ON TAPING, SONDHEIM COLLECTING & OTHER THINGS PEOPLE ARE PARANOID TO TALK ABOUT
Stephen Sondheim has become the most collectible composer/lyricist in musical theater. Is there any question why? After all, he is currently alive and well and working in the age of electronic media. True, both the teams of Rodgers & Hammerstein & Lerner & Loewe were working in the age of records & tapes; Sondheim is in the age of video and laser discs. There are more audio tapes of live Sondheim shows than there are of any other composer/lyricist.
Among the joys of Sondheim collecting are collecting the backer audition tpaes-these to me are much more exciting than live shows. We actually hear Steve playing & singing the score. This is the closest way of getting inside a composers head and hearing the score the way he heard it when he wrote it-before all the changes. Backer tapes that are "out there" are the ones for COMPANY; A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC; FOLLIES; SWEENEY TODD; MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG; SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE & INTO THE WOODS. With the first 5 shows what we hear is Hal Prince narrating the production and story and Steve playing and singing the song of the moment. Of course there are many early lyrics in these songs that have since been changed. Another exciting audio is a demo tape of EXCEPTION & THE RULE (aka A PRAY BY BLECHT)- a never produced show by Sondheim (as lyricist) and Leonard Bernstein. Steve sings the very avant garde score as Lenny plays the piano.
There are basically 4 groups of tapes available to Sondheim collecting: Backer tapes are one. Next are LIVE SHOWS: These are audio tapes (and videos) of live shows- from all over the world. These tapes are made usually one of two ways: The best way is right off the sound board. The engineer who sits at the mixing console (who controls the house sound for the show) can simplly connect a tape recorder to the main outputs of the board and can thuslly record the performance. What he is in fact recording is not so much what you hear out of the speakers but the house mix of all the mics that the performers have (which are wireless) and the mix of the musicians. Sometimes he adds reverb to the voices but generally not all that much since the theater you are in is big and has its own natural reverb. When you hear it in the theater it sounds big and full because the sound is reverberating in the theater. The audio tape that comes out of the console is usually dry (not reverberated) since the sound goes straight to the console and not out to the theater. The only way you can get the sound that comes out to the theater is if you record it yourself, from your seat. This is the second way to record a live show. Of course this is illegal. (what isn't?) Anyway, the tape you may make yourself will have more of a live feel than a soundboard since that is coming directly out of the console. Personally, honestly, I only tried twice to record a show live-one was the recent GYPSY on Broadway. As it turned out I had front row orchestra seats-right behind the conductor. Needless to say, I was so nervous, I totally botched the tape. The other time was with A CHORUS LINE. After the first half hour I accidentally hit the pause button and didn't realize it till the show was over. As far as videos are concerned, I don't know how people do it but it's usually from the last row and somehow they conceal the camera. They do manage to zoom in in most cases. Although these videos are sometimes hard to watch, heads in the way, shaky camera, etc. it's still the only way to preserve a performance. More power to them. As for me, after paying a fortune for a ticket I'd rather sit back and enjoy the show.
Now, back to Sondheim and what's out there: The live audios range from the classic final performance of GYPSY with Ethel Merman (obviously a reel-reel recorder-there were no cassettes in '61) where the audience is pumped to the max and the orchestra plays AULD LANG SYNE at the end, to a live performance of ASSASSINS (video) from Playwrights Horizons from '91. There are also live tapes of GYPSY with both Angela Lansbury (audio) & Tyne Daly (video). From COMPANY there is a live U.S. tour soundboard tape available. There is also a Broadway audio with Larry Kert-who as you may know took over the role of Robert from Dean Jones about a week into the show. FOLLIES -in many live versions including the original cast from the Winter Garden. There are both soundboard and live audience tapes as well as versions from the Mackintosh production from London. There is no known version of WEST SIDE STORY with the original cast (except for video clips from the Sullivan show) and this is probably my #1 want. To hear this entire show with all its underscoring with both Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence would be a treasure. Since cassettes came in existence in the late 60s, there are many more shows from that period to the present resulting in, of course, many versions of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC-both the Broadway, National Tour and the London productions (and the PBS broadcast). PACIFIC OVERTURES opening night is out there as well as an ENO radio broadcast. There is a SWEENEY TODD broadcast from the Houston Grand Opera. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG has a video from the original production. Remember, these are all camcorder shot. We are very lucky to have had professionaly shot broadcasts of SWEENEY TODD; SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE; A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC; INTO THE WOODS & PASSION available to us. PACIFIC OVERTURES was captured live with the original for broadcast in Japan. Wouldn't be great to have PPV performances from Broadway? They almost did this with DAMN YANKEES but it never happened.
Another group is REVUES. There are more Sondheim revues than any other composer I know. Every country has a Sondheim revue-many of them are broadcast over public radio in their country. The most well know one (and I believe the first) was the SONDHEIM TRIBUTE AT THE SHUBERT from 1973 during the run of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. With the most incredible cast ever assembled for a revue and a full orchestra under the direction of Paul Gemignani, plus top celebrities including Jule Styne all giving speeches in praise of Steve, this is truly one of the greatest revues ever produced. Credit for the show goes to Craig Zadan who wrote the incredible book, SONDHEIM & CO. The concert was recorded in its entirety and released as a double album. Of course the whole show was not released. There were 13 songs that were not on the LP. ALSO what was not released (but recorded) were the speeches by 15 stars-including Jack Cassidy, Anthony Perkins, Nancy Walker and many others. The album is out of print. I have 2 mint copies left for $75 each. A CD was released in 1990 and one would think Warners would finally released the entire show-but NO-only 2 more songs were added for the re-release leaving 10 more songs and once again-all the speeches not released. There is, of course, a complete tape of the ENTIRE show available and it is a soundboard tape.
There are many other Sondheim revues that were not released but just performend and sometimes aired live. BEING ALIVE, a 1989 London revue is an incredible full concert revue whick features Elaine Stritch-who forgets the words to LADIES WHO LUNCH and has to start over. The concert also features David Kernan, Liz Robertson, Eartha Kitt and Len Cariou. It was broadcast live from the Theatre Royal.
Another concert from London a TRIBUTE TO SONDHEIM from Royal Festival Hall from 1989 is a magnificent tribute with full orchestrations and great performances (mostly English performers who are for the most part unknown here). This was broadcast live.
A concert from Australia, known as A SONDHEIM EVENING from 1988 was also broadcast live. all of these revues usually go in a chronological order of shows.
From 1982 there is the DAMROSCH PARK concert by the National Chorale. Although this was not broadcast, there is a wonderful sound system tape circulating. This concert was noted for its world premiere performance of the opening sequence from WEST SIDE STORY with the lyrics that were never used-called, UP TO THE MOON.
From 1990 is the 60th birthday tribute to Steve from NPR in NY. It was a wonderful radio documentary with hosts Angela Lansbury, Sheldon Harnick, Hal Prince and Jonathan Tunick (his orchestrator for most of his shows). Bits of songs and speeches by Steve grace this wonderful broadcast called PUTTING IT TOGETHER.
There are many more much too numerous to mention here but they are out there in the world in the hands of Sondheim collectors. There is also a tape where we hear Steve singing the songs to most of his shows. These are mostly taken from the Backer tapes. How I would have loved such a tape with Rodgers & Hammerstein singing their score for CAROUSEL or OKLAHOMA; George & Ira Gershwin singing GIRL CRAZY; Lerner & Loewe on a backers tape for MY FAIR LADY. Although there is no known WEST SIDE backers tape, there is a tape of GYPSY with Merman singing most of the score.
There are many Sondheim interviews, lectures, and discussions on tape. The most famous is the YMCA lecture which was recorded but never released commercially. There were many occassions wehre Steve spoke at the Dramatists Guild in New York. There is an interview from WYNU from 1979 where he discusses SWEENEY TODD. There is a wonderful seminar on WEST SIDE from 1985 which I attended which featured the entire creative team-Sondheim, Bernstein, Jerry Robbins and Arthur Laurents where they discuss the production.
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