Stephen Sondheim(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Stephen Sondheim
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Good news! The cast album of Wall-to-Wall Sondheim, the 12-hour extravaganza that took place last March 19, is finally available. Bad news! Have you seen what's on it? It starts with the overture to Merrily We Roll Along. Then comes Gregg Edelman's "Marry Me a Little" and Kate Baldwin's "The Miller's Son." These are followed by 14 other selections, 13 of which are equally familiar. Only one cut is of any interest to me: "I'm in Love With a Boy." Here, Emily Skinner sings the song that Sondheim wrote for Climb High, his 1951 musical that never got on. But surrounding these are songs that I already have on dozens of original, studio, and revival cast albums, not to mention all those other Sondheim compilations that have stressed the familiar. (Given that "Broadway Baby" and "Losing My Mind" are on the Wall-to-Wall disc, it's a wonder that Karen Akers' rendition of "Send In the Clowns" didn't make the cut.)

Okay, "Broadway Baby" is belted by Judy Kaye, and "Losing My Mind" is sung by Donna Murphy -- two women who have three Tonys between them. They're terrific performers -- and yes, in many ways, I would enjoy hearing their renditions again. But, considering what else was done at Wall-to-Wall Sondheim, I would have devoted the disc space instead to two songs Sondheim wrote in 1948 while at Williams College: "I Must Be Dreaming" from All That Glitters, and "How Do I Know?" from Phinney's Rainbow. Granted, the former song has been recorded; but it was an Internet-only CD bonus track from Fynsworth Alley, so some of us may not have it. And how often has "The Girls of Summer," from the 1956 play of the same title, been recorded? I wish we'd been given Freda Foh Shen and Josh Rosenblum's Wall-to-Wall rendition of it, rather than Liz Callaway's "What More Do I Need?" Nothing against Callaway, but she recorded this song in 1983. Why do we need another cut of her doing it? To see how well her voice has held up in the ensuing 22 years? Hey, though I'm not into classical music, I'd even prefer Sondheim's forays into the field that were performed that day: "A Very Short Violin Sonata" and "Concertino for Two Pianos." The former may be found on a concert recording, but I'm sure that escaped many of us.

I know, I've got to calm down about this. There are people who are very much into new performances of great songs, no matter how many dozens of times those songs have been previously recorded. I know a guy who's always burning CDs of live performances. "Hey, here's Dorothy Loudon doing Sweeney Todd," he'll say with his eyes sparkling. "Look, here's the Reprise! concert version of She Loves Me," he'll add in a reverential voice, as if he's offering me the crown jewels. I wave away such items with the back of my hand. I have three Sweeney Todds and four She Loves Me, all professionally recorded. They're fine, to say the least. Yet I'm aware that some people consider original cast albums made in a studio to be too sanitized because of retakes and edits. They much prefer aural documents of live performances. For those who attended Wall-to-Wall Sondheim, this disc returns them to that thrilling event, while those who weren't there are brought into the house on that magic day of days and night of nights.

I also must admit that, if recording executives shared my point of view, I wouldn't have Nancy Walker's rendition of "I'm Still Here" on 1973's Sondheim: A Musical Tribute -- a far greater performance than Yvonne de Carlo's on the original cast album of Follies. Nor would I ever have heard the lyrics in that song and plenty of other from the show that were (stupidly) excised from the Follies cast album. There's obvious wisdom in having new recordings in these cases, but how often does something like this happen?

It's worth mentioning that the guy I know who cherishes made-on-the-sly live recordings is a performer, while I'm a writer. I can see why he'd be more interested in hearing a role re-created, for his career has been pretty much limited to that sort of thing. Thus, a different performance is important to him, while a show's writing is what intrigues me most. (When a press agent asks me to do a story on a production and offers me the choice of interviewing writers or performers, I choose the writers every time. They're usually more interesting, at least to me.) But I have to acknowledge that, these days, I meet a lot of people who not only know who's understudying most everyone on Broadway but also know who's understudying the understudy -- and I'm astonished that some of them will rush to see understudies when they find out in advance that they're going on. They return primarily for the performer, less for the show.

For all I know, the Wall-to-Wall Sondheim recording may turn out to be a big seller. After all, it has performances by up-and-comers (Michael Arden, Alexander Gemignani), new stars (Laura Benanti, Neil Patrick Harris), and established pros (Carolee Carmello, John Dossett, Annie Golden, Chip Zien). I know I'll definitely give the album a listen -- but only because "I'm in Love With a Boy" is on it.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]