Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Don't Tell Paul

Later this year we're going to get another one of those John Doyle musical productions where there's no orchestra, and everybody acts like this is progress. (Yes, the Sweeney Todd production was excellent -- though Patti LuPone has no business singing this music, or possibly any music -- but it's better with an orchestra.) This time it'll be the first of the Harold Prince/Stephen Sondheim '70s conceptual thingamajigs, Company. (They'd worked together before, but this was the first time Sondheim had written songs for a show Prince directed instead of just produced, and the combination of two huge creative talents who were both determined to make Broadway audiences uncomfortable was what produced the most interesting and infuriating shows of the '70s.) With that in mind, I think we should take a moment to remember what these songs sound like with a full orchestra backing them up and Sondheim's regular orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, going to town with his orchestral trademarks (such as trumpets with an insistent, "buzzing" kind of sound). This comes to us from D.A. Pennebaker's famous documentary on the recording of the original cast album, courtesy of YouTube.

Here's Beth Howland (later to be Vera on "Alice") in the process of recording the neurotic patter song "Getting Married Today":

And Pamela Myers as a minor character who gets the best song in the show, "Another Hundred People. It's part of the approach of Company that instead of giving the big moments to the most important characters, as in a traditional musical, many of the most important songs are given to side characters or apparently unimportant moments in the show, which then comment obliquely on the bigger themes of the show. Orchestra-wise, there's a famous moment where the trumpets start playing the recurring theme of the show -- "Bobby Baby" -- to clue us in to the fact that even though he's not mentioned, this song is really about the hero, Robert (Dean Jones).

YouTube has other excerpts from the documentary, including Elaine Stritch's famous struggles with "The Ladies Who Lunch" and Dean Jones singing the "cop-out" closing number (written to replace a more ironic version of the same song, which was so convoluted that nobody could figure out what point it was supposed to be making), "Being Alive."

The conductor, incidentally, is Harold Hastings, who conducted all of Hal Prince's productions from The Pajama Game in 1954 through A Little Night Music in 1973.

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