New Album Is a Rousing Tribute to Theatre Icon Stephen Sondheim
When I covered Rick Pender’s brilliant encyclopedia on Stephen Sondheim last year, I called Sondheim America’s greatest living writer.
Sadly, that is no longer the case.
But while a world without Stephen Sondheim will forever be a little colder, his incredible body of work will endure.
In that vein, a fantastic new album — “Sondheim Unplugged” — makes an undeniable case for Sondheim’s legacy. It’s a must-listen for any Broadway, Sondheim, or theatre fan.
The brainchild of Phil Geoffrey Bond, “Sondheim Unplugged” began as a concert series, and then went virtual — and into the recording studio — during COVID. It’s lucky for us all that it did.
The work here is simply phenomenal, and I can’t wait for the next release.
On first listening, I thought the album was good. On a second listen, I found it triumphant.
Part of the reason for my delayed appreciation was surely the fact that all of Sondheim’s cast albums are deeply imprinted in my mind. Yes, I have multiple versions of each show with different performers and different orchestrations — and I also listen to Sondheim’s own demos, and a few compilation albums.
But in almost all of those cases, the songs are usually presented as they would be in a production.
Here, the singers, arrangers, and producers take different chances and risks.
There are songs that work amazingly well in the traditional format — Michael Winther’s thrilling “Growing Up,” — “I Remember” — and “Unworthy of Your Love” and “Color & Light” are highlights.
Liz McCartney’s version of “By the Sea” is the best I’ve ever heard (yes, even better than Angela Lansbury), and Brian Charles Rooney is simply phenomenal on “Maria.”
But in “Sondheim Unplugged,” we also hear old songs in new ways — whether it’s new arrangements (“Pretty Women”), gender swaps, and even some melody changes and pop influences.
It’s hard to pick my favorite re-imagining.
Blaine Krauss’ “The Glamorous Life” is thrilling, and he does amazing work on “No One Is Alone.” And Charlie Levy’s rousing “Sunday” might be the highlight of the whole album.
It’s clear from Bond’s liner notes, how much he loves Sondheim — and that love is also shared by many of the performers, which clearly shows on the album.
Like Bond, I spent many of my formative years listening endlessly to Sondheim recordings; it was an experience that forever changed my personal and artistic life.
I’m so glad to be able to add this new album to my rotation, and I must also mention the incredible work of musical director Joseph Goodrich on piano. His moving and stripped down accompaniment helps many of the songs feel closer, more personal, and more intimate.
And for fans of “Sondheim Unplugged” — like me — there’s even better news ahead.
In “Move On” from “Sunday in the Park with George,” Dot famously sings, “Give us more to see.”
In that vein, my favorite two words on the CD cover are surely these: “Volume One.”
The author is a culture writer at The Algemeiner, as well as a nationally published playwright, screenwriter, and actor. You can see some of his creative work at www.Bloomywood.com