A Recording of 'Saturday Night' Gets Sondheim's Touch


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.

Stephen Sondheim, center, with from left, Lauren Ward, Steven Freeman and David Campbell, recording "Saturday Night."But 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 pasta salads.

"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.

The 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 Remember That."

"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 kvetch about."


New York Times - 26 April, 2000