowledge and understanding of Sondheim's music and lyrics (something also evinced by his 2003 book, Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions).

Overall, this package would make the perfect Christmas present for anyone with a love of musical theatre: its limitations and problems aside, the set is an excellent achievement.

By Dominic McHugh