REISSUES: Four Sondheim Classics
Masterworks Broadway (the product of Sony/Columbia's merger with RCA/BMG) has finally made good on a years-old promise by reissuing remastered versions of Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Merrily We Roll Along, and Sweeney Todd. While they may not be everything collectors might have hoped, the four comprise a worthy start to what could be an outstanding reissue program. Material: These four albums are almost beyond the point of needing review; Stephen Sondheim's output in the seventies and eighties ranks as some of the most important and influential music ever composed for the theatre--and the most controversial. Few people reading this will lack familiarity with all four, and fewer still will lack strong opinions about them. Suffice it to say that people interested in musical theatre must own all four.
Performances: Three of these albums contain unapproachable, iconic performances by theatrical legends--Angela Lansbury's Nellie Lovett, Joanna Gleason's Baker's Wife, Mandy Patinkin's George, Bernadette Peters's Dot and Witch, and even many of the supporting performances set a high bar for all subsequent performers. Even the fourth album, Merrily, has a cast riddled with young people who would make names for themselves in the theatre and out--actors Tonya Pinkins, Liz Callaway, and Jason Alexander, and directors Lonny Price and Daisy Prince. These casts, too, are the ones that posterity will remember.
Sonics: This is the category in which Sunday becomes a must-buy. The original CD issue is one of the murkiest-sounding cast albums ever; I'm sure I'm not the only one who vividly remembers having to turn up the sound all the way on my pre-equalizer boombox in tithe early nineties to catch every lyric. The reissue isn't necessarily perfect (there's still some perceptible distortion in Patinkin's and Peters's notoriously trebly vocals), but it's a huge sonic improvement. The other two eighties albums didn't have a huge amount of room for improvement and still sound fine, but Sweeney now stands up to the Lincoln Center concert recording--the instruments and vocals are cleanly separated and free of noise, and long-buried orchestrations can finally be fully appreciated.
Packaging: Oh, dear. Those who own the original CD issues are definitely going to want to keep them even if they buy the upgrades, because these four releases are clearly budget albums. None includes a libretto or color pictures (other than on the outside of the booklet and in some cases beneath the tray card). The paper is of decent quality, but the included photos are often slightly out of focus--the tray card picture for Into the Woods is frankly embarrassing. And a notable point about the new essays: Sweeney Todd's refers to a "forthcoming" Broadway transfer of John Doyle's London revival. Admittedly the essays were probably commissioned several years ago when the remastering project was first conceived, but was it really impossible to adapt or remove the few outdated lines? Overall, these issues would be easier to accept had the previous releases been produced on the cheap by Columbia--RCA lavished such care on them that any reissues are bound to fall short.
Extras: This is where Into the Woods really shines, as it contains the wonderful bonus of three cut songs, one performed by original Cinderella Kim Crosby, the other two by John Cameron Mitchell and Maureen Moore. All are clearly weaker than the songs which replaced them, but the opportunity to observe the evolution of the show is wonderful. Alas, there were fewer opportunities for quality bonus tracks for the other albums--many of Sondheim's own demos, once informally slated to appear on these releases, have been snapped up by PS Classics for its Sondheim Sings series. With the exception of an amusing one-man "It's a Hit!" on Merrily (perhaps his most personally felt song), the composer's voice is absent here. The principal sources for these bonus tracks were a 1992 Carnegie Hall concert (still on CD) and the disappointing off-Broadway revue Putting it Together, and none of these tracks are much more than distracting at the end of their respective albums.
Overall: At reasonable prices, I can recommend all four without reservation to people who (for whatever reason) don't already own them. Even for people who do, I still highly recommend Into the Woods, for its three crucial bonus tracks, and Sunday in the Park with George, for its vastly improved sound. As for the other two, I leave it up to the reader--I don't think a single Sondheim demo merits repurchasing Merrily, and I'd be very hard pressed to justify buying the double-disc Sweeney when the original issue still sounds good to my ears.
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Merrily We Roll Along - 1981 Original Broadway Cast Sunday in the Park with George - 1984 Original Broadway Cast Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - 1979 Original Broadway Cast Into the Woods - 1987 Original Broadway Cast Stephen Sondheim Toggle Additional (2)