Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Blogging the Sondheim Box Set

October will see the release of the long-awaited 4-CD Stephen Sondheim box set, culling the best from 50 years of Broadway cast recordings as well as 35 previously unreleased tracks. It will be exclusively available from Playbill.com for the first six months.

I'm tremendously excited about this set, but of course I have quibbles as well. What should be included, what couldn't be, what's cut due to space concerns. The biggest controversy has to be the failure to get tracks from the original cast album of Follies (Capitol Records requested an impossible amount of money to license them out).

Thanks to iTunes, however, I can program my own Best Of Sondheim playlist. Here's my annotated look at the tracks of the box set, and what I would do differently.

Disc One

West Side Story (1957)
music by Leonard Bernstein
lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

1. America (4:33)
Marilyn Cooper, Chita Rivera, Shark Girls
orchestra conducted by Max Goberman
rec. 9/29/57

2. Tonight (3:54)
Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence
orchestra conducted by Max Goberman
rec. 9/29/57

3. Gee, Officer Krupke (4:02)
Eddie Roll, Grover Dale, Hank Brunjes, Tony Mordante, David Winters & The Jets
orchestra conducted by Max Goberman
rec. 9/29/57

[tracks #1-3, from the Columbia album, West Side Story (SK 60724)]
Sondheim's first Broadway show became a smash, so it makes sense to start here. The two songs that best show off Sondheim's talents are "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke", so no fault there.

If it were me, though, I would have opened with "Something's Coming", which not only expresses the optimism of lead character Tony, but also speaks to the promise of then 27-year-old Sondheim's future career. "I don't know what it is, but it is gonna be great." Exactly.
Gypsy (1959)
music by Jule Styne
lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

4. Everything's Coming Up Roses (3:06)
Ethel Merman
orchestra conducted by Milton Rosenstock
rec. 5/24/59

[track #4, from the Columbia album, Gypsy (SK 60848)]
Gypsy was another smash, this time with a big old fashioned musical theater star (the biggest?). With "Everything's Coming Up Roses", Sondheim wrote a lyric that became part of the English vernacular. How many people can say that?

It's a shame that there's only room for one song from Gypsy, because there are so many highlights. The Overture is arguably the best of any classic Broadway cast recording, while "Some People" features Sondheim uttering the line "You'll never get 88 cents from me".

Still, if I could only choose one more song, it'd be Ethel Merman's version of "Rose's Turn", in which musical fragments from the entire score are smashed into the ultimate 11-oclock number. You listen, and wonder how Merman could have possibly lost the Best Actress Tony Award to Mary Martin that year (Martin won for The Sound of Music. I guess Merman said it best right afterward: You can't buck a nun.)

[More later.]


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