Sondheim Collection: Send in the Clones

Sondheim won’t spark any debate but it will certainly please anyone looking to throw on a bit of sophisticated music before popping open a bottle of Chardonnay before dinner

Judging from the avalanche of Stephen Sondheim collections released in recent years, you might think that Mr. Sondheim was no longer with us. He is, of course, still around, and still writing poignant, difficult music.

It will always be the young Mr. Sondheim the revolutionary who gave voice to the intricacies of urban relationships in such classic shows as Company and Follies to whom audiences most respond. And the good news is that the latest bundle of Mr. Sondheim’s work, Sondheim: The Stephen Sondheim Album (Fynsworth Alley), focuses on that period of his career. The disappointing news is that it’s just another well-rendered collection of Sondheim songs that doesn’t really distinguish itself from any of the 40-odd Sondheim tributes already out there.

It’s not surprising, really. Given the integrity of Mr. Sondheim’s music and lyrics, it’s often nearly impossible to disassociate the songs from the shows for which they were written. A successful interpretation of a Sondheim song pretty much has to sound like theater music, with big voices booming dramatic lyrics over lush harmonies provided by a full orchestra.

Over the years, the sporadic attempts to interpret Mr. Sondheim outside the theatrical idiom for instance, Company in Jazz, a version of Company done up jazz-style have sounded hollow. The only Sondheim tune that escaped its theatrical bonds in part because of Barbra Streisand, who had a radio hit with it was “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music. Perhaps it’s a sign of Mr. Sondheim’s intense devotion to theater music, as opposed to just popular song, that it’s the one song he has publicly denounced.

Then again, Sondheim is produced by Bruce Kimmel, who, amazingly, has put together nine previous Sondheim tribute albums. You would think that if anybody were ready to try some funky things with Mr. Sondheim’s music, it would be Mr. Kimmel.

As it stands, Sondheim won’t spark any debate on the pages of The Sondheim Review (a quarterly magazine for Sondheim junkies with too much time on their hands), but it will certainly please anyone looking to throw on a bit of sophisticated music before popping open a bottle of Chardonnay before dinner.

David Siegel’s arrangements are sung by a slew of Broadway and cabaret stars, including Liz Callaway, who performs “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle, and Dorothy Loudon (the original Ms. Hannigan in Annie), who tackles that great ode to perseverance, “I’m Still Here” from Follies. They don’t stray very far from the original-cast album versions, with one annoying exception: a saxophone that crops up every so often to echo the melody and provide, I suppose, a “jazzy” flavor.

Actress Ruthie Henshall’s rendition of “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods is certainly heartfelt. And on the pairing of “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Not a Day Goes By,” from Follies and Merrily We Roll Along, Christiane Noll’s thin, willowy voice perfectly articulates both songs’ messages of hope and despair. Less successful, I think, was Dame Edna’s version of “Losing My Mind” (or, as she sings it, “Loo-oo-sing My Mind”). Ms. Edna’s routine already seems dated. Like it or not, though, she’s still here.

Mr. Sondheim is theater’s greatest living composer, which is why I suspect the people at Fynsworth Alley wanted to mark the debut of their label with an album of his work. It’s an obvious and good choice, and Mr. Kimmel, the producer, has promised more Sondheim collections to come. Let’s hope he takes a few more chances on those.

William Berlind