Kudos to PS Classics for including in the liner notes a quote that will be excerpted in every review of Sondheim Sings, Vol. 1, 1962-1972. So states Stephen Sondheim in 1971:
For those of you who have not had the pleasure of hearing my voice before, I tend to sing very loud, usually off pitch and always write in a keys that are just out of my range.
Sondheim’s estimation of his singing voice may be on target, but his gruff delivery sounds like he’d be great at karaoke. Not that he’d need a karaoke machine to back him up — he’s an incredible pianist, as this first volume of Sondheim’s personal demo tapes demonstrates.
In Meryle Secrest’s 1999 biography of Sondheim, the composer noted how he wasn’t an orchestrator, leaving that job mostly to Jonathan Tunick. But Tunick usually had his work cut out for him — Sondheim’s piano scores had enough material from which to draw.
The most telling track is a private performance of “The Glamorous Life” (from A Little Night Music) in front of guests. Sondheim explains the staging of the song to his audience while not missing a beat of his incredibly full accompaniment. It’s tough to imagine one person doing everything in this track.
The remaining tracks on Sondheim Sings, Vol. 1 were recorded by a friend with enough money to invest in home recording gear at the time. We’re not talking ProTools here — the use of reverb on some of recordings is a surprising embellishment.
Sondheim enthusiasts will no doubt find this album a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of his work. PS Classics annotates the material well, noting which songs were cut from which show and where lyrics have alternate versions.
Thing is, I’m only familiar with his latter-day work, so I have no real point of reference for most of this material. The notes are helpful in this regard.
It’s easy to see how A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum went through two different opening songs — “Invocation” and “Love Is in the Air” — before settling on “Comedy Tonight”.
“Multitudes of Amys” has some clever wordplay that teeters on annoying, but it’s interesting to see how bits of it worked its way into “Marry Me a Little”. Both were scrapped in favor of “Being Alive”.
Still, there’s something special about hearing a guy who would write music sung by hundreds of performers doing it himself.
And if the tongue-twisting aliterations of “Pretty Little Picture” are any gauge, that’s an amazing feat. (Amazing from my haphazard training, at least.)
There are about 74 demos in Sondheim’s library, which means more volumes in this series are forthcoming. So waiting will be the hard part.