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Side by Side by Sondheim – Original London Cast Recording 1976

Side by Side by Sondheim – Original London Cast Recording 1976

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Synopsis

Stephen Sondheim: Without having been born in a theatrical trunk, Stephen Sondheim is nevertheless a product of the professional musical theatre and its slick integrated tradition. It was fortunate for him that Oscar Hammerstein II was an intimate family friend, and he tells how, when he was fifteen, he wrote a school show and decided it was good enough to offer to Hammerstein: I had visions of being the youngest ever on Broadway, and asked him to treat it as if it were a professional work and he did not know me. Next day when I went back for the verdict he said “It’s the worst thing I ever read,” and as my lower lip trembled a bit he added, “I didn’t say it was untalented, I just said it’s terrible, and if you want to know why I’ll tell you.” We started with the opening stage direction and went through and by the afternoon I had a complete and very concise course in writing for the musical theatre. We spoke about everything – characters, plays, scenes, songs, how to structure each. So I daresay I knew more about song-writing at the end of that afternoon than most people know in a lifetime, because I got the distillation of his experience. I was just at the right age and I soaked it all up. He then outlined a course for me which in fact I followed quite precisely for the next four years. Sondheim took a degree in music at Williams College where he was awarded a post-graduate arts fellowship which enabled him to study composition with Milton Babbitt for about three years before beginning work in show business. After a brief period writing television scripts he was commissioned to make a musical out of an unproduced play which was the property of the designer/producer Lemuel Ayers. Ayers unfortunately died before the project, entitled Saturday Night, could be staged, and it was scrapped. It did however provide the young composer/lyricist with polished audition material, which impressed Arthur Laurents who was writing the book for West Side Story. Laurents enlisted Sondheim (then only 25) to write the lyrics for that memorable work, thus launching a successful career. Sondheim is one of the few successful musical comedy writers to prefer working with original stories. Most musicals have been based on well known plays, books or films and, in these, much labor is saved where story and character are concerned, since a large segment of the audience can be depended on to have a preconception of both. Since he starts from scratch, as it were, the strength of Sondheim’s characterization is all the more impressive. Of the six projects which Sondheim has initiated in his own right, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Follies and Pacific Overtures have been based upon completely original scripts. A Little Night Music and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, while based on Bergman and Plautus respectively, have been a lot more unorthodox in execution than the standard musical adaptation. Plans for the future include a ballad opera based on Christopher Bond’s version of the Victorian classic Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. He first saw the play at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London. Anyone Can Whistle, despite many technical points of merit and interest and a big following among cognoscenti for the original cast recording, was not a commercial success (perhaps because it was ahead of its time), but Sondheim has no regrets about it. In Do I Hear A Waltz?, which was based on Arthur Laurents’s Time Of The Cuckoo, Sondheim’s lyrics were paired with Richard Rodgers’s music; it was an atypical Sondheim product. Follies, a succés d’estime on Broadway, is perhaps Sondheim’s most complex and interesting work to date. Company was too New York for London and almost too New York for New York. West Side Story (with music by Leonard Bernstein) and Gypsy (with music by Jule Styne) were successful in the West End, as was A Little Night Music. His controversial ninth musical, Pacific Overtures, opened on Broadway earlier this year. The music Sondheim listens to for his own pleasure is almost exclusively nineteenth and twentieth century and Bach. No popular music at all, and little Handel, Haydn, or Mozart. “Bach,” he says, “was an acquired taste for me. Mozart I don’t understand. It doesn’t reach me. I admire it, but I don’t like it.” As a composer he admits to a very narrow enthusiasm. “I like writing songs that take place in dramatic situations within the proscenium arch. I’m not particularly interested in art songs or pop songs that stand on their own.” – Alan Ayre (adapted from Stephen Sondheim And The American Musical by Paul Sheren and Tom Sutcliffe; published by Hutchinson & Co. Ltd. in Sheridan Morley’s Theatre ’74) Side By Side By Sondheim is a celebration of the work of Stephen Sondheim from a British point of view. We may not be able to write good musicals in this country but we do know how to enjoy them. The show was born out of three long runs. Millicent Martin and Julia McKenzie were appearing in London in Alan Ayckbourn plays; David Kernan, Ray Cook, who supervised the music and laid down the two-piano accompaniment, and Stuart Pedlar, one of the co-musical directors (with Tim Higgs), were working in A Little Night Music. It was David Kernan’s idea to put together an evening of Sondheim songs for John Dankworth and Cleo Laine’s theatre at Wavendon – in much the same form of cabaret concert as two other compilations I had directed there. In selecting the songs we were governed by two principal considerations – a considered thematic study of Sondheim’s development as a writer for the musical theatre; and finding the right material for three versatile performers. We wanted to explore three propositions. Sondheim is the best lyric writer of our time; the most adventurous composer of musicals; and the most considerable musical dramatist. Comedy Tonight and Love Is In The Air represent two attempts to find an opening number for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. One is charming. The other is right. One of Sondheim’s favorite themes is marriage and The Little Things You Do Together chronicles the long littlenesses of married life. In You Must Meet My Wife a husband rhapsodises about his virgin bride to an old flame. Getting Married Today pinpoints the nerves of a bride on the day. For the next three songs we chose numbers almost certain to be unknown to a British audience (and in two cases not familiar to many Americans). I Remember comes from Evening Primrose, a television musical which had only one performance in 1966. It dealt with a mystical night society of hermits living in a department store and the singer, reared from the age of six amidst the plastic and chrome, tries to remember what the sights, sounds, and sensations of the outside world were like. Can That Boy Foxtrot! was dropped from Follies in Boston after two weeks of performances. Too Many Mornings is also from Follies, a remarkably beautiful love song for two people who haven’t seen each other for twenty years. The Company section again deals with relationships in and around marriage; and with the city of New York, summed up in 132 bars by Another Hundred People. Barcelona is a scene, almost a one-act play in itself, as the leading man wakes up at 4:30 a.m. after a one-night stand with an air-hostess. Being Alive is a desperate cry for a relationship. I Never Do Anything Twice, the last song to be added to the program comes from the 1976 film, The 7% Solution. An ageing Madame, in turn of the century Vienna, excites her customers with her reminiscences. One aspect of Follies (a wonderfully ambitious show built around a reunion of Ziegfeld Follies girls in the rubble of their old theatre – decades after their heyday) is the chance it gives Sondheim to comment affectionately on the craft of earlier songwriters. Bring On The Girls is in the manner of Irving Berlin; Ah, Paree! conjures up innumerable French artistes of unlimited zest and limited talent; Buddy’s Blues evokes countless vaudeville blues numbers; and Broadway Baby turns back the clock to the days of De Sylva, Brown and Henderson. Sondheim also uses pastiche in Company, notably in a scene where three girls comment angrily on the hero, Bobby. The form they use is an Andrews Sisters parody – You Could Drive A Person Crazy. Anyone Can Whistle was the most controversial musical of the ’60s; angry, disturbing, nonconforming. It is represented on this record by Everybody Says Don’t; There Won’t Be Trumpets, which didn’t make the final show, and Anyone Can Whistle. From A Little Night Music, Send In The Clowns has become Sondheim’s best known song. The tune, irresistible, the words, haunting and elusive. Sondheim’s latest work is Pacific Overtures, a dramatization of the way Japan was opened up to international trade in the 19th century. In Pretty Lady three British sailors watch a Japanese girl, mistaking her for a Geisha. In the director Hal Prince’s concept, the show is played in Kabuki style informed by Japanese ideas of what a Western musical is like. The cockney accents of the sailors (a Japanese idea of a Broadway idea of cockney) are as strange as those Julie Andrews employed in My Fair Lady. There are four examples of Sondheim’s output as a lyricist, working with other composers. We’re Gonna Be All Right is from Do I Hear A Waltz? The music is by Richard Rodgers; and the lyric is for a couple who reckon that although their marriage is none too good, judging by the mess their friends are in, We’re Gonna Be All Right. A Boy Like That is from West Side Story, the music by Leonard Bernstein. The Boy From . . . was written with Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers’s daughter, for a revue called The Mad Show, and If Momma Was Married from Gypsy (music by Jule Styne) is a plea from the heart from two daughters of a monster show business mother. The three great songs from Follies that follow are dramatic monologues rather than conventional popular songs. Losing My Mind, in which Julia McKenzie explores a housewife’s loneliness, contains powerful echoes of Gershwin; Could I Leave You? which was sung in the show by Alexis Smith is radically reinterpreted by David Kernan; and in I’m Still Here, a social history of America from the ’30s through to the ’60s, Millicent Martin offers an ageing movie star’s hymn to survival. Side By Side By Side from Company is the evening’s epilogue. After trying the program out at Wavendon, InComes Company, the title of our Artists Collective, presented it on three Sunday evenings before arrangements were made for a London run, initially at the Mermaid Theatre. The theatricality of Sondheim’s music has had the gratifying effect of exciting large audiences to whom the main body of the work was unfamiliar. Thomas Z. Shepard’s recording brilliantly catches that theatricality and will, we hope, continue to spread the word. – Ned Sherrin

Credits

A musical entertainment with Millicent Martin Julia McKenzie David Kernan Directed by Ned Sherrin