Getting Through the Journey – Thoughts on the Into the Woods film – December 31, 2014

“Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom, there lay a small village at the edge of the woods…”

Into The Woods film

So begins the film adaptation of Into The Woods, written by Stephen Sondheim [music and lyrics] and James Lapine [book], directed by Rob Marshall with a star-studded cast. Into the Woods is among my favorite Sondheim musicals, having seen the 2002 revival production and the 2012 production in Central Park.

[Minor disclaimer: Per usual, a good percentage of this blog will be quasi-rambling musings of my personal opinion of the film adaptation and inevitable comparisons of the stage production.]

When it was first announced that there would be a film adaptation of the show, I was anxious about the transition from stage to screen, as 98% of the more recent film adaptations of musicals were tolerable at best or horribly cast at worst. It’s no big surprise that I prefer to spend my time (and money) watching live theater over movies. There’s (almost) always something wanting when there’s a film adaptation of a musical: either it’s horribly miscast (in my opinion) with (usually young, eye candy) big name movie stars with limited singing abilities or certain aspects of the story and/or songs are shortened, rearranged or omitted to “improve” the overall narrative. That Disney was the studio to produce and distribute the film was worrying: how would Disney, the epitome of happiness and optimism, handle the darker, cynical aspects of this particular Sondheim musical? The point of the latter portion of Into the Woods is to show that “happily ever after” doesn’t necessarily happen: things might not turn out as well as expected.

Nevertheless, when the casting was announced, I was slightly mollified as there were theatre-experienced actors along with big name movie stars, though even with the likes of Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Johnny Depp among the cast, I was still (slightly) worried about their singing competency, especially tackling a Sondheim score. Thankfully, for the most part, I was not disappointed, or at least I wasn’t cringing in my (plush, reclining, leather) seat (a lovely perk found at my local movie theater). My only (minor) quibble about the film cast’s singing was that much of the score was sung within one (middle C) octave, the tempo at times seemed slower and the key was lowered, most likely to accommodate the film actors’ singing abilities. Other (quasi-minor) quibbles are the slight story changes, song omissions, and cut verses: while I understand that a film adaptation is (by definition) an adaptation and therefore can’t and shouldn’t be exactly the same as the original source material, some of the poignancy of the aforementioned darker, cynical aspects of the story is lost or watered down (whether or not that’s the doing of the Disney execs to lighten a quasi-dark story).

A quasi-short rundown of general observations are as follows:

[SPOILER ALERT if you have not seen the film adaptation or do not know the musical’s plot.]      

Having the Baker (James Corden) serve as the Narrator kinda makes sense, as he ends up telling the tale to his son, but then again, as he’s one of the characters within the overall story, he would not be able to narrate aspects of the story of which he is not present or have any knowledge. Moreover, the near removal of the Mysterious Man (the Baker’s Father), and having the song “No More” (one of my favorite songs) appear as incidental score (though the instrumental interlude is gorgeous albeit shortened) is a shame, as the character and song adds to the poignancy of the Baker’s story and serves as a better motivation to break the cycle his father started. That being said, James Corden is amazing in portraying the different facets of the Baker’s personality and his rapport with his wife (Emily Blunt) is fantastic.

Meryl Streep is a fantastic Witch, but she’s no Bernadette Peters. Then again, no one is.

While the Witch’s (over)protectiveness of Rapunzel is highlighted in the film with the beautifully sung “Stay With Me”, the (subtle, probably Disney-decreed) change to let Rapunzel ride off into the sunset and into safety with her Prince, and not have her fall victim to the Giantess’ rampage diminishes the Witch’s motivations to find Jack in order to hand him over to the Giantess, and her vehemence when she turns on Cinderella, The Baker, Little Red and Jack in “Last Midnight”. To allow only Rapunzel to (presumably) live “happily ever after” while all the other characters suffer and struggle makes no sense whatsoever.

As the two Princes, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s performance of “Agony” is ridiculously over the top and perfectly encapsulates their superficial personalities in their lament in pursuing the unobtainable (respectively Cinderella and Rapunzel). However, the absence of the second “Agony” duet undermines their shallowness and (seemingly) ingrained pursuit of the unobtainable. Though Cinderella’s Prince still strays (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”), Rapunzel’s Prince remains the perfect Prince Charming, which seems contrary to the point of the latter part of the film.

While there have been reviews stating that Little Red (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) were cast too young, for once (!) I disagree – they look the right age, and act their age accordingly, especially in the scene where Little Red dares Jack to go back up the beanstalk to steal the harp. Their youth is a kind of counterbalance to Cinderella and The Baker, the two adults remaining to battle the Giantess, and act as a kind of mirror to reflect the situation in which they find themselves.

Hearing this Sondheim score with a full orchestra is amazing, and I enjoyed the brief insertions of two melodies from “A Little Night Music” (it took me a few seconds to recognize them). The end credits instrumentals of “Stay With Me” and “Last Midnight” were glorious.

Overall, I rather enjoyed this film adaptation, despite the aforementioned (quasi-Disneyified) changes. The film has gotten critical acclaim and has done rather well at the box office. I recommend seeing it, and afterwards going to find the DVD of the stage production of the original Broadway cast that was (legally) filmed and (legally) distributed to compare and contrast the differences.

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.

Coming Up Roses: Thoughts on Mama Rose’s Turn – The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Door Mother

Mention the phrase “stage door mother” and the first thought on most people’s minds is Mama Rose, the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc, in the musical Gypsy; for avid theater fans, this line of thinking can (and usually will) lead to a discussion/debate on the various actors who have portrayed the larger-than-life character on stage, screen and television since the musical’s debut in 1959. Yet the character as depicted in the musical, as well as some of the events that occur in the musical were loosely based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs, as discovered by Carolyn Quinn in her book, Mama Rose’s Turn – The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Door Mother, which recently was dramatized in conjunction with the Ziegfeld Society on February 22, 2014.

Mama Rose's Turn playbill

[Disclaimer: Once again for the sake of full disclosure, Carolyn Quinn is one of the good friends I met during my (almost) year of seeing the 2010-2011 revival production of La Cage aux Folles. As always, the opinions and musings stated in this blog are my own, with no influence from the author whatsoever.]

While the book was published last November, (at which time there was a discussion and book signing), I have yet to read her book (though it’s on my never-ending “to read” list). The dramatic summation of her book began with Loria Parker, playing the role of Rose, reenacting Gypsy’s act one finale, singing out the showstopper “Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses” only to be interrupted by the narrator, who proceeded to tell the true life story of Rose Hovick, with the aid of archival photos. During the narration, there were several period-specific songs such as “I Want To Be A Janitor’s Child” and “Hard Boiled Rose” sung by June and Louise, portrayed by Merrill Grant and Vanessa Altshuler, respectively (piano accompaniment provided by Mark York from the Ziegfeld Society), and a few dialogue driven scenes in between songs, wherein the narrator assumed the role of various other characters who interacted (mainly) with Rose.

Mama Rose cast

From left to right: Author & Narrator Carolyn Quinn, Merrill Grant (June Havoc), Loria Parker (Rose Hovick) & Vanessa Altshuler (Gypsy Rose Lee)

The show was informative and entertaining, and the three actors portraying Rose, June and Gypsy were fantastic in their respective roles, capturing the spirit of those three memorable personages, with some of the inconsistencies and myths surrounding the family explained. The show’s content was thoroughly researched by the author with the aim of providing (for the first time) an accurate biography of such an iconic figure in entertainment history. To date, there is no word of whether this show will have a future, but considering the popularity of Gypsy and the character of Mama Rose (or at least the archetype she represents), there will always be an interest and fascination for this legendary character. While this production was put together in a short period of time (four days, to be precise) I do hope there will be an expanded version with a full cast – perhaps even billed as a companion to Gypsy – in the years to come.

To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics, it’s about time Mama Rose had her turn to have her own dream to be in the spotlight.

Memories In Concert – Elaine Paige at Town Hall – March 9, 2013

From her West End debut in Hair to her acclaimed performances in Evita, Cats, Chess and Sunset Boulevard (to name but a few) Elaine Paige has (rightfully) earned the title “The First Lady of British Musical Theatre”. Along the way, she has had success on Broadway in Sunset Boulevard, a brief stint in the New York City Opera production of Sweeney Todd and most recently in the revival of Follies. She is also a noted recording artist, with albums that cover a wide variety of songs, from musical theatre to standards, and even an entire album of Queen songs; she also hosts her own radio program on BBC Radio. She has had concert tours in her native England, as well as all around the world, and it is only in 2013 that she has finally (!) embarked on an American concert tour, with her New York concert venue at the historic Town Hall.

Elaine Paige in Concert

Her concert kicked off with a Sting song “An Englishman in New York”, with fragments of “America” (from West Side Story) interpolated, to which she quipped afterwards that it was her only opportunity to sing that particular song. She went on to point out the confusion she experienced in the verbal differences between British and American English [French fries instead of chips, chips instead of crisps, eggplant instead of aubergine] when she was last in New York during Follies. This segued into her acknowledging that there were a few of her Follies co-stars in attendance (indeed, I spotted Jayne Houdyshell in the audience, and another concert goer had remarked he also spotted Mary Beth Piel), which followed with her spectacular rendition of “Broadway Baby” during which she briefly outlined her early theatre credits in between verses. Next she related a colorful story about her time in the Hair tribe, and her trepidation of having to be naked on stage, which led into “Easy to be Hard”. Next up was “Hello, Young Lovers” from The King and I, which she had played on the West End, and which she humorously had re-titled The Kings and Me, due to the seemly revolving door of actors playing the King.

Next, she related a story of meeting Dustin Hoffman early on in her career when she had doubts on pursuing her musical theatre career – she had related that he had given up pursuing a career as a concert pianist in favor of becoming an actor, and she credits Hoffman for giving her advice to keep at singing. This lead to her auditioning for a role coveted by every actress – the role of Eva Peron in Evita – and she proceeded to sing her audition song – the Beatles song “Yesterday”, which was sung much more dramatically than the original version; this naturally segued into the first of her signature songs, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” from Evita. I should note that the accompaniment was a four member band playing the piano, string bass, guitar and various woodwinds (flute and alto saxophone). While not on a Broadway stage, it was thrilling to finally hear Ms. Paige sing this song live in New York, to which she quipped “it only took 35 years” for her to do so, which was rewarded with a rousing standing ovation. This was followed by “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard, which was the show in which she made her Broadway debut. I was fortunate to have seen her as Norma Desmond, and she was amazing in the role (I’ve discussed in a previous blog that I had cheered so much during her performance that I literally lost my voice and therefore physically unable to speak with her at the stage door). The song was also greeted with thunderous applause and a few people giving a standing ovation (myself included – Sunset Boulevard is one of my all time favorite musical scores).

Next up was a tongue in cheek song “Small Packages” written especially for her – as she is four-foot eleven in height, her dreams of being a “tall, leggy blonde” were out of the question, lamenting that she was too short for most of the leading roles but as the song reveals, thankfully for her, “Eva Peron was short”. Following this was another humorous story of her meeting the Queen Mother after a performance of Anything Goes, which led to a fantastic rendition of “I Get A Kick Out Of You” followed by the Noel Coward song “Mad About The Boy” (which she had recorded on her “Romance and the Stage” album), which she sang with the stylistic mannerisms of a socialite, a maid and a chanteuse singing of their fixation on a silent movie star.  This led to her discussion of her involvement in the development of Chess, singing “I Know Him So Well” as a solo song instead of as a duet as the song was originally sung. She then remarked on how she has played two roles that share the same initials as her own – Eva Peron and Edith Piaf, leading into a staccato-laden, declarative arrangement of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (which was originally arranged more lyrically and softer on her Piaf recording). Her final song was “If You Love Me” also from Piaf, which was a powerhouse of a rendition – I wish I had been able to have seen her in Piaf – this was greeted with much applause and another rousing standing ovation.

For her first encore, she related the story of how she had become involved in Cats, which (as she told the story) was unexpected and perhaps by fate – she told of how she had heard the radio DJ stating that the theme to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s [then] new musical would be played after the midnight news. Rushing home to tape the music off the radio, she relates how a bedraggled black cat found its way into her home and how that was a sign of good fortune (unlike how it is in the US). The next day she was contacted by Lloyd Webber to replace Judi Dench, who had suffered an injury and had to withdraw from the production. This led into a powerful rendition of her “other” signature song “Memory”, once again greeted with a huge standing ovation, and induced a second encore, which was an amazingly powerful rendition of “With One “Look”, from Sunset Boulevard.

Elaine Paige in Concert

Elaine Paige looking stunning in red.

 The stage door area was a bit crowded, with no visible barricades (though as it was a concert and not a stage performance, that wasn’t to surprising); when Ms. Paige came out (after waiting about twenty minutes or so) she was quickly ushered into her car, as her next concert was the next day. I don’t recall if she was able to sign anything, but those waiting out in the brisk evening were miffed that she was rushed off into her car. In fairness, her next venue was in New Jersey, and taking into account the fact that the clocks were to be set an hour ahead due to Daylight Savings, it made sense for her to rest up for her next concert – and at least she did exit out the stage door, so at least those waiting at the stage door were able to thank her for her wonderful concert.

This is the only photo I was able to take outside the stage door

This is the only photo I was able to take outside the stage door

I thoroughly enjoyed this concert, which touched upon the majority of her musical theatre career, and many of the stories she told during the concert I had heard several years ago when there was a book signing for her memoirs, Memories at Barnes & Noble. Her voice was as powerful and emotional as always, sustaining long notes with ease, and her banter was easygoing and witty (with the cultural word differences between England and America as a running theme).  I would have loved to have heard some of the pop and standards songs she has sung on her many solo recordings – perhaps she will be able to if she were to embark on another US concert tour.

Nice is Different Than Good: Sondheim in the Park with Into the Woods – July 29, 2012

Once upon a time…

One of the magical aspects of live theatre is its inherent ability to transport the audience to another place and time, through words and music, costumes and sets (and a dash of special effects thrown in for good measure). While watching a theatrical performance indoors, be it in a school auditorium or a Broadway or off-Broadway theatre is thrilling, there is a different kind of something when watching a theatrical performance outdoors, and especially when the outdoor location is in Central Park in New York City. Shakespeare in the Park is an annual summer event presented by the Public Theater where fully staged productions are performed at the Delacorte Theater, located on the Upper West Side.

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the series, and I had the opportunity to see Into the Woods, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s musical mash-up of familiar fairy tale characters – Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), etc. interwoven with an original tale about a childless Baker and his Wife. Wishes are made and fulfilled, but typical of Sondheim musicals, “happily ever after” is not always the case, preconceptions are dispelled and life lessons are imparted. [Interesting side note: Into the Woods marks the third Sondheim musical I have seen in 2012 thus far – the other two being the amazing Broadway revival of Follies and the City Center’s Encores production of Merrily We Roll Along  – and the first time I had seen three different productions from the same composer.]

Another great thing about Shakespeare in the Park is that tickets are free, though tickets can be purchased though donating to the Public Theater; two ways of obtaining the sought out (free) tickets – either waiting on the stand-by line or the virtual ticketing lottery – I was able to attend via the latter option, by invitation from a friend of mine. Thankfully the evening was a bit overcast, and mildly warm; it had rained (lightly and briefly) earlier that afternoon, so it was not as humid as it was earlier in the day. Walking through the park en route to the theater was refreshing, and there was still a good amount of people waiting on the stand-by line, and a (typically) longer line for the ladies restroom.

“The woods are just trees / the trees are just wood…”

The set design was inspired, having the look of an elaborate tree house, with stairs, ladders and walkways for at least three levels; there were stage-built trees onstage, adding to the illusion of being in the woods. The illusion was further enhanced by the very real trees that were situated beyond the theater, as well as the occasional birds that flew and chirped by; inevitably, the illusion was shattered periodically with the all too familiar rumble from a passing airplane. These things do happen, I suppose. There were some other unique aspects of this production, one of which was that the Narrator was a child of ten or eleven years of age, who sought solace in the woods after an argument with his father (to which had been alluded at the very start); this inclusion further explored the show’s theme of the ever-changing and complex relationship between a parent and a child.

As to be expected the cast was astounding, especially Donna Murphy as the Witch, conveying humor, malice and pathos with equal ferocity serving as the instigator, catalyst, and moral compass for the various characters who venture into the woods to fulfill their own desires and wishes. Another interesting footnote is Chip Zien, who had been the Baker in the original production, being cast as the Mysterious Man, who turns out to be (spoiler alert!) the Baker’s father; Denis O’Hare, who portrayed the Baker with great depth of emotion, also doubled as the father to the narrator, thus perpetuating the theme of fathers and sons.  Also honorable mention goes to the puppetry that went into portraying the Giant (who usually appears as just a looming shadow), voiced by Glenn Close – seeing the Giant appear amongst the trees was nothing short of fantastic, and the use of large umbrellas to symbolize the giant beanstalk.

Into the Woods runs through August 25, 2012* and it is well worth the effort to obtain tickets, despite the chance of the weather is unbearably hot and humid as it typically does in August; also the added nuance of actually being in the woods (OK, technically speaking, in the park) makes for a magical evening fitting for watching a fairy tale adventure.

Updated 08/07/12:  It has been announced that the production will extend another week, ending its run on September 1, 2012.

Update 08/14/12:  Despite the rather mixed-to-negative reviews from the critics, it seems that there is still talk about moving this production to Broadway – while I thoroughly enjoyed this production (regardless of what the critics think), I don’t think the show would benefit from the transfer. The innate charm of this production is its performance space, with Central Park as a counterpart and even an extension of the overall set design and the outdoor atmosphere. As dusk turns to (nearly) midnight as the tale unfolds around the audience, it emphasizes and enhances the turn of events that befall the characters. Take those elements away and it’ll just be like any other revival – the last Broadway revival ten years ago was good, but enclosing this production into an indoor space, regardless of how large the stage space is, would be as stifling and restrictive as the Witch confining Rapunzel in her tower. If this production were to transfer to Broadway, and it seems that the earliest time frame would be the season after next (as there are a slew of new musicals and plays arriving on Broadway for the upcoming season, and that several cast members have conflicting projects in the upcoming months), I would still like to see the show again, but for me, it wouldn’t be the same as it was in the woods (well, park). I suppose we’ll have to wait to see how things unfold.

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.