By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Recording an original cast album of a musical theater work has always
been a high-pressure undertaking. Typically, the higher a musical's
prestige, the lower its commercial appeal. So record company
executives tend to view the release of such albums as a service to
posterity. Budgets are constrained; studio time is limited.
when the talented young cast of the recent production of
"Saturday Night," Stephen Sondheim's first musical,
assembled at a West Side studio a few weeks ago to record the show,
the tension was offset by excitement. Mr. Sondheim himself, a giant
of musical theater (especially to these young performers), was there
to guide them through the entire score: an overture, 17 songs and 3
reprises. For all involved, it would be a chance to grasp how Mr.
Sondheim thinks and how he wanted his first show to be remembered.
Written in 1954, when Mr. Sondheim was just 24, "Saturday
Night" was slated for Broadway but was never produced.
He essentially withdrew the work for four decades, until in 1997 he
finally gave his blessing to a production at the Bridewell Theater in
London. The American premiere was last year, in a revised version by
the Pegasus Players in Chicago.
The recent production at the Second Stage Theater near Times Square
was judged a clear success. Reviews of the score were admiring, even
affectionate; audiences were enthusiastic; the cast was exuberant.
Yesterday the show received five Drama Desk Award nominations,
including one for best musical. Finally, in this limited-run
production of 75 performances, "Saturday Night" had made it
to New York, just in time for Mr. Sondheim's 70th birthday last month.
Obviously he was pleased, and now, the recording of an original cast
album on the Nonesuch label would be an important next step.
An eager young composer-lyricist's first effort would join the
renowned discography of Sondheim musicals.
What qualities would Mr. Sondheim be looking to capture?
"What you simply want is the sense of a live performance,"
he said during a break from the sessions.
He spoke in the waiting room outside the studio as the preoccupied
cast and crew hovered over tables covered with coffee urns,
giant-size soda bottles, tubs of ice, and trays of sandwiches and
"We were just talking about flaws in original cast albums,"
Mr. Sondheim added. "I remember when we did 'West Side Story.'
" He was referring to the original cast album of that musical
from 1957. Mr. Sondheim wrote the lyrics with Leonard Bernstein, who
composed the music.
"Lennie had to go to Israel for some orchestral
performances," Mr. Sondheim recounted.
"So I, a fledgling, was in charge. I could hear all the flaws in
the singing, attacks that weren't together, people going sharp. But
it had such live excitement. I knew Lennie would be furious when he
came back. He was. It was imperfect. To me that is half the fun. You
don't want it too flawed: everyone off pitch or sloppy. But there is
something to be said when a cast conveys that it's a live show."
Surely, many flaws on original cast recordings result from the
inherent pressure involved. One of the more nerve-wracking
experiences at a cast recording session involved another Sondheim
musical, "Company," in 1971. On Broadway, Elaine Stritch's
raspy performance of "The Ladies Who Lunch," a cynical
toast to East Side society matrons, had achieved instant iconic
status in the musical theater. But in take after take during the
recording session, Ms. Stritch kept missing words and getting lost.
Though she has long been teased about it, Ms. Stritch's recording is
now considered a classic.
challenge of recording "Saturday Night" was eased by the
closing of the show just two days earlier. The session had the feel
of a big cast party. With a book by Julius J. Epstein, "Saturday
Night," is a disarming story in the old-fashioned tradition of
the Broadway musical, a simple tale set in the spring of 1929 about a
group of everyday guys from Brooklyn guys, glum and dateless on a
Saturday night, who pine for the swank life and classy gals in
Manhattan. The one married couple among this group of Flatbush
friends are Celeste and Hank. The down-to-earth Celeste, who thinks
everyone should be married, has managed to get a girlfriend of hers
to join the gang for a movie.
The score of "Saturday Night" pays homage to the
traditional 32-bar and 16-bar Broadway songs. But even in this breezy
early score, his music has modern touches: spiky harmonies, irregular
melodic phrase lengths and some fairly involved vocal interplay. And
the lyrics are already Sondheimesque: fresh, witty and full of surprises.
The 15 singers, an orchestra of 21 players conducted by Rob Fisher
(best known as the musical director of the Encores! series), and the
recording crew met at 9 a.m. at the gleaming studio, the Hit Factory
at 421 West 54th Street. The work would have to be completed by midnight.
Soundproof recording studios are not exactly conducive to relaxation.
As is usual, the singers were behind a windowed barrier covered with
absorbent fabric, completely separated from the orchestra, which they
could only hear clearly by wearing cumbersome headphones that cover
one ear. Far from the action, the engineers and the recording
producer Tommy Trasker sat in the control room before a vast sound
board with row after row of dials and levers for miking and mixing.
A cacophony of chatting, vocal warm-ups and the tuning of instruments
filled the studio.
When Mr. Fisher rapped the performers to attention, they immediately
threw themselves into the first song, "Delighted, I'm Sure."
In the control room, the orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, Mr. Sondheim's
longtime colleague, scrupulously followed the orchestral score.
Against the back wall, almost out of the way, Mr. Sondheim sat on an
overstuffed leather couch. As he listened he consulted sheets of
lyrics but seldom the musical score, which he seemed to know by
heart. He rarely issued critiques through intermediaries: when a take
was completed and he had something to say, he would walk down a
corridor into the spacious, high-ceilinged studio to consult directly
with the singers.
The morning schedule unfolded quickly, with the singers sounding
surprisingly fresh and Mr. Sondheim seeming surprisingly pleased.
After a noontime break, the next song up was "In the
Movies," an ensemble piece that captures the tension between
Flatbush and Manhattan that animates the story.
How to handle Brooklyn dialects was a big issue for Mr. Sondheim in
this score. Some pronunciations are written into the lyrics; other
are implied. Yet overdoing the dialects would turn endearing
characters into caricatures. And on a recording, without the benefit
of stage action and sight gags, the dialects would be very exposed.
After the first take of "In the Movies," Mr. Sondheim
approached the singers with some specific requests. At one point in
the song, Celeste, portrayed by the dynamic Andrea Burns, wryly
complains that life in the movies is nothing like life in Brooklyn.
Mr. Sondheim, never a fan of singing that values beautiful sound over
conversational delivery, thought Ms. Burns's lovely voice sounded a
little too "legit" during one solo line.
"When you sing 'family tree,' try to flatten the 'a,' " he
said. Ms. Burns sang it again with more nasal twang and a bit of an
'i' sound on the 'a,' to Mr. Sondheim's satisfaction.
Later on Celeste has a line that goes: "In the movies/Life is
finer,/ Life is cleaner,/But in Brooklyn/It's a
minor/Misdemeanor." Again, Mr. Sondheim was specific about what
he wanted: "Soften the r's on cleaner and misdemeanor, sort of
like 'clena,' 'misdemena.' Almost eliminate them." Ms. Burns
tried it again, and her Brooklynese had Mr. Sondheim beaming.
"Poifect," he said.
The next song to be recorded was "I Remember That," in
which Celeste and Hank recall their first date. Hank, sung by Clarke
Thorell, prides himself on his memory of small details, but Celeste
has to correct him on virtually everything in his account of that night.
Ms. Burns and Mr. Thorell sang the ambling, sweetly lyrical song
beautifully. But after the take Mr. Sondheim had a new idea for Ms.
Burns. The goodhearted Celeste is a feisty, bossy Brooklyn gal.
"But," he said, "I'd like you to try -- and it may not
work at all -- taking your entire chorus a little tenderer, so that
the jokes are quieter jokes, so we see the other side of Celeste. It
hadn't occurred to me before. But hearing all your numbers in this
session, having heard now three hours of Celeste, it would be nice to
have the change. Feel free. Do what you want. But be tender like Hank is."
Ms. Burns immediately understood. The singers recorded the song
again. When they finished, everyone in the control rooms was quiet
for a few moments. "It may soften the jokes," Mr. Sondheim
said. "But I like it." He turned to Mr. Trasker: "Tell
her we all love it."
Part of the song's effect came from Mr. Tunick's new orchestrations.
For the Second Stage Theater production he made a small combo of
wind, brass and percussion instruments with piano and electric
keyboard sound like a full orchestra. For this recording he added
parts for 12 string instruments. "The presence of strings is
what allows it to sound like a full orchestra," Mr. Tunick
explained. "You don't have to make the winds do everything. Even
a smaller contingent of winds and brass can rest on a bed of low
strings, and it sounds fuller."
He was right. With the elegant orchestrations, "Saturday
Night" sounded like a grown-up Sondheim score.
The cast heard the orchestra with strings for the first time this
day. Yet, far from being thrown, the singers seemed inspired. Ms.
Burns was touched by the quality the string players lent to "I
"Thank you so much for the strings," she said to Mr. Tunick
after the final take. "It was like finding out this little
secret that was under the song all the time."
Next was "What More Do I Need?," the signature song of
Gene, the show's bright-eyed hero, whose wild dreams of Manhattan
life turn reckless. The role is played by the Australian-born actor
and cabaret singer David Campbell. As he recorded the song, he bobbed
and weaved to every bouncy riff of the orchestra and joyous refrain
from the vocal ensemble. Mr. Sondheim had almost nothing to correct,
though he shook his head at one of his lines: "An aeroplane
roars across the bay."
"That's one of the few times I cheated on a lyric," he
confesses. "I spelled the word 'aeroplane,' on the grounds that
maybe they called it that in the 1920's. I think it may be the
British spelling. The real reason was that I just needed a word with
three syllables and couldn't think of what else to do."
As the afternoon session wound down, the cast seemed further
energized. "It's fun," said Christopher Fitzgerald, the
boyish actor who brought down the house during the New York run with
a snappy rendition of "Exhibit A," in which he instructs
his mates on how to court a young lady.
"Today feels like our last performance," Mr. Fitzgerald
said during a break, "a performance for each other, and for the
show. I can't believe I'm getting to record a Sondheim show."
Even Mr. Sondheim, a constitutional pessimist, admitted to being
satisfied. "There'll be no stories to tell tomorrow," he
said with a glumness not entirely feigned. "I'll have nothing to