Getting Through the Journey of the Music of the Night: Thoughts and Opinions on the works of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber

March 22nd is a significant date for any musical theatre fan and for musical theatre as a whole – the birth date of two of the most influential and prolific musical composers from the latter part of the 20th Century: Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, born eighteen years and an ocean apart from one another. These two composers and their respective oeuvre have had a considerable impact on the kind of musicals that have been and are being created, for better or for worse (depending upon other people’s opinions), as well as introduced me to the world of musical theatre. I’ve also had a quasi-close encounter with both composers too (well I’ve been in the same room with both – at two separate occasions –  at one point in my life, if that counts).

Follies & Phantom of the Opera - two of my favorite shows by Sondheim & Lloyd Webber

Follies & Phantom of the Opera – two of my favorite shows by Sondheim & Lloyd Webber

More of that later…

While many have their own, sometimes strikingly opposed opinions about these two composers, my outlook on their body of work is more amicable (at least that’s my impression from the various online message boards, articles I’ve read over the years). As stated in my introductory blog post (I think), one can concurrently like Sondheim and Lloyd Webber and their respective musicals, and one is not necessary “better” than the other (though in the last few years, I’ve had… issues with one of Lloyd Webber’s works, but I don’t have to like everything he’s written…). Some have considered Sondheim’s musicals to be art, and Lloyd Webber’s to be mere entertainment, but I hold the opinion that both composers’ works are works of art and entertainment – and neither is “better” than the other.

I was aware of Lloyd Webber’s musicals first, as my school had done a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and knew of Cats and Phantom of the Opera, which at the time of my discovery of Lloyd Webber’s works, had recently opened to rave reviews. My introduction to the works of Sondheim came via PBS and their airing of the celebration at Carnegie Hall, to the point when I decided to sing “Send in the Clowns” as my solo song during the 8th grade spring concert when I was a part of the chorus after hearing Glenn Close sing the song on that telecast. Years later, I had read that many recording artists found that song to be difficult to sing – I was not aware of any of that when I made the decision to perform that song (I have a video recording of that spring concert and my interpretation of that song, but alas it exists on VHS and I have yet to have the capability to transfer said recording to DVD).

Another source of exploration of the musicals of Sondheim and Lloyd Webber were the cast recordings I had obtained via my public library and later purchased for my own (growing) collection – it was later on I researched both composers and learned more about their background and more about the shows themselves. As to actually seeing the shows live on stage, I have seen more Lloyd Webber productions than Sondheim, mostly due to the fact that at the time I started to go see shows on Broadway, there were more Lloyd Webber productions running on Broadway than Sondheim – the scales (as it were) have tipped in the other direction as more Sondheim musicals were being revived and less Lloyd Webber works were being produced (though I do make it a point to see Phantom at least once a year).

The first (professional) Lloyd Webber musical I saw was a revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the first Sondheim musical I saw was a revival of Into The Woods, both of which were fantastic. Since then, I have seen a number of shows from both composers, and have (as alluded to earlier) have actually been in the same general area with both gentlemen. My first quasi-encounter with Lloyd Webber was at the Phantom Gala when the show became the longest running show on Broadway (coincidentally on my birthday) – he was in the audience (I had spotted him and his family seated in the orchestra section) as were many Phantom alumni actors, and had given a short speech after the curtain call, so that kinda, sorta qualifies as an encounter. As Lloyd Webber primarily resides and works in the UK, it seems he rarely comes stateside for any momentous events (of course, he’s had health issues of late, which prevents his travelling outside the UK, which is understandable – though given his recent works have not quite made it to Broadway, that might also be a contributing factor). My brief encounters with Sondheim have been less formal and more substantial as I’ve attended (and have blogged about) the CD signings at Barnes and Noble for the fairly recent revival and staging of Follies and Merrily We Roll Along, respectively, where he graciously signed CDs and chatted with those who waited in line at the CD signing events.

At the center, Andrew Lloyd Webber, his wife, dressed in orange-gold in front,  and his two eldest children behind him. I can't tell who is standing next to ALW.

At the center, Andrew Lloyd Webber, his wife, dressed in orange-gold in front, and his two eldest children behind him. I can’t tell who is standing next to ALW.

 

Stephen Sondheim at the Barnes & Noble CD signing for Merrily We Roll Along, July 10, 2012.

Stephen Sondheim at the Barnes & Noble CD signing for Merrily We Roll Along, July 10, 2012.

In conclusion (maybe) my thoughts on both composers are of equal affection and admiration, both have had a lasting impression on the art of theatre and the arena of entertainment, and both have created a catalog of rich, diverse and highly melodic tunes, and have crafted musicals that have entertained and educated, and thrilled generations of theatergoers.

I wish both Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber a most happy birthday, and would like to thank them both for the magnificent work they have created over the years.

It Started Out Like A Song: The Merrily We Roll Along CD Signing at Barnes & Noble – July 10, 2012

In the age of digital downloads, streaming audio, and mp3 players, purchasing a music CD from a physical store is almost an archaic thing to do – after all, hardly anyone carries around a portable CD player anymore, and CDs can generally hold up to 120 minutes of music per disc. Most mp3 players can hold up to (at least) ten times the amount of music a single CD can, and are much smaller. So why have music CDs (and the few stores that still sell CDs) not phased out entirely? One possible reason is the event that is the CD signing – where fans can have the opportunity to meet their favorite composers, musicians and singers and obtain (with purchase of the CD) their autograph.

I’ve attended several such events, most recently the CD signing for the 2012 Encores production of Merrily We Roll Along at the Barnes & Noble bookstore on the Upper East Side, for which composer Stephen Sondheim, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and the principal cast members would be signing the newly released CD. As Stephen Sondheim is one of the greatest musical theatre composers (and some would argue he is the greatest musical theatre composers of all time), the CD signing event would draw a substantial crowd. Indeed, there had been a CD signing at the same Barnes & Noble bookstore for the recent revival of Follies seven months previously, which drew large crowds as well, but then again considering that the entire Follies cast was in attendance for that event, which included noted musical theatre actors such Bernadette Peters, Elaine Paige, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines (to name but a few), along with Mr. Sondheim, it’s no wonder the store was overflowing with musical theatre fans. But that tale is for another blog. This blog is about the Merrily We Roll Along CD signing.

Merrily We Roll Along is about the trials and tribulations of three friends over the years, and told backwards in time – the Encores series (which puts on lesser known musicals in a short amount of time with a cast of well-known musical theatre actors) had the production of Merrily in February 2012, and the audience response and regard for that production had prompted requests for an official cast recording. The Barnes & Noble CD signing event also included a pre-event listening party and raffle drawing, so I made a point to be at the bookstore early to ensure a spot for the pre-event portion. I arrived at the Barnes & Noble early, and saw that there were already a handful of people already waiting outside for the bookstore to open. By the time it opened at 9AM there was at least a dozen people behind me (though I’m guessing some were waiting in line for the bookstore to open, and were not there for the CD signing).

Once the doors opened, the majority of the people waiting headed straight for the music section and dutifully bought a copy (or two – the limit was two per person) of the CD, and along with that came the (green) wristband for entry to the pre-signing listening party. After purchasing my CD, I made my way to the lower level, where the listening party and CD signing would take place and (as my wont) made myself comfortable just outside the doors (so I’d be the first in line). The great thing about having a CD signing in a bookstore is that you could pass the time reading books, and luckily for me, the genre of books situated on the shelves outside the event area were mystery and science fiction/fantasy. Not that I did get around to reading any of them – often at these events, I will strike up conversations with those also waiting in line, usually fellow theatre fans (and more times than not, I will have met them at previous CD signings). Not a bad way to spend a morning and afternoon. As the day went on, the line grew longer, to the point that the store employees had to weave the line between the bookshelves (so as to not obstruct those looking to purchase books).

A view from outside the event room.

At around 2:45PM we were instructed to enter the event room (single file) for the pre-event listening party, which was a first for me, as there would usually be either a performance from the cast members or Q&A session with the actors or composer; each person was also given a raffle ticket for the prize drawing that was to occur afterwards. The listening party basically consisted of those in the room listening to the first (of two) CDs of the cast recording, which was a bit odd, as there were some people chatting (in sotto voice) with one another, and others reading the newspaper or using their smartphones. The raffle prizes consisted of four items – signed copies of Mr. Sondheim’s books of annotated lyrics Finishing the Hat, and Look, I Made a Hat, a signed copy of the Folles cast recording, and a copy of the Merrily We Roll Along cast recording. The winning raffle tickets were drawn by Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of the cast members of Merrily (and an award-winning composer himself) – I did not win any of these prizes.

Then the event formally began with a brief introduction and the appearance of principal cast members Celia Keenan-Bolger, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Adam Grupper, Beth Wolfe and Elizabeth Stanley (Colin Donnelly, another principal cast member, was unable to attend the CD signing in person due to a prior commitment, but was still present, albeit via Skype on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smartphone) and then the introduction of Mr. Sondheim and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. After the brief photo-op for the (theatre) press, the CD signing part of the event began, with the actors and Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Tunick seated at the table, signing the libretto booklet (and each person had an assigned space to sign to ensure consistency).

From left to right: Jonathan Tunick, Stephen Sondheim, Betsy Wolfe, Elizabeth Stanley, Adam Grupper, Celia Keenan-Bolger & Lin-Manuel Miranda (with Colin Donnelly via Skype)

The line up for the signing was conducted in an orderly fashion (I was first in line), and the libretto booklet was signed and passed along down the table. Unlike my boldness in chatting with actors at the stage door, I remained relatively quiet as the libretto booklet was passed down; of course I was polite and thanked them all for signing the booklet. Organized as the event was, once Mr. Sondheim (to whom I especially thanked), who was last, but never least, signed the booklet, we were politely ushered out of the event room, so that there would not be a bottleneck. As I left the event room, I saw that there was still a good amount of people lined up along the bookshelves (there were probably about 30-40 people seated for the listening party).

As I am one of those who use an mp3 player to play music, I had to wait until I got home to listen to the rest of the cast recording (and to re-listen to the first act). The cast recording is amazing and does capture the essence of the Encores production, of which I was able to see during its short run. While it is possible to download a digital copy, the libretto booklet is not (to my knowledge) available to download, so it is well worth to invest in buying the physical CD, for the liner notes as well as the wonderful photos of the cast; and although it may be less expensive to purchase the digital download versus the actual CD, the value of having a physical copy (and an autographed one at that) is priceless.