Recording “The Ladies Who Lunch”

When the original Broadway cast of Company went into the Columbia recording studios to lay down the revolutionary Sondheim score, theatre fans were afforded an incredible opportunity as documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker was on hand to tape the marathon 18 hour session. It was to be the first in a series, but the full project never materialized. But this one session became the legendary Original Cast Album: Company. Before present union regulations, the tradition was that a cast album was recorded on the first day off after opening night. In that one day. It was a marathon session which started early in the morning and would usually take up the entire day and often go well past midnight.

Sitting like lords in the sound booth, Sondheim and 12 time Grammy winning record producer Thomas Z. Shepard give input and feedback regarding individual performances. Producer-director Harold Prince is also on hand to observe. But it’s mostly Sondheim and Shepard running things, conferring with conductor Harold Hastings, orchestra and performers. It’s quite clear that the original cast album is the definitive performance and everyone and everything must be perfect, down to the last note. Therefore, Sondheim asks Beth Howland that she sing rather than speak more of the patter of “Getting Married Today” and they re-do “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” when a wrong note is heard in the tight three part harmony. Dean Jones, whose singing on the album has always sounded impassioned to me, stands at the microphone like an automaton throughout most of the session.

But the most memorable segment was the notorious attempt to record Elaine Stritch‘s “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Coming at the end of the session, Stritch tries her hardest to get out her showstopper. She’s in her trademark tights and long button-down shirt. No make-up and her hair askew. However, for a variety of reasons  – physical exhaustion, vocal fatigue included – she just can’t nail it. She gives it her all, but to the disappointment of those in the booth her takes are lackluster. Sondheim suggests taking it down a half tone, Stritch’s response is that she can do it if she takes her hat off (among similar signs of nerves and exhaustion). It doesn’t go well, and in fact each take gets progressively worse as the session progresses. Tensions arise with an impatient record producer and a perfectionist composer struggling to figure out how to fix the problem. Eventually we cut to Stritch screaming at her own performance on the playback.

It’s decided to have the orchestra lay down the track and to have Elaine come in and record over it another day. When she returns to the studio several days later, it’s like night and day – Stritch coiffed in full hair and makeup for the show – hits the home run heard on the cast album. A triumph for all. In the DVD commentary, Hal Prince suggests that Stritch might have been playing to the cameras in the room – even down to the hair and makeup. Stritch denies it outright – that she was at her worst and quite humiliated and insecure and that she doesn’t even remember where she ended up that night. The star also talks about how hurt she was to hear Shepard say, “Once more from the top. Sung.”

Pennebaker, using just three hand held cameras captured the entire day of recording and whittled it down into this hour-long documentary showcasing the hard work that goes into the creation of a cast album. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to do his full series (I can’t imagine what the Follies session must have been like with all the devastating cuts Capitol insisted upon for the record) Who knew making a cast album could be so riveting? (And yes, one of those 12 Grammys was for Company).



"Company" turns 40

Tonight there is the latest in a long line of festivities celebrating the 80th birthday of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim at the City Center. It seems quite fitting to me as today is the anniversary of the musical that established Sondheim as the voice of new musical theatre: Company. On this day half a lifetime ago, his brittle, sophisticated portrait of marriage in NYC opened at the Alvin Theatre, dividing critics, surprising audiences and taking home awards left and right.

A series of vignettes based on plays by George Furth, the musical was directed by Harold Prince and starred Dean Jones as Bobby. What separated Company from other book musicals up to that point was its virtual lack of plot. The show was a series of vignettes – glimpses into Bobby’s lack of commitment and the relationship he has with other couples as well as his series of girlfriends. The setting and time? “New York City. Now.” Aside from that piece of information in the Playbill, there is no sense of chronology to what’s seen onstage. Characters step out of scenes to sing, commenting rather than continuing the action. It was daring, it was bold and it was pretty much unlike anything that had been seen up to that point.

Jones headlined the original production, but left after opening because of personal reasons (Larry Kert replaced him). The cast also included Charles Kimbrough, Beth Howland, Pamela Myers, Barbara Barrie, Susan Browning, Donna McKechnie and of course Elaine Stritch as Joanne. Boris Aronson’s set and Michael Bennett’s choreography are still often discussed in theatre circles; the show has been revived twice, including a Tony-winning turn in 2006 but none have come close to this production, whose original cast album remains the definitive reading of the score.

The songs of the score are well known to musical theatre fans. Bobby’s girlfriends singing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” with its Andrews sisters style vocal arrangements; Marta’s “Another Hundred People,” Amy’s borderline insanity in the rapid fire patter song “Getting Married Today.” Bobby’s summation in “Being Alive” and Joanne’s condemnation of her peers and herself in “The Ladies who Lunch.” Jonathan Tunick charted the orchestrations, capturing the frenetic energy of 1970 in his superlative arrangements, foreshadowed in his work on Promises, Promises a couple years earlier (I think his charts for “Another Hundred People” captures the pace of NY better than any other I’ve heard).

It was the start of an unbelievably productive decade for Sondheim and Prince: Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along (which is. Prince and Sondheim became the face of contemporary musical theatre. Jonathan Tunick, with chameleon brilliance, smartly orchestrated each one of these scores so thrillingly that any other charts pale in comparison.

In Sondheim on Sondheim, the composer has written a self-deprecating song called “God!” taking aim at his own revered position in the world of music theatre. But looking at Mr. Sondheim’s contribution to the art form from Company to the present, it’s hard not to agree with the people’s assessment.

What I Did on My Summer, er, Fall Vacation

If I could find the person who decided the weekend could consist only of Saturday and Sunday, I would locate him, resurrect him from the dead and then kill him for it. The saddest part of my weekend out of town in New Paltz is the fact that it’s over. I went up Friday morning and spent the beautiful, sunny fall day wandering through the town and campus. I haven’t been up in the area in about a year and a half; most of my friends have graduated and moved on to bigger and better things. However, a few faculty members and the rare student remains who began their studies as I was ending mine. Before I could meet those people I knew, I first hit up two of my favorite spots on Main Street – Rhino Records and Jack’s Rhythms. These are the two places where I really developed a great core of my cast album collection (mostly LP, but a substantial amount on CD). I always like to frequent them because they are always a good time. Both owners are in the store almost always, and are awesome people. Jack especially always remembers me, and even if say a year and a half has gone by, he will ask me what theatre I’ve been seeing, as though we’re picking up our conversation exactly where we left off. This time around I found the cast album of Milk and Honey in Rhino and then traipsed across the hippie tinged block to Jack’s store where I unearthed the LPs of Bravo Giovanni, Hazel Flagg and would you believe it, Flahooley. I’ve also got him interested in seeing August: Osage County after relaying my usual story about what it was like to be in the Imperial on opening night.

As though passing through a surreal time warp, I walked onto the college campus which was exactly as I remembered it, yet entirely different. There is immense renovations going on across the campus, with the school’s Old Main closed for a three year refurbishing project. After wandering aimlessly through the detours, I found the theatre department and Stephen Kitsakos, the professor of musical theatre and musical director on campus. Stephen’s American Musical Theatre class is joy to take, and from my perspective, also to sit in. Because the class is listed fulfills core requirements for the four year curriculum, the class has evolved from a mere musical class into one that shows the American musical as a reflection of the history and popular culture. I sat on his class that day, which was focusing on representation of Asian Americans in musical theatre. One of the more interesting things about Stephen is the casual way he has of talking about the subject matter at hand. He starts such classes by asking for stereotypes regarding the particular culture in question. After getting the reluctant class to speak up (every time I’ve seen it, people sit on their hands – the P.C. police on patrol), he starts critical thinking discussions on what about our culture leads to such labeling. In this particular class, Stephen’s focus remained on Rodgers & Hammerstein using South Pacific, The King and I and Flower Drum Song. Looking at examples from those musicals, he discusses the tolerance and anti-prejudice that Hammerstein was trying to display, yet also how the writing was also clouded by inherent ethnocentrism and instrinsic yet unconscious condescension toward the other cultures. The class makes for some fascinating discussion – and is one of the most informative anyone could possibly take to learn about the art form.

After the class, I got to meet up with some of theatre students, whose company I enjoyed immensely. It was a bit strange, I graduated almost three years ago and moved out of the town six months later, so while many of my friends and cohorts have moved on, there are a couple of people remaining from my time there. I had never in my life had people so excited to meet me; I felt like a rockstar. This led itself into the evening’s performance of Company, the fall mainstage musical that the theatre department is presenting this month. One of the glories of educational theatre is that it allows students to test the waters with roles that they may either never get to play otherwise, or may not yet be old enough to play. With Company, that is most certainly the case. However, there was much to admire. Especially Paul Rigano and Kristen Alestra, who managed to crack me up (for the first time) on the karate scene – their physical comedy was exquisite. Charlotte Pines brought a seductive sass to Marta while Larissa Golberg was devastating as April. Andrea Green was one of the show’s highlights as Amy (and boy does that song and scene work like gangbusters). Freshman Adam La Salle was her Paul, with the voice, looks and naturalism that with the right direction could bring him musical theatre stardom. (Seriously, I’m not usually bowled over, but this kid stunned us all). Michelle Hines had a field day with “The Ladies Who Lunch” while Denise Townsend is doing Donna McKechnie proud as Kathy. If I’m forgetting anyone I apologize – all of them are doing hard work, plus it’s fun to see Sondheim on the college level, given the inherent challenges found in each of his shows. (The last Sondheim show they performed on their mainstage was Sunday in the Park With George, the only show I worked on – officially and appeared in during my college years). I also had the immense privilege of communicating with the production dramaturges, Russ Dembin and Chris Lavin, whose enthusiasm and intelligence are unending, throughout the entire course of the production. In that respect it was wonderful to see the show on its feet.

After the show, we went to the diner to discuss the show and get acquainted with Jenny Weinbloom of Alpha Psi Ecdysia fame (the campus’ burlesque club) of whom I briefly wrote about back in May. Her parents hated 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue so much, they ate hot dogs in the front row in protest (for what I’m assuming is the second act – they hadn’t seen the “Duet” yet). Quote of the weekend is hers. When picking up the check. “You don’t have a job, you’re a blogger!” Only in New Paltz, kids.

The next day I had some time to kill before the arrival of my second wave of friends – other alumni who were coming up for the Saturday night. And as promised, I went to the Sojourner Truth Library on campus, where I was employed in my college days (very June Allyson in Good News, huh?). After catching up with some old friends still working there, I sat down and did my obligatory research (did you know that Arthur Laurents was the first director Bernstein and Lerner wanted for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? I didn’t until Saturday). Unfortunately I didn’t find much on Prettybelle, but I was able to peruse the periodicals (the databases are for students only) and look up some fun facts.

Changing gears, I spent the evening with some of my closest friends in the entire world. I practically lived with them my freshman year of college and have considered them family ever since. We had drinks at Bacchus, a fantastic Southwestern restaurant just off of Main Street, where they serve over 200 beers, imported and domestic. (The favorite for myself and my Val was the Scottish ‘SkullSplitter’). After getting a good buzz on, we went to the motel at which they were staying before bundling up to go to the Headless Horseman Haunted Hayride in Ulster Park, NY. It’s apparently been named the number one Halloween attraction in America, and my goodness do they make a killing. I went there once before, with the same very group (a few changes in casting along the way), when I was a freshman in college. It was the event that I feel really cemented my friendship with them all. Anyway, we braved the cold for a raucous, strobe-light, fogged-filled sampling of haunted houses and a hayride (at which I either did nothing but provide running commentary, laugh or help the girls through) and then settled in for an old school night of an ipod shuffle, beer and wine, and some cards.

Sunday’s weather improved on Saturday’s. We went to the Main Street Bistro, one of our sentimental favorites in town, for breakfast and then spent the rest of the day milling through town. I made my first ever visit to the Water Street Market, an antique store in a barn, where I made the fascinating discovery of an entire Broadway section, complete with cast albums (LP), window cards, playbills and souvenir programs. Exercising unprecedented restraint, I limited myself to the original London cast album of Virtue in Danger with Patricia Routledge and Barrie Ingham and the souvenir programs of Robert Preston in Ben Franklin in Paris and Meredith Willson’s Here’s Love. There will most certainly be a field trip back to this particular store the next time I’m up there.

We wrapped up our weekend with drive up into the Shawagunk Mountains for a pastoral viewing of Ulster and Orange Counties, then wrapped things up with a trip to a farm market for your usual pumpkins, ciders, etc.

And then I came home.

The most played songs on my iPod.

It’s very late and I’m waiting for my laundry to dry and since I have not yet seen Sweeney Todd (curses), I needed something to fill the void, so I decided to play around with my iPod/itunes. I was curious to see what my top 25 playlist consisted of, so I thought I’d share:

1. “Not on Your Nellie,” Darling of the Day, OBCR (Jule Styne-Yip Harburg). Patricia Routledge‘s rousing music-hall eleven o’clock showstopper. It’s a sheer delight from start to finish. In part because of this, and also the next entry, Routledge has become a heroine of mine. And a master class in musical comedy genius. I highly recommend the rest of the cast album. 109 plays (yeah, I’ve listened to it a lot…).

2. “Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land),” 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Leonard Bernstein-Alan Jay Lerner). Patricia Routledge once again snags this spot with her spirited rendition of this nine minute showstopper in which she portrays both Julia Grant and Lucy Hayes while discoursing on the election controversy that led to the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. A complete marvel of craft in both performance and writing. 60 plays.

3. “You’ve Got Possibilities,” It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, OBCR (Charles Strouse-Lee Adams). Linda Lavin stopped the show with this cleverly written song in which her character tries to seduce Clark Kent. 46 plays.

4. “Sez I/If It Isn’t Everything,” Donnybrook, OBCR (Johnny Burke). Peter Filichia referred to this in an article as the greatest opening number you’ve never heard. I will not disagree. The only fitting description I can use would be to consider it a feisty Irish cousin to “Waitin’ for My Dearie” and “Many a New Day,” Joan Fagan nails this energetic number out of the ballpark. Now if we could only get a CD release. 44 plays.

5. “The Golden Ram,” Two by Two, OBCR (Richard Rodgers-Martin Charnin). Okay, so I’m a huge fan of Madeline Kahn. Extraordinarily huge. This brief exercise in coloratura hysterics is the only cast album which showcases Kahn’s soprano at its peak (she had vocal problems the day On the Twentieth Century was recorded, though apparently no one in the production team cared). She caps the number with a full-out high C. 44 plays.

6. “Another Hundred People,” Company, OBCR (Stephen Sondheim). One of the most ingenious orchestrations ever given a theatre song, Pamela Myers‘ definitive rendition is always something I listen to with earnestness and appreciation. From the melody, to the lyric, to the context, it is one of the most satisfying moments in a musical (and subsequent album) that Sondheim has given us. 44 plays.

7. “Come You Men,” A Time for Singing, OBCR (John Morris-Gerald Freedman). Granted the running time is brief (1:20), which probably led to numerous plays over the previous months; but the song itself is the stirring opening to the cast album of this devastatingly short-lived musical adaptation of How Green Was My Valley. This track is an a capella chorale in the Welsh tradition that is incredibly stirring and melodically gorgeous. 44 plays.

8. “A Time for Singing,” A Time for Singing, OBCR. Tessie O’Shea gets great material in this show, but her rousing and spirited rendition of the title song will send you to hit the repeat button again and again. A jubilant waltz, the song also takes on for me, a personal philosophy of what the singing in a musical can do. Hear the words of the first verse, and you’ll understand. Another LP album that needs a remastered CD release. 38 plays.

9. “The Girl Who Has Everything,” Grey Gardens, OBCR (Scott Frankel-Michael Korie). When I first saw this musical, it was on Broadway, where this number had replaced the song “Toyland” featured on the original cast recording from Playwrights Horizons. When the new album came out, this soaring operetta waltz, which took on considerable gravity within the show’s context, was oft repeated, especially for the stunning vocal flourish with which Christine Ebersole ended the number. 37 plays.

10. “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” Grey Gardens, OBCR. I would consider this the finest list song Broadway has had in years, if not decades. The list espoused by Little Edie in this act two opening showstopper is a feat of expository writing in an opening number. (I consider GG two linked one-act musicals, since the styles are so very different). You receive so much about setting, time and character in just the words, and even the amusing “Da-da-da-DA-dummm.” which fills the pauses between songs. Genius. 37 plays.

The rest of the top 25: “We Need a Little Christmas,” Mame OBCR (Jerry Herman); “Turkey Lurkey Time,” Promises, Promises OBCR (Bacharach-Hal David); “I Was a Shoo-In,” Subways Are for Sleeping OBCR (Styne-Comden & Green); “It’s Enough to Make a Lady Fall in Love,” Darling of the Day OBCR; “Mame,” Mame OBCR; “Home Sweet Heaven,” High Spirits OBCR (Hugh Martin-Timothy Gray); “Raunchy,” 110 in the Shade, New BCR (Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones); “Let’s See What Happens,” Darling of the Day, OBCR; “Rehab,” Back to Black, Amy Winehouse (not everything is theatre 24/7…); “Ice Cream,” She Loves Me, OBCR (Bock & Harnick); “Carnegie Hall (Do-Do-Re-Do)” On the Town, 1960 studio cast (Bernstein-Comden & Green; God, that ride-out!); “Thank God I’m Old, Barnum, OLCR (Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart); “Fable,” The Light in the Piazza (Adam Guettel); “For Once in My Life,” Stevie Wonder (see Winehouse); “And This is My Beloved,” Kismet, Lincoln Center revival CR (Borodin; Wright & Forrest).